The crude cardboard sign was fashioned like hundreds of others stationed along Michigan Avenue.
Hi. My name is Cyrus.
I’m a veteran.
I need $28 to buy a seven-day bus pass.
Please help. God bless.
I began to formulate a plan. I would go to my hotel room, change out of my professional attire, and find Cyrus. The bus station was only a few blocks away. Perhaps I’d be able to encourage him or pray with him along the way. With temperatures soaring to a very humid 90 degrees, it would certainly be more comfortable in a T-shirt and shorts.
I was in and out of my room in less than five minutes. On my way out I stopped to buy Cyrus a bottle of cold water and jogged back to where he had been sitting.
He wasn’t there.
I kept walking, hoping to see him somewhere along the Magnificent Mile. He was nowhere to be found. I hoped someone else had reached him first, purchasing the bus ticket he needed. But deep down I knew I’d put my own convenience ahead of helping him.
Unfortunately, I’m not the first Christian to make a decision based on comfort or convenience. In his book The Tipping Point Malcolm Gladwell described an experiment conducted by two Princeton psychologists at the school’s Theological Seminary.
The premise was simple: Experimenters met with a group of seminary students individually, asking them to prepare a short talk on a biblical theme and walk over to a nearby building to present it. Some students were asked to talk about more technical themes, like the relevance of professional clergy to religious vocation. Others were told to focus on the parable of the good Samaritan.
On the way to their presentations, each student would encounter a man slumped in an alley, obviously in pain. Which theology students would stop to help?
One more variable was introduced. Some students were told that they had plenty of time before their presentation; others were informed they were already late and had better hurry.
Most people would assume that those given the topic of the good Samaritan would be most likely to stop. But this was not the case. In fact, one of the experimenters noted that “on several occasions, a seminary student going to give his talk on the parable of the good Samaritan literally stepped over the victim.”
The only factor that influenced behavior was whether or not the student was in a rush. Of those that were told they were late, only 10 percent stopped. Of the group with more time, 63 percent stopped to help. Gladwell calls this concept the power of context. I call it the power of convenience.
Despite our belief system, or how frequently we read our Bibles, each of us is capable of being selfish, of allowing our present situation to determine how and when we extend help to those in need.
We need to be aware of this so that we can make decisions that might conflict with our context, comfort, and convenience. Because when it comes to being the hands and feet of Jesus, good intentions aren’t always good enough.
Jimmy Phillips is executive director of marketing at San Joaquin Community Hospital.