Grace of Godby Robert Gillis
Published in the Foxboro Reporter and Boston City paper, 12/2010

In my years working in Boston, I’ve seen many homeless people and people very down on their luck, and of course the scammers who pretend to be in need (such as the unforgettable woman in the weird hat who told me the same “Lost my purse and can’t go to the police” story twice in three months.

Scammers aside, homelessness and need are readily apparent in Boston (and also Foxboro), and I try to help when I can.

My “help” is very small; a little change, a sandwich or coffee, or some kind words. Many days, I don’t have the means to help, and I hope someone else can offer assistance. And to be honest, although I feel like a creep for doing it, there are days when I don’t want to face the problem — so I cross the street, or don’t make eye contact as I walk by. I feel bad doing that, but no one can help everyone, and many days I’m mired in my own concerns.

But on the giving side, I do try to help when I can. I’ve befriended a homeless man named John, who grew up in West Roxbury and has a wicked sense of humor. I like talking to him. I try to help him by buying the “Spare Change” newspaper he sells for $1.00 and cup of coffee when I can. Sometimes we just chat for a while. Another guy named Paul is often asking for help to get something to eat; I help him if I can. Of course, there are hundreds of others I can’t help.
But my sister and I were taught from a young age by Mom and Dad to be generous to those less fortunate. Much of that comes from how my parents were raised (to be generous and help others), and also from real-life experience: while never homeless or hungry, my family was on welfare for three years when Dad was too sick from his developing cancer, and Mom needed to take care of us because we were still little. We never went to bed hungry and always had heat, but we were poor.

The church (Saint Kevin) was very generous to us with toys and clothes at Christmas and other times. We’ve never forgotten that kindness. We have always tried to “Pay it forward.” Since that time, Mom continues to be generous to those in need and the church, and it’s a lesson she taught us well.

“There but for the grace of God go I,” many people say when they help others. One dictionary defines this saying as, “A recognition that others’ misfortune could be one’s own, if it weren’t for the blessing/kindness/luck bestowed by fate or the Divine,” and that’s my problem with the saying.

See, for me, if one says, “There but for the grace of God go I,” it implies that God has blessed the person saying that MORE than the person who is, say, sleeping in a doorway. We watch the news and see a fire or earthquake and say, “There but for the grace of God go I.”

While most people who say that are just counting their blessings and mean well, the fact that you were NOT in a disaster doesn’t mean God is favoring you more highly than anyone else. Bad things do happen to good people. No one who is injured or suffers a disaster has fallen from His grace. I think God works differently than that.

I look at, “There but for the grace of God go I,” as a message, a reminder, and a call to assist if possible.

To further illustrate my thought, take today’s real-life example. As I write these words it’s early afternoon on December 15. It’s 22 degrees outside. The wind-chill is 5 above. It is brutally cold outside, quite normal for this time of year.

A half hour ago I saw a woman standing on Arch Street asking for change to get something to eat. She’s for real; the scammers are not out in this weather. And NO ONE sleeps in a doorway outside in brutal winter by CHOICE.

I fished for some change in my pocket and it hit me: HELP HER.

So I gave her $10 for lunch. Ten dollars is far, far more than I hand out to anyone on a regular basis, but something about this situation said that was the right amount to give.

She thanked me, said, “God bless you,” and I wished her a Merry Christmas. She went to the deli and bought her lunch and went on her way.

I don’t relate this incident so you can what a great guy I am – I assure you I am not. But I had the ability to help someone in need, and just for this moment, make things a little better. I don’t have a solution to her life’s problems or homelessness, but I believe God’s grace directed me to the right place at the right time, where I had the ABILITY to do something, if only for a moment.

See, for me, it’s not, “There BUT for the grace of God go I,” it’s “There BECAUSE of the grace of God go I, to help if I can.” There, because of God’s grace, I took a left instead of a right, encountered that woman, and at that moment had funds in my pocket to help her.

None of us can change the world, cure hunger, stop war or solve the homeless crisis. Many of us don’t even have the resources to donate any money, or even time because of our own situation.

But thanks to God’s grace, we CAN perform small acts of kindness with each other, and that is a very good start, not just at this time of the year, but always.

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