As a young teen from a small Southern town I had no experience with life on the street in a large city such as Dallas and knew absolutely nothing about panhandlers. According to Dictionary.com the definition of “panhandler” is one who accosts passers-by on the street to beg money from them. I met my first panhandler on January 1, 1955 on a Dallas street corner. The incident impacted me for years, and I still deal with attitudes toward the poor and homeless which were formulated in my heart as a result.
I have written of my love for the Arkansas Razorbacks which dates back to my Bubba playing football for the Razorbacks from 1946-1948. He was a high school All-American tackle for the El Dorado Wildcats which resulted in a full scholarship to play tackle for the Razorbacks in the late 1940’s. He sustained a career-ending knee injury during his sophomore year and was unable to play in no more than two or three varsity games. Unfortunately I was never able to see him play in a Razorback uniform, but that did not dull my love for the team.
I was thrilled beyond words during the Christmas holidays in 1954 when the parents of a friend invited me to join them for a trip to the Cotton Bowl on New Year’s Day. For the first time in years the Razorbacks had won the Southwest Conference title in football and received the automatic bid to play in the Cotton Bowl against Georgia Tech, the Southeast Conference champions. The invitation to see my team play in this huge game was a dream come true. We were to spend one night in a downtown hotel, attend the game which began at 1 P.M. and return to El Dorado the same day. The events which took place on the morning of the game have overshadowed in my memory everything else which happened.
Following the six hour drive to Dallas on the eve of the game it was difficult for me to sleep in a strange hotel, on a bed with a sagging mattress and the excitement of my first Cotton Bowl game streaming through my mind. I don’t remember sleeping at all, but arose completely refreshed and energized. Following breakfast I wanted to walk outside in front of the hotel and enjoy the noise of the crowd while joining in the standard Razorback cheer, “Wooo – pigs – sooie!! I didn’t stray far from the hotel entrance for fear of getting turned around in this unfamiliar setting and perhaps not being able to find my way back to the hotel before leaving for the stadium. There were no cell phones then.
All of a sudden a bedraggled street person approached me and began speaking. He appeared to be in his 50’s in age with a two to three day-old beard and reeking of body odor, tobacco and cheap wine. He said, “Sonny, is there any way you can help me?” I felt compassion for him since I had seen Pop help and treat men like this in his medical practice in El Dorado. I meekly said, “I will if I can.” He said, “I haven’t eaten in two days and am so hungry. Could you give me some money for food?” I thought this was something I could do because Pop had given me ten dollars for extra-spending money. In today’s economy ten dollars would be equivalent to fifty dollars.
I reached into my pocket and pulled one of the two five dollar bills and handed it to this supposedly hungry man, and he grabbed my hand to shake it and thanked me three or four times. As I watched him disappear into the growing crowd I assumed he was headed to some near-by restaurant to have his first meal in days. For the first time in my life I had actually been the agent of help for a hurting man, and the feelings I had deep within me were so gratifying. I kept thinking, “How great is this to feed a hungry man and see a Razorback game the same day!”
Within fifteen minutes the crowd within several blocks of the hotel was filling the sidewalks, and I was preparing to go back to the hotel when I spotted a scene which stunned me. Within twenty feet of me I saw the same man talking with three of four men, and thought he must be asking them for money also. I got close enough to see in his hand was a huge wad of money which looked like several hundred dollars. I heard him ask the men how many points would they give him on the upcoming game. He was placing bets on the Cotton Bowl game and a very small part of the money he was betting was one half of all the money I possessed. In trying to provide food for him I gave him money to gamble. I did not have the courage to confront him for fear he might hurt me. If he would rob a kid like me, he probably would have no qualms about beating me up.
I went around the corner where I couldn’t be seen and cried for several minutes. My tears and broken heart turned to anger and resentment, and I told God I would never again in my life give so much as a penny to a street bum. The incident so wounded me toward the homeless and street-people I kept the promise for years.
Cathy has helped me immensely in this area because she has such a loving and generous heart for the disadvantaged. I am not as stingy as I once was but still not as generous as I should be. In thinking what Jesus said about helping the helpless He said, “As you have done it to the least of these, you have done it to Me.” Because my heart was pure that day in Dallas in my intent to give, I believe Jesus credited it to my account of giving. What the panhandler did with it was his responsibility and not mine. The Lord Jesus has been patient in making me a more cheerful giver.
Wow, I didn’t see that coming- addicted to gambling. I feel strongly about giving money to those on the street, realizing that most of the time we are just enabling their addiction. But, Jesus calls us to feed the hungry. As I see it, we have a choice to make- either give them some food or take them to eat. When I was in Monroe, my office/loft apartment was on the Ouachita River and the railroad tracks. We saw a lot of “urban outdoorsmen” (PC for homeless men) so I started putting together emergency food packs- gallon baggies full of non-perishables. Those only looking for money put the word out to not waste your time begging at that building. This made things much safer for my secretary who was often there alone. And for those who were truly hungry, many came back for more. By the way, my old blue Ford van I had back in high school became a homeless shelter of sorts.
That was a great way to handle the situation with “urban outdoorsmen” in Monroe. We didn’t have many in El Dorado as you well know, but Cathy led our family in serving through The Soup Kitchen at the Salvation Army and that began the process in me of helping the helpless. You need to write some experiences of life in the old blue Ford van.
Yes, I must! Even though it was a hippie van back in the day, the only activity that went on back in the back of that van was praying and hauling dirt bikes. Some called me “Camel Knees” for always asking buddies to go pray in the back of the van. One time, my buddy Bruce (now a Methodist minister) went to pray for a friend preaching at a little Baptist church. I knelt down to pray and heard RRrrrippp… my jeans split in the seat. We sat on the back row but at the end, our buddy called out “Brother Todd, Brother Bruce, come down front to pray with these people making decisions for Jesus tonight!” I walked down there with tiny steps fearing I’d look like a whitetail deer going down the aisle. Thankfully, no one was in the choir loft!