One night a few months ago, I was walking home with a friend back to my residence hall. Upon us reaching the entrance of the building, a man who appeared homeless approached my friend and I and asked for some money so he could purchase some food, pointing to the McDonalds a couple blocks away. Given how late it was with few other people out, it was clear the man intentionally chose to wait where he did in hopes of encountering students returning home.
I often do not carry cash, but because this man specifically directed his request towards my friend and I, I was compelled to make a visible effort to sift through my wallet to see if there was anything I could donate. As I began unzipping my backpack, I suddenly remembered having a five-dollar bill from some change given to me earlier that day. Upon opening my wallet, I found that same bill and was conflicted: five dollars felt like a couple dollars too much to be giving out to this man, but I felt like I had to donate something.
My wallet is designed with the standard pouch to hold dollar bills and a leather flap that separates the pouch into two. In doing some split-second thinking, I apologized to the man and showed him the empty pouch of my wallet not containing the five-dollar bill to at least give him some semblance of peace that I sincerely wanted to provide him with something, but could not. It felt deceptive in the moment (which it was), but I was convinced that giving an entire five dollars was unreasonable.
Having shown this man my wallet, the man then turned to my friend who apologized as well as he already knew he did not possess any cash on hand. I assumed we reached the end of our encounter, but my friend then proposed an idea: He told the man that if he wanted something from McDonald’s, my friend would go with him and order the food on his debit card. The man, visibly delighted to hear this thanked my friend and accepted his offer.
Although my friend’s proposition caught me by surprise, I was impressed by his creativity in finding some other way to support this man. The three of us walked together and we had the opportunity to hear briefly about this man’s day and some of the struggles he was facing.
As we entered McDonald’s, the man asked my friend how much he was willing to allocate in purchasing this meal. My friend thought about it for a second, offered to buy anything up to around ten dollars and the man then told him what he wanted.
I joined my friend who was waiting in line to order and suggested that it only made sense that he and I split this man’s bill. My friend ordered the meal with the total coming out to $10.44. I remember pulling out my phone and sending $5.22 to my friend’s account.
I look back on this experience and I am humbled by the insight it has provided me. What I thought was a five-dollar bill that I went through some effort and unnecessary deception to hold onto ended up turning into $5.22, an amount exceeding what I was originally capable of donating and ending up in my friend’s account. However, beyond the sheer fact that I gave away more money than expected I am pushed to think about what compelled me to give without hesitation to my friend as opposed to when the man initially asked for money directly.
When the man requested a donation, five dollars felt like too large of an amount to give to someone I did not know. I grew up with an understanding that for those individuals on the streets who ask for financial help, one should keep single-dollar bills on them as they are deemed the appropriate amount to give out. Aside from the arguments about whether we know how our donated money is spent and whether we even have the right to tell someone how to spend money they are given, an inherent disconnect is supposed to exist between myself and these individuals in need in that our interactions are meant to be reduced to dollar amounts.
I compare this to how willing I was to accommodate for my friend whom I trusted in his decisions to support this man. I never questioned his choice to allocate ten dollars as opposed to something less and his choosing to change our path toward home by walking to McDonald’s instead.
What shocks me is the disparity that exists between how I choose to perceive and accommodate for those individuals who are on the streets and those who are with me encountering these individuals. I may give someone who is homeless a dollar and if I do not have that one dollar, there is nothing that homeless person will get from me. On the other hand, for someone like my friend who in this case tried to help someone, I was willing to spend my time, even more of my money and provide him some words of encouragement and support as well.
This all hits home when I think back to a saying of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) who tells me, “Do not turn away a poor man even if all you can give is half a date. If you love the poor and bring them near you God will bring you near Him.”
In retrospect, I thank God for granting me this moment of selfishness as it allowed me to bear witness to my friend and a less-traveled path of seeking nearness to God. What I saw in my friend that night was a sense of love: a love that pushed him to think creatively and find a way to support this man even though he did not have what the man specifically requested. In accommodating for this person in need, my friend was able to spend a few additional moments with him, gain some knowledge from the man’s experience and provide him with what he ultimately desired. It was the kind of compassion that my soul lacked; the kind of compassion that could have had me thinking, ‘I can’t give you any money, but I have some food in my room that I could bring down.’ A compassion that is not tied solely to what is being asked of me but that naturally expands as my soul begins to embrace more people, be they rich or poor.
The goal of course is not to blindly put our trust in anyone we meet. The goal is to expand our scope of who we deem to be deserving of our love and our sacrifices so that when we are called upon by those whom we know and those whom we do not know to provide, we feel just as compelled to search through both our tangible and intangible gifts to offer something of benefit.