Panhandling with the Silent Child

Panhandling with the Silent Child March 25, 2013


The sermon wasn’t particularly in-depth. What is there to say on Psalm Sunday, other than Jesus gave his all.

What will you give?

Tim was gone all weekend at a Key Club Convention in Seattle, so I didn’t have to worry about fixing anyone dinner. I made a quick run to Starbucks for the mandatory iced coffee. I had a long afternoon planned, wrapping up edits on the upcoming NYT bestseller — Mother of Rain. (aren’t I ever the Pollyanna?)

As I headed east, toward home, I glimpsed at a young couple with a child in a stroller panhandling on the corner of the major highway that runs north-south through town. I just wanted to go home. Drink my coffee. Fix my edits.

I didn’t make it half-a-block before I turned the car around.

Dang it all, that Hugh Hollowell & the Love Wins ministry, has ruined me forever. I can never just mind my own beeswax any more. I can never ignore the poor, never pretend like they aren’t right there, box-top in hand, begging: “Anything helps. God Bless.”

I pulled my car into McDonalds parking lot. Walked through the drive-thru — the quickest route to the corner where the couple stood. Yes. Everybody saw me. Geeish.

“Hi, I’m Karen,” I said, offering my hand to the girl standing behind the stroller.

“Hi,” she said, and offered me her name. I did the same to the fellow standing there. He, too, gave me his name. Then, I squatted down in front of the child, who was staring blankly, at the endless line of traffic creeping by, staring at her.

Her name is Destiny.

What else?

She did not smile, did not speak, only looked at me with the suspicion of a child who has seen too much already.

“What kind of help do you need?” I asked, bluntly. I was prepared to do anything to get this babe off that corner.

“We need food,” her momma said.

“Do you know about Agape house?” I asked. It’s a well-supported local ministry that feeds the poor in this community. They’ve just built a local shelter for women and children.

“Yes,” she said. “But they aren’t open on Sunday.”

I remember Hugh teaching me that. The irony of the homeless and poor, that the one day they often most need help is the day that everybody is in church.

“Are you homeless?” I asked. “Do you have a place?”

“No,” she said. “We used to be but we have a place in the basement of our landlord’s house.”

“I don’t know for how long,” interjected the young daddy. “I lost my job and need a new one.”

“Well, why don’t you let me take you over here to Wal-Mart, buy you some groceries,” I offered. Hugh taught me that, too. Offer to buy the panhandler lunch instead of just handing them money. Spend time with them. Make a human connection. Learn their name. Their story. Build community.

The momma appeared totally shocked. The daddy unsure. “Our ride is coming for us soon,” he said, hesitating. Another woman, also in her Sunday go-to-meeting clothes joined us on the corner. She knew this couple by name. She knew their family, knew their story. It was clear from her heavy sighs that she was troubled. I introduced myself to her, too. She handed the daddy $10 and told  him, “Let the woman take you grocery shopping.”

“You can stay here,” I offered. “Continue to panhandle. I’ll take your wife — is she your wife? — and child to Wal-Mart. You can wait here for your ride. We’ won’t be long.”

“Okay,” he agreed.

Another passerby, “Everything okay?” he asked, through the passenger window. I told him I was taking the momma grocery shopping. “Okay. Good,” he said, handing me a wad of cash. “Use this.” 

I gave it to the daddy.

He slipped the cardboard sign into the dirty diaper bag. “I don’t want to be greedy,” he said. To his wife, he said: “I’ll wait inside McDonald’s for you.”

She followed me to my car, buckled the silent child into the backseat and herself into the passenger seat. I stuck the dirty stroller with the broken wheels into my trunk. I had no idea how she managed to push that baby anywhere in that stroller.

The baby’s hair was matted, unkept, uncombed. Her face dirty. Only her coat and shoes were clean. New. Some coats-for-kids program surely.

The first thing I put in the cart was a new stroller. I let the momma pick it out. She picked a Disney princess one, pink and green.

“I want you to grocery shop for anything you need,” I said. “Anything. Just pretend I’m not here.”

