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Begging For Change: A Short Story About Misreading the Signs of Poverty

Were his teeth missing or were they just stained? If it was the latter, they were the darkest brown imaginable. It was also difficult to tell where his beard ended, and where the mat of his salt and pepper chest hair began. It was like the laws of physics ceased to exist in that bristled old mane; the hair was, at once, so dry it looked like you could snap the ends right off, while at the same time it always seemed sticky and damp.

No one knew who he was or when exactly he arrived, but he slept outside of the church every night in the shadows that crossed from the statue to the bell. Parishioners often complained to the pastor, “We did not give our hard earned money to this church to put that beautiful Saint Stephen statue up for some bum to make it his bed and bathroom every night.” They were correct in calling the statue his bed, for he did often fall asleep against it. However, the truth is, no one was really sure where he went to the bathroom; he never seemed to move much, yet he kept the area around him remarkably clean.

That being said, his filthy bare feet told a different story. His old Levi’s were like Swiss cheese – smelly and full of holes. And his button up flannel was always open baring his chest for all to see. You would likely be able to count all of his ribs if it weren’t for all of the dry-damp hair masking his malnourishment. Even still, most people did not look at him long enough to do any such thing. He was given a quick glance (if at all), and then that was it, the world went on with its collective business, never paying him too much mind (or paying him too much anything for that matter).

Most people never took the time to read the words written on his creased cardboard sign – it said: "Look deep within yourself and you will see me. Find it in your heart to change." If one were to truly consider these words, they would draw the likely conclusion that this man must have had a troubled past, and he simply wants the world to be a better place because of all of the hard lessons he had learned. If one were to look past his sallow countenance they would see a profound wisdom and sensitivity in his eyes.

The problem is that the people that do actually take the time to glance in his direction, do so so quickly that they never see him for who he actually is. What is more, they never actually read and/or consider the words etched on his cardboard. What happens instead is they look so fast, so quick, trying to hide from their own fears and inadequacies, that they only ever see the words “Look deep within yourself,” at the beginning of the message and then the word “change” at the end, and this results in them mistaking this man for a beggar. Oddly enough, he has never asked anyone for any money in all of his time there.

“I estimate he’s been here for at least four years now. What, are we never going to make him leave?” An incredulous Sister Martha asked Father Zack.

“Sister, I’m disappointed in you. How can we make him leave? Jesus taught a message of love and compassion for the poor. How can we turn away one of God’s children?”

“He makes the parishioners extremely uncomfortable. Here we are, we raise millions of dollars from our faithful community to build the most beautiful church in New England -- we fly architects, designers, wood workers, and artists from all over the world to build this monument to honor God, and provide a place of worship for our flock, and what we have is this…” she said, gesturing outside toward the statue of St. Stephen, “this blight on our church.”

Blight indeed, the pastor thought to himself as he stared at the old nun. “I’m sorry if our parishioners feel uncomfortable at the sight of the poor, but this man is doing nothing wrong. He has never asked anyone for anything. I cannot make him to leave. That is unchristian.”

“Never asked for anything!? He is a beggar. Have you seen his sign?”

“Have you seen it, Sister?”

The nun looked at the priest with anger and confusion in her tired eyes. She could have sworn the sign was asking for change.

In a manner of speaking, it was.


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