It’s everywhere in our country. You can’t visit a city, a suburb or the stretching fields of rural life without seeing it. The worst part was, as I traveled the country for four months with my wife and four children, I felt helpless in the face of it.
It started to make itself known in a tangible way when we were in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and we approached the on-ramp of the highway. A forlorn man stood there on the corner. He looked rather pitiful, like a homeless person who had tried to dress up and had fallen horribly short. His hair looked combed, but in a way that made me think it wasn’t combed often. He looked self-conscious. Perhaps that’s what he was, because as we drove up, I noticed he held a cardboard sign. I expected the sign to say something like, “Homeless, need money.” But the words I saw scratched in black marker put a lump in my throat.
“Worthington” was written across the top, and “Daughter’s Graduation” was written along the bottom.
Worthington was 60 miles away. That night, as I played some meaningless game on my iPhone, I wished I would have taken the afternoon and driven him there. Two hours out of my life. I wonder if someone going to Worthington (or that general direction) took him. Or if, perhaps, at some graduation ceremony, a girl scanned the crowd, disappointed because once again her father had not come.
* * *
Later on the trip, as we drove to a Ruby Tuesday’s to use a gift card some friends had given us, we passed another person, a woman this time, standing at another intersection.
“Stranded. Need food,” she had written in black magic marker on her strip of cardboard. And again my heart caught in my throat. And my jaw clenched. And I drove on by. We went to Ruby’s and had a good meal, and my youngest cried about his dessert, and I found myself disappointed with what I had ordered.
But my stomach was full, and I wouldn’t have to worry about food until the next morning, when I would look through the fridge and eat whatever I wanted to eat.
Why didn’t I stop the van and take her along?
* * *
Again and again, poverty called out to me on our trip. More than at any other time in my life. Maybe it’s because I was out of my routine and my eyes were open. I looked around. I was more aware. I was in surroundings that I didn’t take for granted.
Again and again, I was sorely disappointed by my response, which basically was confusion or uncertainty or a willingness that came far too late. My automatic reaction to those in need was skepticism, or distrust. Which was especially sad, considering that I have spent the last 35 years in church. Thirty-five years going at least once a week, and up to four times a week, to a place where people meet who have dedicated their lives to following Christ. Yet, after all of those years, I still don’t know how to respond to poverty.
Of course, I do not blame the church. I blame me. I’d like to say that those instances on the trip were the last time. Never again will I encounter poverty without doing something. Anything.
Yet that has proved to be so many empty promises, and I’m left here, the sky almost dark, and I don’t feel that I understand it any better than I did before.
Editor’s Note: When and how should we give to those in need? Is it wrong to pass by someone with a cardboard sign without giving? Have you wrestled with this tension? Share your story in the comment section below.