Joe lied to us. He straight up lied! He has never had a kidney transplant.

He tells James this as they sit in our living room, and when I overhear the admission my heart stopped. I couldn’t believe it. Immediately my mind was flooded with thoughts of self-censure; how could we have given him groceries so freely? How could I have written a glowing blog entry about the joy of helping Joe? I felt, in a word, idiotic. I felt the little basis of trust we had started to build this relationship on slowly dissolve.

After he left I was awash in emotions of shame, and guilt; embarrassment and offense. As a person I was so insulted that he deceived me, and under that deceit enjoyed the fruits of our generosity. I think it hurt even more because we had so desperately desired & needed to reach out to someone in our neighborhood, and the first person we got wasn’t even legit.

But what made me the most offended was that he felt that he needed to lie in order to get my help. We approached him with a spirit of trust, we approached him as a fellow human being (although, as you know, I had my judgements). Why could he not give us the same respect?

The answer was illuminated a bit by our other neighbors, who informally caught James & I in a little “intervention” session out on the stoop. We had had Joe over for dinner. When he was on the stoop I could hear Val screaming and hollering at him. “How can you take their food! You oughta go back home, you ain’t got NO business over there!” etc. were her general admonishments. I was horrified and quickly pulled him inside.

He left for the night, with a backpack we had filled with some food for him, so he could smuggle it home without notice of the neighbors. While James walked with him down to his house, I sat with Dave and Val and Theresa on their stoop.

“Listen,” Val said. “We ain’t tryin’ to tell you what to do. You can do whatever you want. We just want you to know you can’t trust him. He started just this year goin’ ‘round to everyone’s house, askin’ for food, or money, or this or that. So we gave him some, but he is sneaky. He will get you in his little trap. He got me, ‘n’ he got Theresa too, so I ain’t help him no more. And you just ought to know, so he can’t be takin’ advantage of you. ‘Cause we know y’all are just nice.”

They all chimed in with their own opinions, how he’s not really sick, and he has plenty of food in the house, how he just likes to see how much he can get from other people. I tried asking them what bad thing happened to them as a result of helping him out, but they never gave me an answer. I was the boldest I have been with the neighbors so far in any context as I stated I appreciated them looking out for us, and we’ll be careful, but so far it’s not hurting us any to help the guy out.

To be honest I was chilled by some of the things they said. Things that acknowledged his severe weight problem but dismissed it as no excuse for being a leech to the neighbors. Things that suggested other health problems he has, but stated they weren’t “real” diseases (these included some mental issues including being bi-polar). Their complete lack of compassion haunted me for the rest of the week. How could they know he needed help, but send him away from their doors?

In the light of this news of his lying, however, I was stuck between two extremes. Perhaps our free giving wasn’t really helping the root of the problem, but I knew the total rejection of Joe wasn’t really the right response, either.

Throughout the week or so of this deliberation, this questioning of how to help someone, I had some interesting thoughts of our Standards  & Requirements for those we will help (or not). Here’s what I found to be the biggest qualifying factor for whether I or anyone else will offer help:

We will help people on the condition that we will not be taken advantage of. This danger lurks in the form of hobos who lie about situations/veteran status, drug addicts who want money for the “subway,” and starving neighbors who lie about a medical procedure. If our personal sense of honor is at risk due to the dishonesty of the needy, then help is not offered. When this thought came to my mind I was shocked and humbled by my own natural emotion. Will I really not welcome neighbors into my home, because they might map it out and rob me later? Will I truly not feed Joe because he lied to me about the cause of his emaciation?

And I think this idea, that we will help someone only at no risk to ourselves, points straight to the things we value. I mean, what does this mindset say about the value of personal property, of personal pride, of another human life? Will I shut out those around me to protect my Wii? Watch Joe starve to protect my honor? I believe that everyone has the right to be treated with respect, to be dealt with honestly, but I refuse to offer that same respect to others only conditionally.

It all came down to this simple question: Do I want to be someone who revokes a spirit of generosity at the slightest risk of personal loss?

No. No, I really don’t. That vulnerability is exactly the same that enabled Jesus to heal the sick, eat with the sinners, and guide the misguided, with no exceptions. That’s the new covenant! Love is complete vulnerability, selflessness, and Love is for all people, period. Yes, we have messed up relationships but shutting down or fighting back after the slightest offense is no way of healing them.

 *      *      *

Joe lied to us. He never had a kidney transplant. The truth was much worse. He has an eating disorder. He lied to us, but that didn’t change the need. It did however change the way we should address it, in our capacity and role in a network of support Joe thankfully has (to include medical professionals and a therapist).

James & I are working on developing a more strategic method of helping Joe, in light of his confession as to the true root of his weight problem (which was confirmed to be his true ailment by the neighbors, making their claims that he was “not really sick” more hurtful)*. We still must help him, and we are continually trying to show him that we do not require anything of him in exchange for our help. We are trying to show him that love has no need for lies or excuses. Because it’s unconditional. And it’s what we must do.

*The standpoint of our neighbors will be discussed in a future post. They are not heartless beasts but simply influenced by their own upbringing and environment; just like you & me!

Please discuss or comment on this and any of the Culture of Charity mini-essays. We value your ideas and opinions as we sift through a neighborhood of need and try to reconcile it with the commands of Jesus. What do you think? 

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