To describe my favorite off-leash dog park as “picturesque” would be to understate. Nestled against a backdrop of majestic, often snowcapped mountain peaks, its many trails wind through sagebrush and thickets. A swift creek feeds two natural ponds where, on warmer days, dogs love to romp.
This particular December afternoon was not what you would call a warmer day. The temperature had peaked at 40° Fahrenheit. Snow covered most of the ground. In one of the frigid ponds, a hardy Labrador retriever splashed joyfully about. I had just arrived with my two Alsatian shepherds, but they showed no interest in joining him. Instead, we set out on a secluded trail.
A few hundred feet into our walk, a scent caught the Alsatians’ attention. They paused, nostrils searching the air, ears pricked and rotated forward, tails arcing up but not wagging. They followed the scent to a snowy knoll twenty feet off-trail and disappeared behind it to investigate. A moment later, they rocketed out, ears flat, hackles up, tails between their legs.
I wondered what could have spooked them. A mountain lion? A bear? Whatever it is, I reasoned as I approached the knoll to have a look for myself, I’d be wise not to approach the knoll to have a look for myself.
There was no mountain lion, no bear. Lying in the snow before me was a disheveled man in tattered clothes, shivering under a tattered quilt. He appeared unaware of my presence. I couldn’t tell if he was even conscious.
This atheist knows the parable of the good Samaritan as well as the next person. But the Samaritan had a pack animal to transport the victim and the resources to cover his care. I had neither.
I stood helpless. I wish it had occurred to me to call 911. It didn’t. That haunts me.
That evening, I reclined in my favorite living-room chair. The furnace was on. A gas log flickered a few feet away. In the kitchen were cupboards and a refrigerator stocked with food. Tonight, my mind wouldn’t stop repeating, he will probably freeze or starve to death. Looking about my cozy surroundings, I wept.
In large cities, the homeless have become part of the landscape. Their non-remarkability exerts a numbing effect on consciences driving by, any damns we might give at risk of fading within a few blocks. Coming upon a semiconscious human being at my feet in a remote setting was jarringly different. The scene wouldn’t leave my mind’s eye, and the damn I gave was scrawled across it in indelible ink.
Despair gave way to resolve. I couldn’t save him, but I could help save people like him. I searched for and found a charity with minimal administrative costs. Their agreements with suppliers turn every donated dollar into seven times the food I could purchase for the same amount. With the amount I spend feeding two dogs, they can feed a human being.
Friends and I used to boast to one another of charitable acts we’d do, were we only rich. Fine, but this atheist also knows the story of the widow’s mite. The automatic monthly contribution I set up that night may not seem like much, but it’s more than I had been giving, which was zero.