A middle-aged man I had only met once approached me tonight and asked if he could borrow some money. The story was the same as the one we all usually hear from people begging for money: Kevin had just learned his mom had fallen ill and he needed to catch a Greyhound bus to North Carolina. He was $37 short.
He apologized profusely for the request and told me he'd like to work it off by cutting my grass when he comes back. I had hired him to do the same just a few days earlier because I was tired, and for the first time in my life, I paid an adult to knock out that chore. It was worth the $40 I paid him to plop down in my TV chair and watch the Orioles. Between innings, I stepped outside and handed Kevin a Gatorade. We spoke for a minute. I thanked him for the thorough job he did -- one that gave me a night of relaxation.
When he paid me a visit this evening, I stalled before I gave him an answer -- making up an excuse to disappear for a moment while I thought it through. I don't often give money to random strangers, figuring they're just going to spend it on booze or drugs the moment I turn my back. I usually utter a quick "I'm sorry but I can't help you," and move on. At least I acknowledge them, I tell myself. Most people just walk right on by. The last time I spoke those words, near Ford's Theatre, the man began screaming obscenities at me. I thought about turning around and giving him a bit of an etiquette lesson -- to borrow a line from Fraser Crane -- but quickly remembered no good could come from that.
All of those thoughts went through my mind as I considered Kevin's request. I looked deeply into his eyes for clues about his character and I tried to discern whether he was telling the truth.
I considered how hard he had worked on my yard earlier in the week. A number of other snapshots flashed across my mind: I had repeatedly spotted him in the neighborhood pushing his lawn mower and carrying his milk jug of gas. I also took note of my fellow Southerner's diction and formality.
He did not flinch in holding my gaze and the answer I sought became clear to me.
I realized I wanted to believe Kevin, that I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt. I wanted to believe that some people genuinely need the kindness of strangers when they're in a tough spot. I wanted to believe he would return and cut my grass again. I wanted to believe in humanity. I also wanted to exercise my Christianity. I knew $37 wasn't going to make me miss a meal and if Kevin proved to be a liar, well, that's between him and his conscience. Mine would be clear.
I handed Kevin $45 and suggested he grab a slice of pizza before his late-night bus departed. He thanked me profusely and promised he would return to work it off after he takes care of his mom.
The relative stranger struck me as a man of his word. I closed the door knowing it's possible I had just thrown away $45. I didn't care, though. If I'm not willing to risk an occasional $45 on my convictions, I'm not much of a man myself.
[Post Script from a week later: Kevin returned and cut my grass. He said his mother is at rest now and he was glad he was able to go home.]