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24Feb/12Off

Give an Inch

I’ve struggled for a few weeks with whether to write this. I’m not sure whether this about Christianity, my personal faith, charity, or Al Pacino. I still don’t know, but I’ve started writing, so here we go. The Thursday before Valentine’s Day, sometime during the mid-morning I decided that I was going to buy my wife something. This was kind of unusual because, although I’ve got a great marriage, we don’t usually do gifts for these types of holidays. Typically we’ll get together with family or friends, but this year I decided I wanted to hand my wife a gift that she wasn’t expecting. I wanted to surprise her. She’s dealt with more than her fair share of disappointment this year.

I did some reconnaissance and found out that a small jewelry store not too far from my office in DC was having a massive sale. It’d be a bit of a hike, but it was nice out and I had time to actually take lunch, so come noon I was off. I got about a block from the office when I was approached by someone with a clipboard trying to lead me into a discussion of his politics – I breezed past and had my ear buds in before he had completed his opening line. Problem solved.

I got to the store, stumbled around for a few minutes until one of the employees took mercy on me, and helped me pick something out. I was back on the street, ear buds in, and making my way back towards the office in no time. As I’m walking along, thinking about absolutely nothing, someone brushes by me and says what I make out to be an “excuse me.” I look up and see an older guy, I’m thinking early to mid-sixties looking like he wants to ask me something. I immediately start sizing this guy up. I’ve been commuting into DC using various forms of public transportation for a few years now and every day, on just about every corner, someone is asking for something. It can actually be pretty overwhelming if you stop to actually take in all the people who are out on the street. So, usually, I don’t.

Anyway, after a few seconds I figure this guy probably isn’t homeless and doesn’t appear to be panhandling. He looks like he’s dressed for an appointment, but the shirt, tie and pants he’s wearing are probably his only “good pair,” and he may not be their first owner. I pull my ear buds out and he asks if I know where he can find the local VFW hall. “No,” I reply.

He proceeds to tell me that he is a Vietnam veteran and that he travelled to DC from Spotsylvania County, VA that morning for an appointment at the Department of Veteran’s Affairs (DVA). He took off from his job (probably borrowed a shirt and tie) and made his way to DC, only to be informed that his appointment had been rescheduled for the next day. This presented a big problem. The appointment was very important and could impact disability benefits that he depended on, so shrugging his shoulders and making the trek home wasn’t an option. And, although he had “McDonalds money,” he didn’t exactly have enough to cover a hotel room in DC. He didn’t look like he had a wallet full of credit cards either.

So, he asked the kind folks at DVA if he could stay in the VA hospital. The answer to that question was a resounding “no,” but they were good enough to print him off a list of hostels that were running around $50.00 per night. Better, but from the sound of things, still more than he had in his pocket. That’s where the VFW came into play. He’d asked the folks at the DVA to direct him to the VFW hall – he explained that he was a member and was hoping they could help him out. They’d provided an address, which wasn’t far from where I work, but it wasn’t a VFW Hall. My new friend found that out too after leaving the DVA. So, now he was just wondering around, hours from home, trying to find the VFW hall.

So far, I’ve been listening to my new friend pretty intently, although I’m not really sure why – normally I’m already walking away. Maybe it was because I knew the address he got from the DVA, maybe it was that the folder of papers he was carrying that seemed to fit with what he was saying, maybe it was because he seemed so earnest. I don’t know - something just kept me standing there. Finally, I say something like, “well, I’m really sorry this happened to you, man. If I had some cash on me I’d give it to you, but I don’t.” To that, my new friend replied, “No, no, I’m not begging for money, I just need to find the VFW Hall. They’ll give me a hand. I’m a member.” So, we shake hands and I’m on my way.

As I’m getting my ear buds back in at the next corner I look up. What’s staring me in the face (?): A huge PNC Bank. Again, I stop dead in my tracks. See, I’m what I would consider a fairly new Christian. I mean, I’ve always been a Christian in a general, diffuse sense – I’ve gone to church on a fairly steady basis in the past, but over the past year or so we joined a church and had my daughter baptized there. I think bringing my daughter to church every week has really forced the issue with me: Do I really believe this stuff? If so, exactly what is it that I believe? Is the bible actually the inspired word of God? If so, shouldn’t I be looking at what it says pretty hard? I’ve been working through all of those questions (and more). I don’t have them all sorted out yet, but I’ve worked through enough to know that I don’t believe that life sprung forth from nothing – I believe it was created. I don’t believe that our conscience, ability to reason, and inherent sense of morality are the product of countless, random mutations. I believe they were put there, in us, and that they are a shadow of something much greater; something that’s not fully comprehensible; something blindingly good; something that’s very interested in our volitional, unconditional love. At the same time, in seeming contradiction, I also know that we’re hopelessly flawed, and racked with doubt and fear.

