I spent a part of my childhood picking up and delivering papers to porches and people all over town. And collecting, of course; twenty cents if paid by the week, eighty-five if paid by the month.
The former often brought a nickel tip, the latter an extra 15 cents. With more than a hundred customers, a good day at the end of the month produced pockets full of change, enough to pay the bill and buy a cherry coke and a small bag of Spanish peanuts.
Often, in that happy and prosperous condition, I claimed a stool at Wallace’s Drug Store and read the escapades of the mighty men of valor: Spiderman, Superman, Green Lantern, and of course, Thor.
Each Saturday, I circumvented the town square: Corn-Austin (men’s clothing), Ward-Elkins (appliances), A B Beal (hardware), the Bank of Murray (money and debt), and around the corner, the shoe repair shop run by Mr. Jones.
I knew my people and they knew me.
But one day, the sights and sounds of someone new caught my attention.
Across the street and opposite the shops, on the grassy lawn of the courthouse square, a man stood. He held a Bible high above his head and called for sinner to repent. He bent down, picked up a guitar, and strummed an old gospel song.
Not more than twenty people were drawn to this unscheduled service of singing and exhortation, myself among them. I edged between parked cars and sat on the curb. I crossed my legs in a space close enough to hear but far enough to stay unseen.
I was accustomed to gospel, scripture, and the appeal of the evangelist. But this take-it-to-the people in a public place stirred my imagination. He preached a little and sang a little, then picked up a can that once held two pounds of Maxwell House coffee.
“There,” he said, as he sat it under a tree, closer to me than I had wanted it to be. “In a few minutes, we will be moving on down the road. Please help us with an offering if you will. God bless you.”
He started to sing again.
A quarter clanked loudly in the empty can, a nickel here, a dime there, perhaps a dollar or two. It had the makings of an offering as thin as the congregation that had gathered in this make-shift, open-air sanctuary—not enough, even I surmised, to buy a meal let alone fill a tank with gas.
It was years before I understood any part of what happened next—before generosity, spontaneity, and a deep-seated sympathy for itinerant preachers had become matters of introspection; before parents, teachers, and pastors of all sorts had shed light on the signals of my own soul.
In less time that it takes to relate this childhood episode, I jumped to my feet, walked to the tree, and emptied into that can every dime, quarter, and fifty-cent piece, every bit of money that had collected in both pockets of my pants.
I turned and walked away, forgetting the sermon, the song, and the familiar blessing spoken somewhere at my back, remembering, these many years, only the clanking sound of a coffee can filling up with coins.
“Therefore, to him who knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin.” (James 4:17)
How to respond to street beggars or sanctuary appeals is a matter that every person, every Christian must address. Some churches try to screen the many appeals that come through the Christian community; and some cities urge citizens to give only through approved and monitored charities. We all know that some who appeal for money are frauds; we all know that some who appeal for money are godly people doing gospel work; and we all know that some who present themselves to us for help are, in reality, angels–so says the book of Hebrews: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (13:2).