Yesterday I gave a guy 40 dollars. I was pretty sure he was a scam artist. He told a heartbreaking story with intense drama. Well groomed and acceptably dressed, he said he is, by trade, a used car salesman—laid off (same thing he said when he was here several years ago). He fit all the stereotypes associated with that calling.
I didn’t believe his story, even as he told it. Later, re-playing it, I could spot even more holes in the tale. Fifteen minutes into our conversation he finally dropped the request. He needed 40 dollars to pay his phone bill.
The evening before this man came to me, I’d hit a wrong button for cash back at the grocery store. In a hurry to be gone, I’d decided not to cancel the transaction so I had extra cash in my purse.
Taking a bit of unholy pleasure in breaking up his well-scripted routine, I said, “I’m going to give you the money. Now you don’t have to worry about that. What else do you want to talk about?” He gave a shout of pleasure; my secretary considered coming to my rescue. We spoke for another forty-five minutes about God, sobriety, and whether he’d make a good pastor. “I can sell a car to anyone—why couldn’t I sell God?” There wasn’t time to answer that, and I didn’t want to attempt it anyway. His needs list came to include two blankets, sleeping bag, desktop computer, and a car. I said I’d pray about it. I will.
This isn’t a happy-ever-after story. The man really is a scam-guy. Others have seen him panhandling. I’m guessing his life is far more tragic than the melodrama he enacts to get his needs met. His need to be heard was as pressing as his desire for some dollars.
I’m left wondering why I felt so clearly led to give him money. Years working in a church office have left me less of an easy touch than when I first started. It’s not so hard any more to refuse requests. One time I gave a scary man money just to get him gone. There’s another young women who shows up once in a while. She’s puzzling, and makes me mad because I don’t know how to help her.
At a Portland area pastors’ lunch a few months ago we discussed this very subject—what do we do with those we recognize as scammers? One of the answers I brought away was this: we recognize them as fellow-humans, listen carefully, and try to be faithful to God’s leading.
We’re often advised to save our giving for those who deserve it, to avoid enabling. All very wise I’m sure, but I don’t think that was Christ’s message. I want to listen, trust, and follow that small voice.
Contributed by Bernie Bosnjak, pastor, Hillsboro Friends