She stood in the yogurt aisle, unsure, unable to decide on putting anything in the cart.

“I’ve never done this,” she said. “Usually we have vouchers or they tell me how much I can have.”

“Honey, listen, just buy what you need. I’m not going to tell you what to buy.”

But in the end, I did, because she was overwhelmed, unable to decide. We got milk. Eggs. Yogurt. Cheese. Cereal. Chicken. Bread. Lunch meat. Sausage. Noodles.  Veggies. I told her how to make a quick and easy pasta salad.

“Sounds good,” she said.

“It is,” I replied. “One of my family’s favorites.”

We bought apples and cuties for the silent child, who had taken one of those cheese strings and eaten it lightening quick, like the hungry child that she was.

And toilet paper. Not the cheap kind but the same kind my family uses. I’m picky about toilet paper and peanut-butter and laundry soap. Tide. Jiffy. Angel Soft. When I end up poor, I hope somebody buys me good toilet paper.

We had to take the bad stroller out of the trunk for all the groceries to fit.

She does not have a GED. She’s pregnant again. She told me but I already knew that. There was that momentarily flash of anger in me. I have a daughter who has been unable to get pregnant. We are praying but we’ve been praying for three years now. I keep a pink dress in my closet. An Easter outfit I bought the granddaughter I don’t have yet. I pray for her by name. I beg God, literally beg him, heart pounding, weeping kind of begging to bless my daughter with child. She wants so badly to be a momma. I want so badly for her to know the joy of being a momma. It is the one thing in my life that I loved doing beyond all else.If the Spirit moves, would you pray that God bless my daughter with a child?

It hurts my momma’s heart to see people be careless with children. It angers me. But I refuse to do nothing about it. 


“Do you read to your daughter?” I asked. The girl never said a word. Only pointed and grunted when she wanted something. More cheese. The princess stroller.

“Yes,” the young momma said.

“Have you tried to get her into Head Start?”

“I’m on a waiting list,” she said.  

“If you need help getting her into Head Start, call me,” I said. “I’ll go with you to talk to them.”

And I gave her my phone number. She said she entered it into her iPhone but she didn’t. Her momma pays for her iPhone. She has a iPad too, she said. Her momma bought her that also.  Even the poor are wired these days.

“Take my number and call me the next time you need to go panhandle,” I said. “I’ll watch the babe. You know DHS could take the babe away if you panhandle on a busy street like that with a babe. There have been quite a few wrecks at that intersection. I’ll watch her if you need to panhandle.”

She told me that her father died when she was only 13, an “accidental suicide”.  Her husband’s parents were at an AA meeting. Meth users finishing up rehab — again. They’d lost custody of their two youngest girls, her husband’s sisters, and were trying to get them back. 

“Don’t tell this woman all that,” her husband chided her in McDonald’s parking lot as we waited for his parents to show up, give them a ride back to their apartment.

She argued with him. He walked away. I sat in the car, with the silent babe, who was eating tiny nutter-butters and grunting. My iced coffee had remained untouched.

“Do you know Jesus?” I asked the silent child.

She shook her head no.

“I am going to pray you do one day,” I said.

She held out a nutter-butter pinched between her tiny fingers.

Daddy came back, said maybe, if I didn’t mind, I could give them a ride to their place. They’d call his parents, let them know they hitched a ride home.

“Sure,” I said.”Of course, I’ll be glad to give you a ride.”

“Would you mind stopping at the store so I can get some cigarettes,” he asked.

“No problem,” I said.

“Would you mind buying them for me? I don’t have any ID on me.”

“I”m sorry,” I replied. “I can’t do that. My momma just died of lung cancer. She was a life-long smoker. I can’t buy you cigarettes.”

It’s okay to tell the poor that you can’t help, to set some boundaries. Hugh taught me that, too.
Daughter Ashley says I don’t have any boundaries. My son Stephan says it, too. I’m an embarrassment to them, the way I go up and speak to just anybody, anytime, anywhere. It’s like I have no sense of what’s appropriate. I know that’s true. I don’t. I only know one way to be — that’s to plunge headlong into life.

