Editor’s note: This article first appeared on Jan. 19, 2011. At the time of publication, Phelps was pastor of Highland Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky.
Last week, a man walked hesitantly into the church office asking for help to get to Cincinnati.
He was just released from University Hospital and showed the plastic ID bracelet on his wrist. He’d been shot a few weeks earlier while working as a bouncer at a local bar. He even lifted his shirt to display the wound in his side.
All he needed was $28 to get to Cincy where his sisters lived, where he could spend some time recovering and resting.
I’m working on being more generous and self-giving these days, so I said I’d try to help. But, I warned him, we don’t give out cash to anyone.
So, I went to my computer and looked up the bus station. Sure enough, a one-way ticket to Cincinnati costs $28.
I dialed the station and asked to buy a nonrefundable ticket with a credit card. I could do so, the operator answered, but there would be an additional charge of $18.
Another $18 to insure a $28 investment? I thanked the operator but opted to take my chances on the man.
I returned to where he was waiting and gave him the cash. I felt pretty magnanimous handing a stranger $20 and $10, even though I could get the church to reimburse me.
As I presented him the money, I cautioned, “We get a lot of people who try to con us. They ask for money from the church, maybe not knowing that the money they’re taking is God’s money.” The not-so-subtle message was, “You’d better not be a con.”
He assured me he wasn’t and that he’d be back next week to pay us back.
As he got up to leave, a volunteer in the office stopped him. Lisa is on disability, with little discretionary money, but I watched as she handed him a $10 bill and said, “Here, why don’t you get something to eat at Taco Bell before you make your trip to Cincinnati.”
It was such a powerful and selfless scene that I told the story at the end of this weekend’s sermons.
After our final service, a church member came to me rather apologetically and said, “I met the guy you were talking about. He completely fit your description – big guy, showing his wound and hospital bracelet, needing $28 to get to Cincinnati. He was asking people for money in the remote parking lot earlier this morning.”
I’m not sure what it is about me that hates to be conned. Maybe it’s a byproduct of the Small Man’s Syndrome. Maybe it’s a sense of humiliation that after all these years in ministry, I can still get played like a cheap guitar. Maybe it’s my competitive spirit.
Whatever the source, the news that I’d been conned made me burn with anger. I felt the impulse to call the police.
Or maybe I’d get in the car and go looking for him and give him a piece of my mind. I’d tell him that he’d taken our money, ruined our giving and invalidated Lisa’s generosity.
But had he?
Gifts, once given, are no longer ours to worry over. Gifts given in love retain the love, even if the recipient attempts to discard it.
As I sat with my reactions, it slowly dawned on me that while the con spoils the ending to the story, it in no way invalidates the generosity of the church’s or Lisa’s gift.
In fact, the con invites a deeper, more challenging invitation to love beyond a superficial gift.
What if I come across this guy again? I have a suspicion he is someone who has already been berated to death for disappointing or inconveniencing others.
What if instead of berating him, I befriended him? What if my loving didn’t stop with a gift misused but continued on through the con in order to create something constructive?
Jesus speaks of going the second mile when forced to go one, of turning your face and offering the other cheek when you are slapped.
These are what someone labeled transforming initiatives – loving beyond and through an offense.
Is it possible, through eyes of faith, to see beyond the con to the man who has sunk so low this is his manner of subsistence? Is it possible to interrupt this pattern by raising the ante?
What if when I encounter this man (and Louisville is a small city), I say, “Dude, you got me on that con. But that’s OK. I forgive you. I am concerned, though, about you and your future because you matter. How are you? How can I help you? How could you parlay your creativity into a more life-giving way?”
I may not get my money back, but I will have redirected it in a way that has the ability to create a new beginning. Who wouldn’t give $30 to be part of something that transforming?
A minister in Louisville, Kentucky, for 21 years as pastor of Highland Baptist Church, Phelps is now Justice Coordinator for Earth and Spirit Center. He leads, along with Kevin Cosby, EmpowerWest, a black-white clergy coalition calling for recognition, repentance, and repair of injustices to black Louisvillians.