Gendusa: The lesson from the old man in a faded suit…

Published 10:00 am Thursday, May 4, 2017

He was walking toward me on a side street in Charleston, SC.  I could see him from far away as his faded, old mocha brown suit hung loosely from his stooped shoulders.  His presence, such a contrast to the bright sun beaming down on the colorful window boxes that adorn Queen Street where the sweet scent of their flowers filled the morning air.

His black tie and white shirt were a contrast to his dark brown skin and graying black hair.  The threadbare suit seemed to swallow his thin frame.  He tipped his head as he approached, and then stopped to smile at the four friends who were visiting his town on this bright April day.

“Ma’am, do you think you could spare some change for a sandwich?”, he asked as he flashed a semi toothless smile.

I reached for my wallet, and realized I only had a dollar bill, a twenty, and some change.

I rustled through all the change and gave it to him along with the dollar.

The others in the group did as well.

“Thank you, ma’am”, the old man bowed his head and then ambled away.

The girls and I went on to a fine restaurant for brunch.  It was our last day in Charleston.  We had enjoyed three days of eating, sipping wine, laughing, walking, and touring in perfect weather.  It had been a great girl’s trip.

As I sat in the restaurant that morning, my mind returned to the man in the faded suit. “Why did I not give him the twenty? I didn’t have to order this brunch.  Lord knows I don’t need it! I should have given him the twenty and ordered toast and coffee!”, I said to myself as I bantered aloud with my friends about how fine our trip had been.

Charleston is known as the Holy City of America.  Charleston, with its church spires that rise to the heavens and are surrounded by the graves of Southern royalty.  Rainbow Row and the Battery evoking awe as one gazes upon the architectural splendor of beautiful homes.

Streets of cobblestone, exquisite food, and equally exquisite gardens create charm amid restored row houses and mansions.  The ocean glimmers in the sun as you spot Ft. Sumter in the distance.

Ft. Sumter, where the Civil War began.  This same ocean brought slaves onto the cobblestone streets to be sold to work on the plantations, tend the fine gardens and cook the rich food in the kitchens of those splendid houses.

After the civil war started on that fateful day in Charleston, after over 618,000 soldiers gave their lives, and after the slave markets were closed, Charleston experienced decay.

Earthquakes and neglect shook the spires of the churches and many of the mansions gave way to rubble and ruin.  It would take almost 150 years for Charleston to again be known as one of the best cities in America.

Racism, injustice, intolerance, insensitivity, and neglect will destroy a city and destroy us.  God teaches us that giving to the poor and being compassionate is far more honorable than living in a big house.  He has shown us time and time again through history that lack of compassion for others and decadence cause where we live and who we are to be reduced to dust.

Have we become so jaded by swindlers and criminals that we can no longer detect a person in need?  Have we become judge and jury of every life that passes by us because they are in faded suits or are different than us?

I realized as I sat in that fine restaurant that healing begins with me.  I must become more aware, with eyes wide open, to see and discern need in another human being.  I have been poor without a faded suit.  I have been alone on a crowded street without being homeless.  I, too, have begged to be noticed and longed to be loved without asking.

Yes, I worked my way through it, but what if opportunity had never knocked on my door?  Would I have become one asking for change on a street?

There are many who go by a rule to never give to someone on the street.  I understand the argument.  However, I can only say that when you feel a need in your heart to help even one person, it is from a higher power than a “rule”.

God says that the poor will always be among us and so will those that turn their eyes away from them.  Perhaps the sinner is not the one in the mocha suit, the sinner is the one that started to pass the old man by. The sinner is the one that gave only the change and not the twenty.  The sinner is me.

I am going back to Charleston one day.  I will walk down Queen Street and when I find my friend in the wrinkled shirt, old suit, with his toothless smile, I am going to thank him for teaching me a valuable lesson.

While richness and beauty surrounded me in the Holy City, holiness is found in giving to the outstretched hand of another.  Human kindness is the one thing that will keep Ft. Sumter quiet, the church spires looming to the sky, and keep all of us humble.

Meanwhile, I owe a man a $20 bill.

Lynn Walker Gendusa is a former resident and writer who currently resides in Roswell.