What I Learned At the Stoplight

Photo by Matt Collamer on Unsplash

We’ve all seen them: those lone, scruffy figures at intersections and freeway underpasses holding bent cardboard signs asking for a handout. Their faces are as cracked and blistered as the sidewalk. Their meager possessions lie tangled in a bucket, sack, or grocery cart behind them.


In the city where I live, it’s hard to drive more than a minute or two without passing one of these hopeless, hapless individuals. I used to dread the encounters, wincing inwardly as the traffic light inevitably turned yellow and forced me to a stop right in front of one of those PLEASE HELP signs.


For one thing, I didn’t know how to help. My loose change wasn’t going to reverse the course of this stranger’s life, I’d reason; it might even enable it. At the same time, even dollar bills seemed like a paltry response to the misery before me—passing money from my comfortable, insular, air-conditioned world into those scarred, eagerly trembling hands only emphasized the abyss of privilege between us.


Not giving was even worse. On the rare occasion I was carrying cash, refusing to share some made me secretly feel like a jerk. When I truly had nothing, however, I found myself wishing for a mere nickel to assuage my shame. Either way, I‘d avoid eye contact, eventually pretending that the pleading human being on the other side of the window simply didn’t exist. It was easier that way, and when the light turned green after an agonizing interval, I’d accelerate with relief.


One day, I understood something that changed my outlook—and my tortured commute—forever.


One of the main reasons I had become so ambivalent about giving to beggars, I realized, was a misplaced sense of responsibility. When asked for help in these haphazard, drive-by situations, I often felt overwhelmed by the seemingly insurmountable problems of the other person’s life and the pathetic limitations of my own response. That was a problem, I realized, because it wasn’t this stranger’s life I was being called to change at these moments. It was mine.


It was my heart and habits that were being tested here; my prejudices, my fears, and my unwillingness to see Christ in his most distressing disguise that was being challenged. Standing before me was another child of God, and what mattered was not first of all the efficacy, appropriateness, or size of my response, but the love that characterized it.  “Love,” as St. John of the Cross wrote, “is the measure by which we will be judged.”


This simple epiphany freed me. I stopped fearing my daily roadway encounters, and I began to offer what I could—a bit of money, some snacks, fast-food coupons, or directions to a nearby shelter or food pantry. Sometimes all I had was a prayer and an apologetic gesture. But as I opened my hands, I was astonished to find my heart opening as well. Each lone, scruffy figure became not a problem to be fixed but a person to encounter and acknowledge in all of his broken humanity.


Love indeed is the measure. As followers of Christ, we can disagree, I think, about the best way to help the poor around us, but we cannot use fear, indifference, greed, or cynicism to circumvent the Gospel’s clear and simple commandment: “Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away” (Mt 5:42).


Christ knows our responses will often be woefully inadequate—he said himself that the poor would always be with us. But he also said we will only receive in the measure with which we give—that we love him only to the extent to which we love our neighbor.


“We must be saved together,” wrote the French Catholic essayist Charles Péguy. “Together we must arrive before the Good Lord. What would he say to us if we arrived alone, if we came home to him without the others?”


I thought of that quote some weeks ago, when we pulled to a stop next to a begging Vietnam vet on our way to Sunday Mass. Handing some change out the window, I was stunned when he gently pushed it back into my hands. “No way,” he said, gesturing toward the car seats behind me. “You’ve got little ones back there. You take care of them now.”


And while the traffic light lingered on red, this weary old man and my delighted toddlers laughed and waved and blew kisses to each other. Their mutual glee, the light in their eyes, glows within me still.


Marion Fernandez-Cueto is an award-winning journalist who lives in Houston with her husband Andres and their three children.

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