The secretary announced his arrival: “P.J., there is somebody here to see you.”
“Who is it?” I asked.
There was no response, but a moment later, the secretary stuck her head in the door and whispered, “Don’t know him, but he says he needs to speak with you. Says it’s urgent.”
I did not have a good feeling. Times were tough and the church had a steady stream of “customers” looking for help. There is nothing wrong with helping folks. Lord knows I want to help if I can, but how do I know if a person’s needs are legitimate? If I give somebody money, how will they spend it? On alcohol? Rent? Drugs? Food? Because I have no way of knowing, I usually offer a bag of food or refer the person to a local agency who has the expertise to evaluate the need and the resources to help if the need is real. Nevertheless, it is always a tough call. For those of us in the “church business,” our top guy’s challenging words haunt us: “I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink.” Therefore, for me to say “no” to anybody in need makes me feel like a big, old hypocrite.
“Send him in,” I said.
The man entered my office. He was well dressed and soft-spoken. “Hello Father, how are you?” He said.
That ruled out that he was a Methodist.
“I’m fine. Thanks for asking. What can I do for you?”
“Father,” he said, “I am trying to get home. Can you lend me 10 bucks for a bus ticket?”
I replied, “We really don’t have money for such things. Have you tried Crossroads?”
“Yes,” he said, “but they said they couldn’t help me. They offered me some food, but food is not what I need. I must get home. My wife is in the hospital and needs my help.”
I believed him. I don’t know why I believed him. I just did. I reached into my pocket, pulled out my wallet and gave him 10 bucks. “Here you go. Good luck. I hope your wife feels better.”
Tears came to his eyes. “Thanks, Father, I’ll pay you back.”
“I doubt it!” I thought. I always hear, “I’ll pay you back,” but I could not remember ever being repaid when I lent money to somebody who came in off the street. (It has happened one time since, but that is a story for another day.) They always took the money and ran.
“Don’t worry about it,” I said as he headed for the door.
“I DO worry about it,” he replied as he exited.
I got back to work and very quickly forgot about that man.
Several months later, my secretary stuck her head in the door and said quietly, “There is a man here to see you. He has been here before.”
I got up from my desk and went out into the main office. It was easier to say “no” if I was not cornered in my office. The man was waiting for me. He said. “Hi, Father, I want to repay my loan.”
I was stunned. I invited him into my office. He sat down in the chair next to my desk. He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a manila envelope, opened it and proceeded to count out 10 silver dollars. I picked one up. I forget the date on it, but I knew enough about coin collecting to know that one of those coins was probably worth $50 or more. “Is this your coin collection?” I asked.
“Yes it is. My wife’s medical care has left us broke. We don’t have insurance, but I didn’t want to wait any longer to pay you back. Somebody else might need some help.”
I did not know what to do. I did not want to take his coin collection, but I also knew that it was a matter of pride for that man to pay me back. I thought for a moment and then took one of the coins and pushed the other nine back toward him.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“George,” he replied.
“George,” I said, “you know and I know that this coin alone is worth more than the 10 bucks I lent you. Take the rest of them home or, if you wish, sell them for what they are worth to help pay for your wife’s care. I am going to keep this one in my desk drawer and, when times get better for you, c’mon back and I’ll trade your silver dollar coin for a $10 bill. Does that work for you?”
He thought for a moment. “That works,” he said. “Thanks.”
We shook hands and he left.
Months later, George made one final appearance. He came into my office, pulled out his wallet and gave me $10. I opened my desk drawer and gave him his silver dollar. “Glad things are better for you,” I said.
“Me, too,” he replied. We shared a smile. Nothing more needed to be said.
The guy from Nazareth didn’t say it, but he should have. Jesus should have said, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” I learned that lesson the day George walked into my office to repay his loan. Everybody has his or her own “cover.” Everybody has his or her own unique story.
George sure did.
I do, too.
And…so do you!
John E. Holt, Cotuit, MA