12) Take a tip from Cardinal Timothy Dolan and carry around $5 Starbucks and McDonald’s gift cards for the homeless.—56 Ways to Be Merciful in the Jubilee Year of Mercy
Look, I get it. Interacting with the homeless, especially those out on the mean streets of New York City, can be an intimidating, scary, depressing, annoying, aggravating, guilt-inducing experience.
It’s also futile.
The sad truth is we can’t help but feel exposed to verbal and physical abuse, even as we know that we can’t give enough to lift them out of their poverty. And we can’t solve their mental, emotional or physical problems by simply handing over a dollar or two.
Besides, most of us sincerely believe that we just might make their predicament worse by discouraging them from seeking practical, long-term assistance. We don’t want to become enablers, pushing them deeper into some addiction vortex from which they will never escape.
And shouldn’t someone be teaching them “how to fish” rather than begging for a handout? Why should we be made to feel guilty? We already pay taxes to help them. As NYC police commissioner Bill Bratton said, “homeless panhandlers” might simply disappear if only people stopped giving them money.
Well, yes, all of that is true. But it’s also beside the point.
We aren’t called to save the world. We are called to act with mercy, charity and love, especially toward those whose paths cross ours every day. We can lift up just one person, that one fellow soul, the one who is agitated, exhausted, cold, smelly, ignored and practically left for dead, groveling right there in front of us.
We can, in short, prevent them from disappearing.
At least for today.
So how do we best help? How do we begin to forge a path towards the homeless, to treat them with kindness and charity in this Year of Mercy?
In an article published last November in the NY Daily News, Cardinal Timothy Dolan revealed his own reluctance to help. He admitted that he is sometimes “tempted to walk by, and sometimes I do.”
But Cardinal Dolan works hard to resist that urge. And he has found a way to minimize the chance that his handout will become just one more drink, just one more excuse for failure.
He gives out $5 gift cards to McDonald’s and Starbucks.
What a terrific idea. A promissory note for sober, future nourishment — one that still gives the homeless the dignity of some choice in what and when to eat.
A Subway, Blimpie or other such restaurant card will also provide pretty solid nutrition for either lunch or dinner. And a card from a drugstore chain — Walgreens, CVS, Rite Aid — can be particularly useful. Many now carry small grocery items, and even sandwiches (but so, too, alcohol, so be smart). One man, in desperate need of bandages and ointment for his open sores, was able to purchase them with a CVS gift card. A prepackaged bag of toiletries — toothpaste, mouthwash, a disposable razor and shaving cream, a comb — can also go a long way toward restoring some human dignity.
So there you have it. Cardinal Dolan has reminded us of one simple, practical, effective way to show mercy, one easy way to reconnect ourselves to the poor who are all around us.
But do keep one thing in mind: you may not always get a grateful reaction, so don’t expect one. That’s not why we are called to undertake acts of mercy.
And never question whether a particular person is worthy of your charity, mercy or love. Surely, that would be too exacting a standard if it were to be applied back to us.
Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. That is not our business, and, in fact, it is nobody’s business. What we are asked to do is to love, and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy.—Thomas Merton
Tom Zampino is an attorney in private practice in New York City who makes his home on Long Island. He and his beautiful and accomplished wife have raised two fantastic daughters, four cats, two dogs and various other domesticated creatures over the past three decades. He blogs at Grace Pending.
[Editor’s note: This is #12 in our ongoing series on “practicing mercy.” Read other entries, here]