ON CHRISTMAS DAY I scanned an email entitled “Repaying a Homeless Man’s Kindness,” reprinted from Huffington Post and sent by Daily Good: News That Inspires (http://www.dailygood.org/).

 

This is a topic dear to my heart: the gifts offered by society’s invisible people. At first I simply nodded an acknowledgement to my computer screen and went on to open other emails. Yet, rather than having made my heart smile, as was intended, this article instead made my heart feel heavy. I didn’t have time to think about it that night, and I deleted the article.

 

But then a few days later a friend on the other side of the country sent me the same article, asking, “What do you think about this?” And I reread the story thoroughly:

 

A young college woman named Dominique had just parted from her friends after a student night out, when she realized her cellphone was dead. She had lost her bank card and had no money for a taxi home. A homeless man, Robbie, approached her, learned of her dilemma, and offered her all the money he had: $4.60. In the end, she found another way home. But she couldn’t forget Robbie and his kindness.

 

This could have been, should have been, a simple story about a homeless man’s generosity to a scared and grateful young woman.

 

But then it became a complicated story. It grew out of proportion, and despite good intentions it grew into gestures that, I believe, were far from the meaning and the heart(s) of the matter.

 

Dominique searched for and eventually found Robbie again. That gesture would have been enough to show her gratitude, to demonstrate their mutual human kindness. If she returned regularly, sat and talked with him, shared personal stories, established a friendship with him – if he wanted it – that would have been a lovely bonus.

 

But then she enlisted others in a monetary “campaign,” asking students on campus to donate $4.60 apiece to “help change Robbie’s life.” That was a great marketing idea, but an unfortunate one. It’s a gesture that carries the message that Robbie is not enough as he is, and that others know how to “fix” what is lacking in him. It negated his generosity.

 

Intentionally “paying it forward” to others, in gratitude for Robbie, in honor of Robbie’s intention, would have been an appropriate gesture, but not “paying it back” in amounts that tipped the scales so far that Robbie could never hope to reciprocate, would forever feel indebted.

 

Then Dominique spent a night on the streets, to “understand the difficulties” of homeless people. I believe this gesture, made by one who can as easily leave the margins as enter them, is an insult to homeless people who do not have that luxury.

 

And then the once-simple story became even more complicated.

 

With more than $50,000 raised from the financial campaign, Dominique plans to secure a home for Robbie. But does he want that? Did he ever ask for anything more than the dignity of helping a lost, scared young woman?

 

Did contributors to this campaign believe that handing over $4.60 was enough to absolve them of any further responsibility for connecting with marginalized people? Or, on the other hand, did story of this campaign subtly say to readers that no simple gesture, no small human exchange can possibly be enough? If it can’t be a BIG gesture, will they choose not do anything at all?

 

Robbie’s offer was made with his heart, and all the money he had. When Dominique told this simple story it ultimately moved 4800 people to think for moment about something we seldom acknowledge: the possibility that a person who has “nothing” nevertheless has “enough” to offer to another.

 

It’s a pity that Dominique didn’t have enough faith in Robbie’s generosity. It’s a shame she didn’t believe that her own gratitude was enough. It’s too bad she couldn’t trust that an invisible momentum of grace was already making itself felt, was changing the world in minute ways, without any marketing campaign on its behalf.

12 replies
  1. Nancy Thurston
    Nancy Thurston says:

    Your are right on.

    Good intentions are not enough. Stepping in with only one perspective–especially if it flows from our big hearted desire to “help”–often leads to an outcome far different than what was envisioned. Thank you for speaking so clearly and truthfully about the messages that are so often unconscious (and potentially hurtful) in our actions.

    Reply
  2. Margaret Bendet
    Margaret Bendet says:

    Hi Cynthia, you’re absolutely correct that walking for a night in another person’s moccasins does not give you their life story–yet to try to do so seems like a first step from pity to compassion. I very much appreciate your pointing out the inequality of the gifts given: Robbie’s $4.60 and everyone else’s. If we would all give the equivalent of Robbie $4.60, no one would be homeless or hungry.