I do it all the time. It annoys some and enchants others. I’m too old to worry about what’s appropriate anymore.

I only know that at the end of the day, I want to be able to say I gave what I had.

I try to live my life spilled out

because I come from a place of overflowing.

A place where Jesus gave His all

without ever asking: Are they going to take advantage of me?

After we unloaded the groceries, and the daddy told me that I had been a huge answer to their prayers, the silent child walked around the front end of my car, and reached for me.

I knelt down and she hugged me.

When I pulled away, she cried.


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  • Beautiful, Karen. Just said a prayer for your daughter.

  • curtis

    Father, you said you love to give good gifts to your children. I ask that you would give Karen’s daughter a child in your perfect time. Give them the strength to trust you for that timing and to trust you. I also thank-you for your comforter the Holy Spirit present with them and completely empathetic to the cries of their heart, may their tears never run dry and their hearts be always sensitive in Jesus’ deep name

  • Another well-written story that reveals how broken our world is, and also what’s right in this world. Thanks, Karen.

  • Kim

    I’m crying, too. Praying for your daughter.

  • Gloria

    Another beautiful picture of God’s poetry Karen. You and Hugh continue to teach me through your words and actions. My prayers are already united with yours and those of my niece. She is going to be a wonderful mama one day!

  • Been praying for your daughter for a while and will continue. This is more than just a beautiful story. It’s action on behalf of God. This is just one of the reasons why you are a hero to me 🙂

  • Tom Dean

    oh dear God…thank you for believers in this world like Karen…she motivates and challenges and listens to you and isn’t afraid to be your hands and feet. May we all be like that…in Jesus name…

  • HisFireFly

    oh my, yes! my spirit is doing a little happy dance right about now

  • Steve T.

    Portrait of Jesus, Sister … as you do into the least of these … prayers for you, in healing and brokenness and the fullness of Shalom.

  • AFRoger

    Many, many facets to this story. Meth addict parents having children who have children leaves a generations-long trail of difficulties. Years ago, a local journalist provided some insight by writing about three categories of people on the street, the: 1) have-nots, 2) can-nots, and 3) will-nots. Even those categories “leak”; and on an individual basis, people are surely combinations of several–or all three. Starting in negative territory makes the upward climb out of poverty and bad decision making ever so much steeper.
    People often debate whether marijuana is a gateway drug to worse things. Worthwhile discussion. But we should certainly talk about tobacco as a gateway drug to poverty, especially considering what it costs these days. The homeless folks I deal with can only continue the addiction by buying pouches of loose tobacco and cigarette papers to roll their own. Every week after worship and Bible study when I sweep and mop I find loose tobacco on the floor where people have rolled up an evening’s supply while they have a chance to sit where it’s warm and dry. Two of them will have their lives cut short by decades very soon due to emphysema.
    And at the same time, a woman who is a now clean and sober alcoholic reminded me that the depths of being down can be so low that another person’s kindness can be lifesaving. “So that people can relate to hope, she said.” In other words, the entire concept of hope can be lost. Before one can ever have hope, and make the better decisions that one can only make when one HAS hope, the person first needs to believe that hope can even exist.
    Yesterday we had our annual memorial service for people who have died on the streets, by suicide, suicide by cop, murder, murder-suicide, accidents, mall shootings, and in a variety of other tragic ways. All local. Over a hundred names on the list. Praise God for them all, and for every person who in one way or another gave them a reason to relate to hope.

    • Over a hundred names? Shaking my head sadly. Invisible people…

  • Matias

    THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU! I’m overwhelmed. I took a time to pray for your daughter too. Thank you SO MUCH for this!

  • Greg

    Beautiful…Powerful…I pray that I could learn to be as inappropriate as you.

  • xyz

    Why is everyone giving all the money to the husband when the wife is the one going shopping?

    • They didn’t know. He was the one holding the panhandler sign. She would have to have walked away from the stroller to take the money. I’m sure they didn’t want her to do that.