The Corner Perspective: The Value of a Dollar and a Penny

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He walks into the Refuge reception area of our facility at 511 N. Broadway. The receptionist welcomes him with a genuine smile and inquires, “How may we help you today?”  

After a brief get-acquainted conversation, he receives some clothing to replace the worn and soiled attire that has long outlived its usefulness in protecting him from the elements.   

He returns later in the day, receiving the same welcome. He is eager to have his say, however.

“I have something for you,” he says. “This place was good to me earlier today. But now, I have something for you.”

With that, he reaches over the counter and attempts to hand the receptionist a dollar bill accompanied by a 1989 Lincoln penny. “This place was good to me. This money is not much, but I hope it helps someone like me,” he says.

The receptionist tries to convince him to keep it for himself, but to no avail, for he is overly adamant. The receptionist relents and receives the gift while offering a receipt. 

His gift reminds me of the biblical story of the widow giving her two “mites” (our penny of sorts) to the coffers at the place of her worship. Observing her actions, Jesus contrasts her actions with those who have more means: “This poor widow has put in more than all the others. They gave out of their abundance, but out of her poverty, she has put in all that she had to live on.”

Often held up as a virtue to mimic, this story gives me a troublesome and reflective pause. Aside from the woman’s generosity in a comparative sense with others, it disturbs me as she provides “all that she has to live on.” 

Honestly, it challenges my sensibilities. It tests my understanding of economic fairness and human decency. How is she expected to survive as she gives away all of her access to simple subsistence? Why would a “system” even solicit a contribution of the “widow’s mite?” Maybe the object lesson is to awaken my perspective of a world that exists with so much disparity that it gets clouded by my assumed distance between “us and them.”  

And that leads me to think about housing, or the lack thereof. Matthew Desmond’s reflection on the housing crisis speaks volumes: “No moral code or ethical principle, no piece of scripture or holy teaching can be summoned to defend what we have allowed our country to become.”  

In his book, Eviction: Poverty and Profit in an American City, Desmond, shadows a similar, if not identical, object lesson raised by the widow’s mite story as he quotes a struggling mother: “Sometimes the rent eats before the kids.” That challenges my sensibilities as well.

I appreciate his gift of $1.01, as I do all donations in our effort to end and prevent homelessness. But I hesitate for a moment, for I know that he has no home to which to return when he leaves. I hope our work will honor his gift with a home as soon as possible. 

Bruce Spangler is the chief executive officer of Volunteer Ministry Center, a nonprofit agency located in Knoxville. VMC is a social agency dedicated to ending and preventing homelessness at www.vmcinc.org. 

Published on July 21, 2022.