Larry DePrimo couldn’t have predicted the attention he’d get over what might seem a rather simple act of kindness. On Nov. 14th, the 25-year-old NYPD cop found a panhandler going barefooted on a frigid New York night and decided to buy him a new pair of $100 boots. The moment was captured on camera by an Arizona cop visiting the Big Apple, and the photo quickly went viral on Facebook with nearly a million “likes” and “shares”.
It’s just the kind of heartwarming story people love to hear this time of year, isn’t it?
But was it too good to be true? It appears many of those inspired by the story were quickly jaded when news reports in the last day revealed the panhandler was not in fact homeless, and has a history of arrests for lewdness, assault, and possessing a controlled substance. He was also spotted after the fact still walking barefoot.
“That’s exactly why I don’t give money to beggars,” I can hear people saying. Doesn’t it just fit that typical image of the panhandler running off with his pocket change to buy booze and drugs?
I know I’ve struggled with jadedness myself about giving to panhandlers after a couple instances when I knew someone had taken advantage of my generosity.
But I was struck recently by a story about Bishop Fulton Sheen. It was related by his niece Joan Sheen Cunningham in a September interview with Catholic World Report:
Since he was known for his generosity, people would often come up to ask him for money, telling him how they were down on their luck. He’d hand them $20. I’d ask him, “How do you know that they’re not putting you on; that they really need help?”
He’d answer, “I can’t take the chance.”
Obviously we don’t want to be giving money to someone who we know will misuse it. That’s irresponsible. But shouldn’t we give people the benefit of the doubt?
The Catholic Church has a long tradition of giving to beggars. I think of St. Francis of Assisi selling off his father’s expensive fabrics to give the money to the poor, or St. Martin of Tours cutting his cloak in two to clothe a beggar. The lives of the saints are filled with these kinds of tales.
I also think about the spiritual counsel of mystics like the Servant of God Catherine Doherty, who founded Madonna House, an apostolate dedicated to the poor. Her Little Mandate, which she believed to be inspired, opens by saying: “Arise — go! Sell all you possess. Give it directly, personally to the poor.”
Of course, any time we give something of ourselves to another person, there’s a vulnerability there. We take the risk that they are going to reject us. I’m sure the saints struggled with the same issue; I can’t see it being a new problem.
During my undergrad at Our Lady Seat of Wisdom Academy, I took an excellent course on Bl. John Paul II’s theology of the body taught by the parish priest. One class we were talking about human relationships and how love, both in and outside of marriage, involves a mutual self-gift: I give myself to you and you give yourself to me, in one sense or another depending on the type of relationship.
“But,” asked one of the students, “what happens when one person makes that gift to the other person, reaches out to them, and the other person just totally rejects it?”
“Well, that’s the Cross,” the priest said.
Christ, the God of the universe, gave Himself to us when he deigned to become just a little piece of His creation. He gave Himself, as we read in today’s Gospel reading at Mass, in healing the lame and the blind, and then feeding the four thousand.
And then what did we do? We crucified Him. The mystery of the Cross is that it was in our very rejection of Him that Christ finally poured out His whole life for us.
I don’t know officer Larry DePrimo. I don’t know the barefooted panhandler or why he’s still going around without boots. But if Mr. DePrimo was betrayed, if his gift was rejected to use instead for ill purposes, then I’d say on some level he’s had an encounter with the Cross.
So I’m getting some grocery store gift cards. Next time I meet a beggar, presuming there’s no solid reason to doubt his motives, I will offer what I can, pray for him, and leave it in God’s hands. If he misuses the gift, well, that’s the Cross.