    Reply
  3. Daniel Goldsmith
    Daniel Goldsmith says:

    As a friend once told me when I was penniless in SE Asia, “ you can never know poverty”. Same with homelessness. Still I’m curious & take the time to talk with the homeless, like the poet who used to speak at Ken’s Market in Fremont, and was forced to move his shtick to Bell Town.
    You speak of this event from a depth of experience as do I. The “tweaker” who told me she’d just like to buy shoes for her children, hooted in joy at the gift I gave her. She probably didn’t spend all the money on shoes but that’s not the point. It was the need I was responding to, not the possible outcome. Taking the time to recognize the homeless in any way is its own outcome.
    The days of crowd sourcing make my youthful shenanigans seem miniscule; but the effort is only misspent if the parties don’t learn something from the experience. I’m sure the homeless man didn’t expect anything; no real gift is given with that expectation. Dominique is in a poor position to have any perspective of the variations of life; that’s the liability of youth.
    What different is Dominique’s gesture than that of her own country’s willingness to destroy a society in order to replace its values with their own? For the good of that country’s citizenry. I’ve seen the results in Viet Nam, Haiti and the Dominican Republic. If there’s a problem with this story it’s the fairy tale expectation that this is the way you change a society. We all know better. It happens one conversation at a time.

    Reply
  4. Chris Schacker
    Chris Schacker says:

    My friend, you paint a bleak picture here. Robbie’s generosity stands on its own. Dominique may have gone overboard in your view, but why do you dis her desire to show her gratitude? How do you know she didn’t ask Robbie if receiving $50K to his $4.60 gift was an insult? How do you know having shelter in the form of a home which he could possibly share with others was not welcome? You put down her effort to spend a night on the streets because she doesn’t have to. Why are you so angry?

    Each of us shows gratitude in our own way. Some people don’t show gratitude at all – or thnk they can buy their way out of acknowledging suffering. And there are folks who may offer help in a misguided way. And there are folks who do the best they can straight from the heart
    .

    Of course, Robbie is ‘enough’. So is Dominique.

    Reply
    • Cynthia Trenshaw
      Cynthia Trenshaw says:

      Hopefully what you read in the blog was less anger than an injection of realism.

      Granted, the article was opinionated, which I believe essays and blogs are meant to be, in order to stimulate thinking and dialogue – and this one certainly did! (If there was a shadow of judgment in the blog as well as opinion, well that’s a personal flaw I’m working to lessen.)

      The beautiful thing about the story of Dominique and Robbie is that it gave so many people a look at a contemporary miracle: for a moment, on a street somewhere in England, there was a breach in the boundary line that sets off the margins; when they met in that breach Robbie got to exercise his natural generosity and Dominique got to exercise her courage and her gratitude. This rare exchange was inspiring to all who experienced it vicariously.

      What I object to is the direction in which that miraculous inspiration took the story.

      Let’s imagine, as you suggest, that Robbie does get his house, in a lower-middle-class neighborhood. He turns out to be a fine neighbor who mows his lawn every Saturday and plants primroses every winter. And let’s imagine that his homeless friends whom he’s invited to live with him are model guests. Nevertheless, who do we imagine, in this scenario, will pay the monthly mortgage? Who will fix the roof, pay the plumber, buy the groceries for Robbie and his friends? Will his new neighbors be kind about his mental and/or addictive illness (statistically Robbie has one or both)? Will an overworked social services case manager have the time and inclination to hover over this case (maybe because of Robbie’s moment of fame)? Or will The Campaign have set him up for shunning, eviction, repossession, and the disappointment/judgment of all who thought Robbie had been “fixed” by their generosity?

      I propose that we imagine another scenario. What if we took that $50,000 (probably it’s more by now), and, first, bought Robbie a new down-filled sleeping bag and some sturdy camping equipment, and a convenient and secure locker in which to store his things during the day? What if we then set up a credit arrangement with a nearby hotel so that whenever he wanted Robbie could have a couple of days out of the weather, a bed off the ground, a shower. Even a seedy single-room-occupancy hotel would offer that much. And while we’re at it, let’s set up a credit arrangement with a couple of local coffee shops, and maybe a thrift store so Robbie could have the freedom of choice about meals and clothes from time to time? And because he’s naturally generous, maybe he could treat his friends sometimes from his accounts. How about if we ask Dominique to administer these accounts, so she could check in with Robbie from time to time to see how he’s doing?

