I always cringe when our convent doorbell rings after 10 o’clock, as it did the other night. It’s not in fear that a terrorist or some shady character might be outside. Rather, it’s the scenario that I feel certain will unfold as soon as I open the door. I have played a part in the same scene many times. The person who rang the doorbell will tell me that no one answered at the rectory, that he lives in Wheeling or Erie or Johnstown and was in Pittsburgh to visit a sick relative here, that there is not enough gas in the car for him to get home, and could I please give him a mere $15 or $20. So I answered the door hesitantly, not looking forward to the encounter I expected.
It began almost as I had imagined. Not a man, but a woman, probably in her late 40’s, told me that she had been to the rectory, but no one answered and she needed help. She had been to a local hospital for tests and the friend who drove her from Meadville didn’t have enough gas in the car to drive home and neither of them had enough money to buy some.
I mentally noted the variation on the usual theme: there was no sick relative, and it was the storyteller who was ill. She assured me that if I could just give her $10, she would mail it back to me. I told her that I had heard similar stories many times, had given the person money that had never been paid back and that it was therefore difficult to believe her story. With tears in her eyes, she explained that she had serious physical problems, insisted she was telling me the truth and promised that she would prove it to me. I asked her to wait a few minutes and left her standing on the porch while I went upstairs to decide what to do.
The untrusting voice inside me began warring with the kinder, perhaps more gullible one. The former reminded me that I had been taken in more times than I could count; the latter kept suggesting the possibility that, just this once, the person might really be telling the truth. I thought of those stories from elementary school religion class about Jesus showing up at someone’s door in the guise of a beggar and being turned away.
What matters, my charitable voice said, is our willingness to be generous, not what the person does with the money; it isn’t our task to determine who is deserving and who not. I remembered someone telling me that just as we don’t ask friends to whom we give gift certificates what they will buy with them, neither should we be concerned about how someone who is poor uses the money we give them.
My more skeptical voice occasionally interrupted my kinder thoughts to stress how many times I had been in the same situation before, had trusted the person and been deceived. It reminded me, too, of how painful it would be to tell my friends that I had been duped again.
Finally I decided that I’d rather err on the side of trusting too much instead of too little. I went to the door and gave the woman the money. As I did so, however, I condescendingly and inaccurately informed her that, if she were not telling the truth, she was responsible for my becoming even less trusting of others’ stories and less likely to help someone who actually was in need.
She left with many words of thanks and promises to prove to me that her story was true. I decided, then, that it didn’t really matter. I had made the decision, right or wrong, and it was over. Since no one else was home that evening, I was relieved to realize that I might not ever have to tell anyone that I had fallen for the same old story one more time. About 15 minutes later, the doorbell rang again. My immediate thought was that the woman had come back to tell me that $10 wouldn’t buy enough gas to get them all the way to Meadville.
I was right; it was the same woman at the door. What I was wrong about was why she had returned. With a smile on her face, she handed me the receipt for a $10 purchase of gas from the station a block away. When I told her with some chagrin that I was sorry for doubting her, she brushed away my apology, said that she understood and asked me for a hug and for prayers. She said again that she would return the money as soon as she could. I told her not to and suggested that instead she use it to help someone else in need. “O.K., I’ll keep the kindness moving,” she said and walked away smiling. I found myself smiling too.
Though she left our front porch a few evenings ago, that woman has not yet left my mind or my prayer. When something like this happens to a friend of mine or to me, my friend always asks, “What is the learning we should glean from this?” The obvious lesson from this event is surely about my becoming more trusting and less judgmental.
But there is more. My encounter with the woman at the door was as much about grace as about trust. I had answered the door with a very skeptical attitude about the honesty of any unexpected evening caller asking for money. I had also spoken to the woman in a patronizing way. I could easily have turned her away with nothing. Yet despite my jaundiced outlook, God had gratuitously given me the grace to provide the woman with what she needed and then rewarded me a hundredfold with her honesty.
The lesson is one I have tried to comprehend many times before—that God does not love us and grace us with gifts because we are good or deserving, but because God’s graciousness is indiscriminate. Would that I could answer the door the next time with a similar attitude.