The other day as I stood in the snow waiting for the post office to open this woman who was probably in her late 50s approached me on the street and asked me for money. I’ve learned quickly over here to almost never, with few exceptions, give money to people. As in the United States or anywhere else, one can never be sure what a person’s real motives are. Most want to buy drugs, alcohol or cigarettes. But, indeed, there are people really and truly in need, so what does one do?
Normally I ask the person what they need the money for and then, if it’s reasonable, offer to go buy it for them. Normally, those with genuine needs readily accept this, while those looking for other things quickly reject me. I’ll never forget the shock on a man’s face recently when he chased after me asking me for money for bread. I just so happened to have bought a loaf and quickly pulled it out of my bag and gave it to him. He hesitantly thanked me, but I could tell the last thing he expected me to do was whip out a loaf of bread and hand it to him. Boy did I ruin his day.
This lady who approached me, however, seemed quite different. She was very obviously not drunk, and seemed to be in her right mind. Judging from her age she was probably already considered a pensionerka, a woman who is already receiving a government pension. In 2009 the average pension was 5000 rubles per month, about $165. This year it was raised to an average of 8000 rubles per month, about $265. Though most pensioners already own their property and don’t pay rent, they still pay bills which can easily run $40 per month, and buy a transportation card that works on basically all the public transport systems. This also runs about $40. According to the new pension rate, this leaves about $185 a month to live on, and food over here isn’t cheap.
When she told me she needed money, I asked my normal question, “What do you need to buy?” She told me the name of a medicine that is pretty standard over here for aches and pains. I asked her how much it cost and she said “18 rubles,” about $.60. By this time I was starting to get the sense that she was not in this for the money. But all the same I tried to stay cautious. A pack of cigarettes over here can be purchased for as little as 12 rubles in some places. I told her that I almost never give money to people, but I’d be happy to buy her medicine for her. Right there by the post office was an apteka, a pharmacy. We walked in together, I discretely handed her a 50 ruble bill and waited back a bit. I watched as she bought exactly what she said she needed to buy and walked back to me to give me the change. By this time I could tell she was genuine. It was the end of the month and the little money she received from her pension had been used up. She was broke until March 1.
I told her to keep the change and then broke my “rule” by giving her 100 rubles. She thanked me profoundly as if I had handed her 100 dollars. Not wanting to miss an opportunity I asked her her name. “Lidia” she said. I asked her if she believed in God. She said yes, and then looked at me and asked, “Are you a Jehovah’s Witness.” I smiled and immediately answered “absolutely not!” She seemed relieved. I went on to ask her if she had ever read the Bible, to which she said that she had. I took just a few minutes simply explained the gospel of Jesus Christ to her. She listened someone tentatively but politely, and then thanked me.
I don’t know if I’ll ever see her again or not. These kinds of encounters are so brief, and, perhaps by our human perceptions, don’t accomplish much. But I believe in the power of the gospel and I believe in the power of the Holy Spirit to work in hearts. Bibles are readily available in Russia these days, and it is my hope that she will read the word and that God will work in her heart.