The Knock at the Door


I had just finished dinner with my family when there was a knock at the door. A disheveled-looking man introduced himself as “Vernon,” but I didn’t shake his outstretched hand. “What can I do for you, Vernon?” I asked uninvitingly. “Listen man,” he said, “Normally, I would never do this . . .”

As he began to tell his story, I was prepared to be underwhelmed. Needless to say, I’ve heard it all before. It sort of comes with the territory in an inner-city neighborhood like ours.

But Vernon was different. He said he just needed a few dollars for bus fare. He had been using crack, and it was taking a tremendous toll on him. He decided to change, so he called a local rehabilitation center. The workers told him they would admit him if he could find a way to get there.

I don’t know why, but the more I listened, the more I softened. Maybe it was because he was honest about his drug problem. It seemed bold to ask for money after admitting to having an addiction.

I told Vernon to wait while I went inside to see what I could do. A few minutes later I emerged with a plastic bag full of change that we had lying around. From what I could tell it was mostly pennies and nickels. “There’s not much here,” I said. “But it should be enough to get you on the bus.”

I was content to leave it at that. He had what he came for, and I wanted to get back to my family. Then he broke down crying. “I can’t take this anymore!” he sobbed. “I’m so hungry . . . so thirsty.”

We had just finished dinner, and the leftovers were warm. I again told him to wait while I prepared a container of food, a plastic fork and a bottle of water.

Vernon thanked me and turned to leave. I was still a bit skeptical even as I watched him go. I replayed the exchange several times in my head, looking for any evidence that I had been duped. I even fought back feelings of fear as I wondered if he was just casing our house for a break-in later.

I had a choice that day. I could have ignored the knock. I could have refused to give him anything. I could have treated him like the bum I assumed he was. But as a follower of Christ I believe that we are called to care for the “least of these” in any way we are able.

Our willingness to help is often deterred by our fear of the unknown. How do we know our offering won’t be used for drugs? How do we know we’re not being lied to? How do we know we aren’t just enabling professional panhandlers? The fact is that oftentimes we don’t know. And that uncertainty often keeps our hearts hardened and our hands in our pockets.

Recently, I was at the office when the phone rang. “Hey, you’ll never guess who just stopped by,” my wife said. “Vernon!”

It took a minute to register the name. I had all but forgotten him. Vernon had come back, looking much healthier and better dressed. He told my wife that he had just gotten out of rehab and was clean and sober for the first time in 15 years. He had a whole new perspective on life, and he stopped by to thank us for helping.

As it turned out, some leftover food, a bottle of water and a handful of nickels had given Vernon the chance to change. All I had to do was open the door.

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