Every time I go to the supermarket there is a guy selling socks in the parking lot. It’s not always the same guy, but he always says the same thing: “Hello, my friend…” and then elicits handouts with a combination of smiles, hand gestures and appeals to the goodness of god.
Sometimes I give him spare change. Once I gave him a banana, for which he seemed grateful. I’m sorry for his predicament (he’s likely a refugee from a war-torn place), but I try not to let myself become an easy target for people begging for money, either. Maybe this is a holdover from my New York days.
Today we had a brief conversation. It went like this: “Hello, my friend!”
“Ah, god is good, is he not?”
“No, he’s not. You should thank people who have helped you out, not god.”
“But doesn’t god help you, my friend?”
“He’s never done anything for me.”
“Why don’t you believe in god?” he asked.
“Because he doesn’t exist!” I said gleefully. I made sure to smile, too, so he could be sure that he was speaking to a happy atheist. (Maybe secretly I was hoping he’d take a swipe at me. To his credit, he didn’t.) Then we got in the car and drove off.
Later, I asked my wife if I’d been too hard on the man. She replied that he came from Africa and had seen who knows what horrors before embarking for Europe. He may have lost his family and possessions along the way. He’d probably come from a country where life was hell, and seen things that would make us shudder. My little quip wasn’t going to cause a breakdown in him.
Fair enough. I wasn’t going for that, anyway. I was just expressing mild outrage at the idea of a person who depends upon the kindness of strangers but can’t thank them directly. Instead, he thanks “god” – the same all powerful god, no doubt, who surveys his perpetually war-trashed African homeland with such an approving grin.
You can’t have one without the other, can you?