Caught in a Quandary (Over helping strangers and being charitable versus ignoring them and walking by…)

I was on my way home from walking my youngest son to school this morning when I turned the corner into our street. I was carrying a bag of shopping, having just popped into a local shop for some essentials.

And that’s when she approached me, a petite, young Latvian lady, reasonably dressed, with pleading eyes and a request. “Please, can you help me?”

In that split second I had to decide whether I would engage with her or mumble ‘sorry’ and walk on. I decided she was low risk and engaged.

“How can I help you?” I asked.

“I need make phone call. Please. My phone no credit.”

She showed me her low cost, old looking phone. “Need to call boyfriend, problems with passport.”

I looked at her. She appeared distressed. I said I can’t let her use my phone to call Latvia.

“No, not Latvia, he live near here!” she argued.

The phone tucked in my jacket pocket, I quickly weighed up what to do. And that’s when I decided that I didn’t want to risk being mugged and all the hassle of setting up a new phone which is essentially my diary and whole life organisation tool. I use it for lists, weather, German radio, email and a whole load of other stuff. I don’t have an iPhone, it’s not that precious to me – but my time is. I didn’t want to risk being a mug by potentially allowing a total stranger to run off with my phone.

So I reached into my jeans pocket and offered her 50p, explaining she could make a phone call in town (just a few minutes walk away). She declined the coin. “No, no, I need make call here.”

At that point I knew I made the right decision, and I said “I’m sorry, then I can’t help you.” I continued on my walk home, convinced that she was probably a drug addict trying to find goods to sell for a next fix, or maybe this was her way of ‘earning’ money.

Such encounters are tricky. Something within me, influenced in no small part by my faith, finds it exceedingly difficult to simply ignore someone who has approached me for help. I want to help someone if I can, but I’m acutely aware that I cannot solve everyone’s problems.

Yesterday I was in town and passed by a couple of Big Issue sellers. They were easier to ignore, because they were making a general plea for shoppers to buy their magazine. They weren’t looking at anyone in particular. I felt justified in ignoring them, but a little guilty in not looking at them properly to say ‘No Thank You’. After all, I really didn’t want to buy their magazine. I don’t buy any magazines anymore, I tend to read online.

But the second time, I felt convicted that the guy was making an effort to help himself but everyone was just walking by. How must that feel, to be homeless and stand out in the cold all day trying to sell something that no one wants? I turned back, and gave him a meagre amount (£1) for free, explaining that I didn’t want the Big Issue. He thanked me and appeared grateful. It wasn’t much that I gave, but I’m sure it cheered him up a little.

Now that wasn’t too difficult, and donating one coin doesn’t hurt much at all. But what I find harder than giving away cash is giving away time or friendship.

A few years ago there was a strange lady who lived in one of the flats across the street from us. She spoke in a weird way, looked dishevelled and it was clear that she had some kind of mental health problem. She loved to talk to me and the children if she met us out and about, and would regularly knock on our door – just to chat or ask questions.

I made an effort to be friendly, but she could easily chat for half an hour or more. When you have young children to prepare dinner for, and a number of other parental responsibilities, you often have to set boundaries in place by politely, yet firmly saying that you can’t chat for any longer.

I could have invited her in, but I felt uneasy about that. Mental health issues can range from mild to severe – such as schizophrenia – and again, I didn’t feel right about letting someone into my home who might be a risk. Maybe if I didn’t have children I would have felt differently. As it was, I always made an effort to smile, be friendly and chat whenever I could.

One time she knocked on my door, requesting a cup of water. A cup of water?! (When she lived feet away from my house?) Baffled, I couldn’t ignore the scripture in my head about ‘Whoever gives a cup of water to one of the least of my children has done it unto me’ (Jesus). I decided not to tell her to go home, but went and fetched her a glass of water; it wasn’t that difficult.

And that’s what I think we need to take away from this. Sometimes, offering a smile, a helping hand, a coin isn’t that difficult. We should help others more often. But we also need to take care, since there are unfortunately some characters who would seek to exploit or harm us. Discerning the difference is no easy task, though.

At any rate, I don’t think we should give up on our readiness to help others in their time of need. It’s part of what makes us human.

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