Sam the Hermit. "Sam the Hermit," has lived on the streets of our community for as long as I have lived in it. Sam, in the early years of my ministry in Los Angeles, when he was lucid of mind and approachable, was very instructive about urban life in general, and my neighborhood, in particular. Sam never asked for anything; he kept to himself and attended to the welfare of his faithful companion, his dog. You could often see him rummaging for food in the dumpsters of nearby supermarkets or restaurants. As such, his appearance did not invite contact with him (I think he wanted it that way).
One afternoon, I went to a sandwich shop to have lunch with a colleague. I had more than my fill of the order, so I packed the extra sandwich in a paper bag to eat later. As I returned to my office on foot I came upon Sam. He was sitting against the fence with his dog, seemingly enjoying the sunshine. I thought about the remnant of the sandwich I carried in the bag. Couldn't it be better used to feed the hungry than indulge my taste buds? I offered my surplus to Sam.
Sam took my bag without comment and opened it to look inside. Then he closed the bag and handed it back to me saying that he did not want it. I was taken by his response: How could he refuse such an act of charity; how dare he reject a kind offer of something he certainly could use, I thought. Apparently sensing my thoughts or seeing the offended expression on my face, he declared, "Why don't people ever ask what I need?!
"Why don't people ask what I need?" rang in my ears. It was not that he was particular about what he ate, he just could no longer eat whatever he wanted or found. Sensing my perplexity, Sam went on to explain himself. Over the years living on the streets had taken a toll on him; eating food from various sources had damaged his digestive system. Furthermore, should some "kind soul" offer him something that he could not easily digest he would feel obligated to take what was offered to appease the conscience of the benefactor. Then he would either have to find another "poor soul" and share his bounty or throw it away. Neither option was tenable to him: He did not have the energy or time to go look for a potential beneficiary nor did he feel it right throwing food away (food that usually was not healthy even for his dog) and carrying the food around did not make sense as it might spoil before encountering someone who could appreciate it. Everyone, he continued, just assumed what he needed or was good for him. They looked at him and assumed certain needs that they would take care of. No one, he declared, EVER ask for HIS input.
Humbled, I meekly asked, "What do you need, Sam?" It would be a question I have asked thousands of times since that afternoon and will continue to ask; not "What can I do for you that will meet MY need?" but "What do YOU need?"