So, as I’m working through all this stuff I come to the humbling conclusion – I don’t do enough for other people. I’m too damned busy and preoccupied with the “stuff” of life. About a week before running into my Vietnam veteran friend, I was having a rough day. It’s one annoyance after another at work, and come 4:00pm I still really haven’t eaten lunch and I was supposed to train after work (deadlifts on an empty stomach are not too appealing). Once I can take a breath, I manage to run across the street to the food court to grab some chicken. The place is pretty empty and after ordering my food I pull out my blackberry and begin to zone out. Through my electronics-induced daze, I hear a sound. It doesn’t register, I don’t look up. I start typing, and there it is again. I look up and see a person standing there trying to talk to me. He’s obviously homeless and having a hard time speaking (looking back, I think he was trying to say ‘excuse me’). My brain kicks into panhandler mode and I say in a mildly polite tone, “sorry buddy I don’t have any cash on me” (which is almost always true). He looked at me for a second and walked away. About 30 seconds later it hits me – I’m standing in a food court. He probably was asking me to buy him something to eat. I suddenly feel like the biggest shithead in the world. I probably could have bought this guy more food than he’d eaten in the last two days for $8, and I just blew him off. I could just hear God’s palm hitting His forehead – he’d just put charity in front of me, and I swatted it away like a fly. That missed opportunity still bothers me.

Fast-forward back to my friend looking for the VFW. I’m now standing there staring at the PNC Bank and I think, OK I’m not pulling a repeat of the food court. I’m going to help this guy. I hit the ATM, pull out $50.00 and head back up the block. My new friend is in the same spot and is now talking to another guy (I’ll call him the “passer-by”) who looks to be about the same age as my new friend and probably popped out of one of the surrounding office buildings for lunch. As I approach, the passer-by is pulling out his wallet. I break into the conversation and say, “look, I went to the bank and can help you out with a few bucks for a room.” My new friend explains that the other passer-by is also a Vietnam veteran. The passer-by and I decide to give my new friend enough to pay for a hostel and something to eat. The passer-by shakes my hand, says “thank you,” and walks away.

So, I end up walking to the corner with my new friend, who seems to be experiencing a combination of immense relief and disbelieve that his most immediate problems are solved. In the half block we walk he is desperately trying to convince me that he’s not a beggar and finally asks for my address or a business card. He wants to send me the money back on his next payday. My mind is racing and I’m not sure what I’m going to say to him.

“I believe you,” I say. “I don’t want you to repay me . . . it’s not about the money.”

“Yes, but I’ve got a job and I’m don’t go around asking people for money,” he replies.

I stop walking. “Umm . . . see . . . I’m a Christian,” I blurt out. It sounds strange coming out of my mouth. “I’m kind of new at it, but I’m trying.”

My new friend seems to stop for the first time. He looks at me for a long second . . . then, he starts talking. “When I was a kid,” he explains, “I used to play the organ in church.” He went on to explain that he had some horrible experiences in Vietnam – things that made him lose faith, things that made him feel far from God, things that hardened his heart. When he came home he drank – a lot. He lost decades of his life to alcohol, but explained that he’d been sober for about 5 years now. He laughed and said, “If you would have seen me five years ago, you would have run in the other direction!”

Then he stopped laughing and his face grew dead serious. He explained that he had recently opened his heart back up to God. He was trying, it wasn’t an easy or steady thing, but he was determined. Then he said, “I don’t normally do this type of thing, but just before I passed you on the street, I sat over there on that bench and prayed. I prayed for God to get me through. . . . You played the role of an angel today.” He asked me what he could do to repay me.

At this point, I wasn’t sure anything would come out of my mouth. I managed to say, “Keep moving forward, towards God. Don’t go back.” I don’t know where those words came from, they just came out.

We shook hands for one last time and he walked away. His eyes were welled-up with tears.

I crossed the street and walked in the same direction, about half a block behind. He didn’t stop. He didn’t ask anyone else for money. He even walked past a liquor store.

I just stood there, watching him walk. And, oddly, what popped into my mind was not a bible verse, but Al Pacino. Yes, Al Pacino (hey, I said I was new at this Christianity stuff). Any of you who are sports fans have probably seen, or at least heard, Pacino’s speech to his football team in Any Given Sunday. If not, here it is http://youtu.be/WO4tIrjBDkk. Although the movie was kind of ridiculous (sorry, eyeballs popping out on the field are too much for me), the speech was epic. At one point Pacino says:

    “See . . . when you get old in life, things get taken from you. . . . You find out, life’s this game of inches. . . . The margin for error is so small. I mean one half-step too late or too early and you don’t quite make it. One half second too slow, too fast, you don’t quite catch it. The inches we need are everywhere around us.”

On that day, my new friend desperately needed an inch. That inch meant the difference between not eating, not having a place to sleep, and – after spending the night on the street -- having to deal with a large bureaucratic agency to secure critical benefits. We stumbled on each other (or were put in each other’s path) at exactly the right moment: He desperately need and inch, and I desperately needed to give one.

Whatever you believe, try giving an inch.


This guest blog was written by: The Legal Meathead

TLM's Bio

‘The Legal Meathead’ is a husband, father, son, brother, uncle, and “competitive” powerlifter (although, so far, he mostly competes with himself). He works as an attorney in a big swamp otherwise known as Washington D.C. and loves to read, write, lift heavy things (and drop them), and spend time with his family. He posts anonymously to protect the guilty, the innocent, and his ability to be frank.

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  1. Good on you, Vaughn. If we all lived like there was a God watching us, whether we believed so or not, it would be a better world.

  2. What a refreshing story. I grew up right outside of DC and know first hand how desperate the homeless population is. I give whenever and however I can. I always feel so good after doing so and know I am doing Gods work.


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