      Or here’s another idea. What if each donor to the Robbie Campaign did instead what I’ve seen done in Oakland CA: In honor of “The Breaching of the Margins by Robbie and Dominique” each person moved by the story could purchase gift certificates for nearby grocery stores, thrift stores, restaurants, hotel stays, then go to the streets where the homeless hang out and personally distribute the certificates – pay it forward and experience the miracle of The Breach themselves!

      Thanks for your response, Chris. This has been a good exercise for me. Given that I have no idea how such things work in England, and given that The Robbie Campaign is a done-deal, these are just some of my dreamings about what might really make a positive difference for Robbie, whom I’ve come to love through all this thinking about him!

      Reply
      • Chris Schacker
        Chris Schacker says:

        Dear (and I mean dear) Cynthia,

        Both of your scenarios are indeed richer in their potential for upsides for Robbie in terms of promoting his choices by providing a wider arena than; “Here’s a house”. Your dreams spread a larger landscape in which Robbie (and his friends) can navigate. But both of them suppose the $50K (or more) is available to him. So it seems Dominique’s money-raising effort is not a culprit; but rather offers greater positive possibilities than Robbie had. Especially if innovative applications of the money are considered – such as yours.

        I think there are (at least) two major lessons in the story:
        First, the miraculous moment when Robbie gives all the money he has to Dominique and Dominique is deeply touched by his generosity. That’s the moment to savor.

        Second, Dominique values Robbie’s offer so much, she not only doesn’t forget it and simply move on, but actually takes some action more potent than a verbal “How nice of you”.

        Please keep blogging. Keep being your wonderful self. You make me consider more than just what’s in front of me.

        Chris

        Reply
  5. Eileen Soskin
    Eileen Soskin says:

    Wow! This story plays out again and again in small and big ways. “We” forget to go outside of ourselves to truly understand (and be grateful) for other people as they are not “as they are not like me”. Beautiful response, Cynthia.

    Reply
  6. Mike Trenshaw
    Mike Trenshaw says:

    So I completely understand what you are saying. She would have been more generous in giving her time and companionship rather than the money. But we live in a society where ‘money fixes everything’ and that is the ultimate cure. How would you suggest she should have approached it? If we are unable or unwilling to just hang out with Robbie, do we just say thanks and move on? What if that little voice inside us is saying “you can help!” I have my own ideas, but it was never my ‘mission’ like it was for you especially down in the Tenderloin.

    Enlighten me/us!

    Reply
  7. Johnny Palka
    Johnny Palka says:

    I also saw this story on Daily Good and was moved by it. I think you raise good points, Cynthia, but perhaps there are other ways of looking at them. None of us know anything about Robbie, so we have no idea how Dominique’s efforts affected him. In the absence of any information, it seems a bit harsh to judge Dominique so negatively. As for spending a night out on the street, perhaps you are right about its being insulting. On the other hand, is it so different from people shaving their heads to express support for someone undergoing chemotherapy? I don’t know. I do know that church youth groups, for example, have spent nights out under cardboard as a learning experience. Your perspective had never occurred to me before but, as you say, the situation is complicated!

    Reply
    • Cynthia Trenshaw
      Cynthia Trenshaw says:

      Johnny, you’re right. My comment on Dominique’s overnight stay on the streets was a cheap and unnecessary shot. Indeed, I’ve experienced really fine programs, the best among them Faithful Fools in San Francisco (http://www.faithfulfools.org/#!street-retreat/cifi) that immerse folks into the culture of The Tenderloin. They’ve been around for decades, however, and the people of the streets trust what they are doing and why. The folks who daily have to “live rough” do, however, remain suspicious and resentful of those who may be adventure-seekers who come for a night and declare that they have now “experienced homelessness.”

      Take a peek at my (long) comment to Chris, below, to see some additional thoughts.

      Reply
  8. Julie D. Keefer
    Julie D. Keefer says:

    Hi Cynthia! I particularly like your last statement about” the momentum of grace making itself felt and changing the world…. through such acts of generosity.
    if only all our hearts and minds would remain open to the vulnerable truth of our dependence on grace for any good our lives seek to generate might we know and live from the abundance and generosity reflected in this street man. Thank you for honoring the generous act of grace flowing through this man.

    Reply

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