Discerning Compassion

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It was past 10 p.m. when I heard footsteps on our porch. Peggy and I had just settled down in front of a crackling fire when the knock came at our front door. I flipped on the porch light and peered out at a stranger, dripping wet from a cold drizzle that had been falling all evening. He was a slightly built man wearing a yellow rain coat, a brown stocking cap and a look of weariness in his eyes. He introduced himself and asked politely if I could possibly assist him with a difficult situation he happened to find himself in. He had come to Atlanta with his wife and four children earlier that week for his mother's funeral, he said. The funeral expenses had cost him more than he had anticipated and he found himself in the embarrassing position of being $9 short of the money they needed for their return bus trip to Fayetteville, N.C. He held a grocery bag full of snacks which he said someone had given him for his children but his real need was to get his family back to their home. I could not help being touched by the man's plight. His downcast spirit and discouraged tone touched a compassionate place inside. I asked a couple questions about his situation, queries he read as doubts about his credibility. He went into painful details that no man should have to expose before a stranger. He offered answers to questions that had not yet entered my mind. His sense of urgency was understandable but his persistence began to raise a bit of resistance within me. The more he talked, the more unsettled I became. His pleas had emotional power, too much power. He was either very desperate or very manipulative, I couldn't tell which. I knew that I felt trapped, however. If I turned a needy father away from my door into a rainy night, I would feel enormous guilt and incur the displeasure of a heavenly Father who has great compassion for the poor. On the other hand, if this man were a skillful hustler preying on the good will of others, my assistance would only reinforce his destructive predatory appetite. My heart said: embrace him. My instincts said: get rid of him.

I went with my instincts. Deep pangs of guilt tormented me as I settled back down in front of our warm fire. The sight of that man walking out into the cold darkness would not leave my mind. And his parting words "God bless you" stuck like a dagger in my heart. What if his story had been true! What if - forbid it! - what if he were one of those rare and mysterious angels sent by God for us to entertain! The phone interrupted my troubling ruminations. It was Lynda down the street, home alone with her daughter, frightened by a man in a yellow raincoat who wouldn't leave her door. The man knew her daughter's name, she said, had asked her for money several weeks earlier on her way home from school. "Come quick" was her plea.

The man was disappearing around the corner by the time I got to Lynda's house. A couple immediate phone calls to other neighbors revealed that he had been working our area for several weeks and had conned a number of folks on our street out of their money using a similar story. This would not happen again, I reassured Lynda, now that our neighborhood crime watch had jumped into action. With proper notifications made and the police alerted, I settled down once again into my chair in front of the fire, mind and spirit at rest.

It was nearing 11:00 p.m. when my relaxation was interrupted once again by a knock at our front door. A heavy set woman with rain soaked hair clutching a knit sweater around her shoulders stood shivering on my porch. Wide eyed and out of breath, she assured me that she was not crazy - just feeling desperate. She lived just a couple streets over, she said, and didn't have anyone else to turn to at this time of night. Her infant child needed medication which her health policy would reimburse but she was out of immediate cash. She was waiting on a return call from her church but the hour was getting late and her child was quite sick. She could pay me back on Friday when she got paid.

This time I felt neither touched nor trapped. If the issue were less serious, I could have been amused. "Your timing is not very good," I let her know. "Someone has worked this street not more than 30 minutes before you and the neighbors are on alert. They'll probably call 911 on you." The woman, snapping instantly out of her "desperate mother" character, thanked me profusely for sparing her a lock-up. She made a hurried exit from my porch and, looking back with a friendly wave, disappeared into the night, doubtless dismayed by her forgetfulness of having already worked this street two weeks earlier.

The next evening during our neighborhood Bible study, the phone rang. It was Lynda again. The man in the yellow jacket was back at her door trying to talk her daughter into letting him in. Four large men immediately raced from our living room and headed for Lynda's house. They confronted the man with stern warnings, letting him know in no uncertain terms that they would not tolerate his exploitation of their neighborhood. I seriously doubt that this predator will venture close to Walker Avenue again.

There seems always to be a tension between compassion and accountability. On one hand, we are entreated in scripture to open our hand to the poor, give our second coat, lend without expectation of return. On the other, we innately know that supporting someone's drug habit is not a charitable act. I think that a healthy community must be similar to a healthy body. It must have the capacity to contain certain germs, the ability to expel others and the wisdom to discern the difference.

The damage done by a deceiver is far more serious than the chagrin of the ones he has duped. And the harm goes deeper than supporting a drug habit or encouraging predatory behavior. It eats away at the fabric - the very soul - of the community. It destroys trust, robs innocence, instills cynicism, erodes compassion and breeds incivility. Conning is not cute. And it must be given no place in community life. Compassion, if it is to be redemptive, must be coupled with heavy doses of discernment.

Bob Lupton

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