Long Street in Cape Town, South Africa is aptly named. The journey along this street from my Airbnb to the Waterfront takes around 30 minutes, and I walked it twice one particular day. As I hurried up the street that evening, tired from over six miles of walking and excited to curl up with a hot cup of tea and my leftover pizza, I had several unexpected conversations. During my walk up the street, six different people approached me, seeking financial help. Each started more or less the same way, “I’m so sorry to talk to you, boss. I don’t need cash.” In my head, I could hear the refrain I’ve heard from so many Southerners as we justify keeping our wallets in our pockets when encountered by those in need of what we have: “Well, it’s better I not. They might use the money for drugs or alcohol,” and indeed, drug use is rampant in Cape Town, or so I was told. Quickly, though, each person made such an excuse irrelevant. “I don’t need cash,” he or she would say. “I just need food. Can we stop in this store? Just some bread. Anything.” Even if they hadn’t clarified, my upbringing told me I needed to give anyway. “When Jesus said to give to those in need,” I recall my granddad telling me once, “he didn’t say to vet their intentions first.” Still, I also understand the importance of not facilitating addictions. Sometimes, it does actually feel like a dilemma. But, any justifiable hesitancy I might have had toward giving was made unnecessary by the request for food. How could I refuse someone asking for food, especially when I just had dined on sushi at the Waterfront, and not even because I was that hungry but more because I needed to justify using the WiFi?
Yet, the frequency of the requests built frustration in me. “I just wanna get to the house,” I kept thinking. “Why are they all picking me?” I suppose I was chosen because I was a white foreigner walking through the street with a backpack: clearly, I had money—“a walking ATM” a friend later told me. Each person had a heartbreaking story. Most stories included an infant needing feeding. Several times, tears accompanied the petitions. I found myself feeling manipulated. Even worse, though, I confess I found myself feeling inconvenienced.
The fifth person earnestly requested I buy him cornflakes. “Fine,” I thought. “I can do cornflakes.” At the convenience store counter, however, that box of cornflakes turned into a giant box of cornflakes, two cartons of milk, crackers, and three candy bars. The bill? $20. In the course of 20 minutes, I had given $45 dollars away. I wish I could say I embraced this as a privilege to be generous, but instead, I felt resentment brooding. Yet, each time I vented that resentment in my brain, another person walked up. Like clockwork. Though I’ve tended not to see the world in this way, it was as if God was saying, “Oh, you don’t appreciate these opportunities to be generous? Then here’s another.” I think somewhere Jesus said something along the lines of “to those who have been given much, much is expected.” Maybe that was Spiderman, I don’t remember. Either way, it seems true. I began to wonder if this was a divine challenge of discipleship, God wondering just how seriously I took Jesus’ words in Matthew 25 that he would be encountered among the least of these.
Just as my frustration was encouraging me to be rude, the final person walked up to me. I had just been rehearsing my rejection speech. I would be gentle but firm: “I’m very sorry, I know this is not your fault, but you’re the sixth person to ask me for money on this street, and I have no cash left. I’m terribly sorry.” It wasn’t true that I had no cash left; it would just be the lie I used to avoid giving more money. But this person caught me off guard. He told me he wasn’t begging; he was trying to earn a living for his family. He was an oil painter, and his pieces were indeed impressive. I thumbed through them and decided to support his work. As I made my selection, I noticed his name written in black on the bottom of the orange and red picture. It was Joshua, and I knew enough about Hebrew to know that Joshua is one way to translate Yeshua, the name the Jesus was actually called. The theology of the least of these in Matthew 25 has always been the core of my faith, and that day I found it tested. After allowing resentment to fester and offering sharp words to God through bitter, venting prayers, I then encountered a black man whose name was the same as Jesus’.
The Black Christ asked me to buy his painting in South Africa. More than money, I offered him resentment.
Kyrie eleison, Lord have mercy.
Michael T. McRay (M.Phil. Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation, Trinity College Dublin | at Belfast) is currently spending three months writing in Israel-Palestine, Northern Ireland, South Africa, and Rwanda as the Visiting Scholar for TCU’s new QEP project “Stories of Reconciliation.” He is the author of Letters from “Apartheid Street” and the forthcoming Where the River Bends: Considering Forgiveness in the Lives of Prisoners (Cascade, 2015), with a foreword by Desmond M. Tutu. He is the founder and co-host of Tenx9 Nashville Storytelling, and an adjunct instructor at Lipscomb University. You can follow him on his blog, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.