I was standing outside of Kendall College with my friend James, waiting for the rest of our classmates to come out and meet us. We’d just finished loading up most of the equipment from our film shoot into the bed of my truck. Being the only student to own a truck in a class of 45 or so, I had found myself in the unique position of being one of the main equipment movers. I didn’t much mind it, as it made me feel more involved, not to mention it cemented the stereotype that all southerners drove trucks. I’d only been living in Grand Rapids, Michigan for a few months, and already I was beginning to feel a longing to return to the only home I’d ever known down in Tennessee. Still, it was nice being able to stand out as the only southerner in a class of northerners and midwesterners.
It was plenty late when I saw the man walking toward us. He was a skinny, middle-aged man with an unsteady swag in his walk, noticeable enough to grab my attention. Being in the middle of the city, there were plenty of people walking around, but the swing in his walk made him stand out. He came up to us and got our attention, and then he began to tell us his story.
He told us about his family at home who didn’t have anything to eat, and how he needed help getting some money for food and for paying to ride the bus so he could get to work.
Let me admit from the start that I have a tendency to approach situations such as this one a bit more open-minded that some might recommend. I knew just from watching him walk toward us that I was more than likely in for a scam. That said, I have a habit of convincing myself that my judgement might not always be as infallible as I think it is. I don’t say this in order to paint myself as some sort of “Good Samaritan.” What I mean is that my willingness to being wrong often makes me become borderline gullable, perhaps to a fault.
After he told us his story, I told him that I didn’t have any cash, but that I would be glad to–get ready–walk with him to a grocery store and buy him some food. He agreed to this, and my friend James–wishing I would just shut up, I’m sure–agreed to come with us.
We walked off away from the lights of the city and listened to him tell us more about his situation. Most of what he said was a repetition of something he’d already said, but we kept the conversation going anyhow. He kept repeating something else in particular, but for the life of me I can’t remember whether it was something religious or something vulgar. I seem to remember a little bit of both.
I don’t know if you’ve ever walked for fifteen minutes or so through the outskirts of an unfamiliar city at night with a complete stranger whose authenticity you seriously doubt, but if you haven’t, let me say that you can learn a lot about yourself from doing so.
After taking a few more turns than I had anticipated, I was growing more and more acquainted with the idea that James and I could be walking into a disaster. I’ll say a bit more about James in a moment, but for now, know this: he was a Christian, he was very wealthy, and his only words throughout the walk were, “So where is this store?” I’m not exaggerating when I say that he asked that question at least three times, because I was thinking about it myself.
Eventually, we made our way to a small, corner convenient store. It was like a sketchy gas station without the gas pumps. Whatever you’re picturing is probably pretty accurate.
We walked through the store and picked up a few items, like a loaf of bread and maybe some milk, though I really don’t remember. I do remember him grabbing a candy bar. I told him to grab a few for his kids, to which he replied, “Yeah yeah. My kids.”
If you haven’t made up your mind about our situation at this point, I’ll go ahead and say that I was fairly confident by then that my money wasn’t going to a good cause.
We brought everything to the register, and I paid for whatever he put up there. James even stepped in and bought the man a few bananas. I went over to the ATM and took out some bus money for him, and I gave it to him, telling him that I was going to trust him to do the right thing with it.
With that, we parted ways, and James and I began backtracking our way to the college. This might be a good place to say that I have a pretty poor sense of direction. Fortunately, we made it back, and in pretty good time. By then, our friends were outside waiting for us anxiously.
While we walked, James opened up to me about his thoughts throughout the experience. He told me he’d never been in a situation like that before, and that he’d had no idea what was going to happen to us.
“I mean, you’ve seen where I live,” he said. That’s the line I remember best.
I’d been to James’ house once before, and it was a sight to see. It sat on a small lake, and the house itself was huge. The downstairs had a full bar with a huge living room that led out onto a patio that overlooked the lake. James had top-dollar film equipment, including lenses and other camera accessories that each had specially formed foam moldings that kept them protected inside hard-shell equipment cases. He had professional editing softwares, along with the skills to use them. To be honest, some of his equipment was better than what our private film school provided, and being his friend had its benefits when it came to filmmaking.
With all that in mind, plus what I’d learned about James in the few months that I’d come to know him, I knew pretty well that the experience had been a new one for him. Still, it was good to hear him say it, and it made me consider my own reservations.
Did the man experience any change after that night, assuming our thoughts about him were correct? I don’t know. Did the experience cause any spiritual change to come about in James? I don’t know the answer to that either.
Looking back, I see the faults in my decision making, but even so, I wouldn’t say that I would never do it again. The conversation with James afterwards was worth it, even if the experience only brought a new perspective for that one moment.
If anything, the experience taught me just how incomplete my sense of judgment is. A friend shared this line with me: “The eye sees what the mind anticipates.” There’s a lot of truth in that. Is it worth being cheated a few times for the sake of giving someone a chance to prove you wrong? I think that question is harder to answer in some situations than others. Sometimes the stakes are higher.
My only example is Christ, who came with full knowledge that his life would be rejected by most. Unlike me, he knew the outcome–that some would receive him, but also that many would not. Even so, he humbled himself for the sake of the few.
Where does that leave me? It tells me that in order to follow Christ, at some point, I’m going to be faced with the need to reject human wisdom. So yes, that means that I’m probably going to be cheated again. An argument can be made for making calculated decisions, but I think that’s missing the point. I’m not talking about making rash decisions or putting God to the test by jumping off a cliff. I’m talking about a willingness to look foolish according to human standards. If I put my faith in human wisdom, I’m putting my faith in something that’s skewed, debated, subject to change, and more importantly, incomplete.
Either way, I’ll probably be cheated again. I think I’d rather know that from the start.