"I sought among them for a man that might set up a hedge, and stand in the gap before me in favor of the land." Ezekiel 22:30

Monday, May 16, 2016

Finding Charity In a Bag of Chips

I didn't even notice him at first. I mean, I did, in the sense that I knew there was something there next to me at the stoplight, in the same way you would notice a street sign, a bike rack, or a fire hydrant. But the vagrant at the corner of Wacker and State Street in the heart of Chicago wasn't just a street sign, a bike rack, or a fire hydrant. He wasn't just a something. He was a guy huddled into a cardboard box to guard against the famous wind which has earned this city its most endearing nickname.

Almost half an hour earlier, I had stepped out myself into the brisk, sunny Chicago afternoon. Even though I had already walked several miles that morning, the cold air was still jarring, albeit slightly refreshing. It was the first time since about 8:30 a.m. I had set foot outdoors. The several hours in-between then and now had been spent in a subterranean hotel conference room. A tornado could have swept through and in that basement we probably wouldn't have noticed. I wondered how far I must have walked already as I began my journey towards Union Station for my 7 p.m. train back home. It was nearly one and a half miles from my hotel to St. John Cantius Catholic Church where I had attended the 7 a.m. Mass (a decision I made hesitantly but one I assuredly won't regret.) The same distance back to my hotel (plus a quick stop at McDonald's - it was going to be a long day, and a sweet tea would make the day much more manageable). Then about another mile walk from my hotel to the bomb shelter-like hotel conference room put me over three and a half miles for the day with almost two more miles to go. Knowing a long train ride back home was ahead of me, getting food was now my priority.

The total came to $8.60. A sandwich, a bag of Nutter Butters, a bottle of milk, and two bags of chips from a street corner convenience store. Really it was a lot of food for the price, I thought, and very logical. The sandwich was obviously necessary for a proper dinner - as proper as my transient situation would allow. The bag of Nutter Butters would be my snack for the train (not to mention a decent source of protein), and a bottle of milk is a required accessory for Nutter Butters. The chips were an afterthought. They weren't exactly the healthy option and I didn't need them. But they were 2 for $2, so why not?

I headed back outside through the store’s revolving door. The freshly toasted sandwich in my hand provided a welcome contrast to the chilly springtime air. Hundreds of my cohorts joined me on the quest from point A to point B on this sidewalk in the evening rush hour. Busy professionals, young and old, hurried through the many street crosswalks; the color of the lights often didn't matter. Tourists casually strolled along the river walk; their eyes darting every which way to take in the sights. The cars packing the streets zoomed past, or stood still at the stoplight, while the more impatient drivers leaned on their horns. Some in the crowd wore ear buds, some talked on a phone or to the friend with them. But almost all seemed wrapped in their own world. It was there, in the commotion and bustling activity of Chicago rush hour, that I noticed him.

Of course, only after nearly bumping into him did I truly notice that it was a person huddled at that street corner, not a fire hydrant or street sign. I, like most people, often ignore the vagrants who cross my path in any given situation. Perhaps it's because I don't have anything readily available to give them, as if reaching for my wallet would be so inconvenient. Or perhaps it's that I'm jaded by those reports we've all heard of the street corner beggars who make six-figure income purely off the altruistic impulses of passers-by. But, for some reason, this encounter suddenly seemed different. I looked up at the streetlights, pretending to ignore the person there at my left. I looked down again and noticed more acutely the huddled frame of this man who seemed aware, painfully so, of the shame involved in his inglorious predicament. The seconds seemed to tick away slowly now. I became suddenly conscious of the bag full of food dangling from one hand, a warm sandwich in my other. I looked up at the lights again, perhaps hoping subconsciously that if only they would change I could cross the street guilt-free. But it didn't change.

I tapped him on the shoulder with a bag of chips in my hand. "Want some chips?" was my simple question. I had two bags as it was and I didn't really need both. "Oh, thank you, brutha'!" came the muffled reply. He took the bag, and with that, the light changed. The waiting crowd of pedestrians began moving. He had looked up, but I never even saw his face. I definitely didn't have time to ask for his name. I crossed the street with the crowd and didn't look back. That was it. The moment was gone.

Yet, for some reason I can't let this go. I've given stuff to the homeless before - money, food, even shoes. But for some reason the feeling from sharing a simple $1 bag of chips has lingered with me. Perhaps it was the early morning, the travelling, and the fatigue of a long day which together made me more emotional. Perhaps it was the weather, and that cold wind blowing between the high-rise buildings. Perhaps it was hustle-and-bustle of a busy sidewalk in an unfamiliar city during rush hour. Perhaps, deep down, I just really wanted that second bag of chips and I regretted missing out on it. Whatever the reason, is it too much to hope that perhaps my simple gesture changed a life? "It was just a bag of chips!" I tell myself. "Who knows if he'll actually eat them! He may not even like the flavor!" In reality, it doesn’t matter.

But then again he might eat them. He might really enjoy that flavor but hasn't been able to taste it for who knows how long. Perhaps that guy I encountered at the street corner hadn't eaten anything all day and those chips, albeit a very poor meal, were all he had. "The poor you have always with you," Christ told His apostles. But does that excuse inaction on our part? When we have more than we need, are we obligated to share it? "For it is in giving that we receive," goes the prayer of St. Francis. It neglects to recommend how much to give, or how much we can expect to receive in return.

What then can I expect from giving a bag of $1 chips to a homeless bum on a busy Chicago street corner during rush hour? Will what I receive be commensurate with what I gave? Is that my good work for the week, the month, the year? I would hope not. I wouldn't be a good Christian if that was the end of my charity. Did I do anything to guarantee my salvation? Not likely.

I don't know all the answers to my questions. I still can't explain why it impacted me so much.

But I do know that one heart will be forever changed because of a simple act of kindness. One life will impacted in an immeasurable way, not at all commensurate with the value of the exchange, and it may not be the guy who got a free bag of $1 chips.

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