I guided our red minivan into the left turn lane, the one closest to the median, and the man standing on it, leaning against the traffic sign, looked up, searching for a driver in the line to lock eyes with him. His shorts, t-shirt, and flip flops on a cooler-than-usual Florida day, along with the cardboard sign he held, indicated need. I caught his eye and nodded.
I am the woman who obsessively locks whatever can be locked—the front door, the screen door, the garage door, windows, car doors. I stash valuables; I buckle my kids tight; I creep silently to the peephole when the doorbell rings, wary of strangers.
The man walked toward the van as I rummaged around in the center console and the tote bag on the front seat. I’m a mom; it’s in my job description to travel with snacks. My 2-year-old daughter grinned at me in the rearview mirror, and I locked eyes with her, too. My fingers finally landed on what I knew was somewhere in the bag, and I emerged with a chocolate chip granola bar.
I wished I had more, but it was something. I need to make care bags to keep with me.
I rolled down my window and offered it to the man.
“Would you like a granola bar?”
He had a crooked smile, weathered skin, and kind blue eyes. I wonder what his story is, but does it matter?
“Thank you, ma’am.”
My throat was tight and all I could do was look him in the eyes and nod.
I rolled the window back up as the light turned green and we pulled forward. I glanced at the rearview mirror again as my little girl strained against her carseat straps to watch the man walk away.
“Did you gave him a ganolga bar, Mommy?” (One of those words I secretly hope she mispronounces forever.)
I coughed back tears.
“Yes, I did. The sign he was holding said he was hungry, so I gave him some food.”
She tilted her head; I could see the little wheels turning.
“Ohhh. He was hungry? So you gave him food?”
“For I was hungry and you gave me food…”
Exactly a week later, she and I drove that same route and found ourselves at the same intersection once again, in the far left turn lane, the light red. And there in the median was a different man, with a different sign, though the need seemed the same.
I looked around the front seat and cringed; I had switched bags that morning. There was one unopened bottle of water in the cupholder.
I rolled down my window.
“I have a bottle of water,” I feebly called to him.
He walked up gingerly, used his left hand to wedge his sign between his chin and his chest, and took the bottle from me.
“God bless you, ma’am.”
His right arm was missing, all the way up to his shoulder, and he fumbled to slip the bottle into the pocket of his cargo shorts.
“God bless you, sir.”
We locked eyes.
It didn’t feel like enough.
As I pressed the button to roll the window back up, I looked in the rearview to watch that sweet cherub face as she soaked in another curious interaction.
“Mommy, did you gave that man your water bottle?”
“Yep. Don’t you think he looked thirsty?”
“I thought he looked thirsty too, so I gave him some water to drink.”
She nodded, her beautiful, dark eyes wide, and she turned to peer out the window again. I contemplated her sweet profile, her innocent questions.
“I was thirsty and you gave me drink…”
“I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’” —Matthew 25:35-40
She’s only two. But as a human being, even a small one, she understands concepts of hunger and thirst.
For the longest time I allowed myself to believe I was somehow protecting my kids by re-locking the doors and making sure the windows were closed tightly when we approached intersections like this, where what I’ve known my whole life as “panhandlers” frequently loiter, pacing up and down the medians. Maybe some of them are trying to take advantage. Maybe some of them are addicted to drugs or alcohol.
But does that really matter, if an image-bearer of God says he or she is hungry or thirsty?
Can I not provide an appropriate level of protection to the children God has entrusted to my care here on earth while also offering what I can, in that moment, to someone considered by many to be less-than? A hand of mercy and eye contact that affirms, “I see you, and you matter”—all the while, my kids in the backseat?
The answer is that I can do both, and I must do both. For the stranger in the median, and for my kids.
My girls know that I would do anything—anything—to protect them from harm.
They are also watching me all the time. They are tucking away these memories of Mom rolling down the window like a crazy lady and giving our snacks away, no questions asked.
I don’t want them to finally begin to understand what compassion looks like when they’re 36, their own kids in the backseat. I want to teach them—show them—what it looks like to care for the least of these, now. And rolling down my window is a start.
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More to read:
A Painful Confession: How Do Christians Today Not Deny or Trample on Christ? by Ann Voskamp:
“Do I trample on Christ when I am more about protecting my way of life — than protecting others’ very life?
Do I trample on Christ when I walk in ways that care more about my comfort in the world, than the comfort of His image bearers being crushed in this world?
Do I trample on Christ when my steps forward every day are more about my safety, my interests, my economic betterment — than about walking in the self-giving, self-surrendered, self-sacrificing ways of Christ?”