D eborah Firebaugh didn't know what to do.
The West Manchester Township resident has a kind heart and a gentle soul, so it bothered her to see the man standing at the intersection of Route 74 and Route 30 holding a large sign saying: "I am hungry and stranded; need a plate of food. I would rather beg than steal."
Such honesty and desperation should be rewarded, she figured.
Especially, she said, the week leading up to Holy Week.
Obviously it pulled at her heartstrings. "I wanted to do something -- take him to the Rescue Mission, take him to a restaurant ... but you never know these days who is legit and who is not."
Put yourself in her shoes. Perhaps you were passing the same intersection at around the same time and also saw the man with the sign. How did it make you feel?
So she asked herself: What do I do? What do I do?
Does one do the right thing, she asked, and stop. Let the stranger into your car? Offer to help when most other people wouldn't?
It's a huge risk. "I did not want to end up like Penny Gunnet when she stopped to help Mark Spotz," she said.
About 15 years ago, Gunnet, a New Salem resident, stopped on her way to work at 6:20 in the morning at Spotz's behest, under the guise of needing directions. He forced Gunnet into the passenger seat, drove her car to an isolated spot and killed her.
Spotz was convicted of murder and now sits on death row.
At that critical moment, when she was trying to make a decision, that's what Firebaugh remembered. It's what prevented her from stopping to help this total stranger.
But she felt guilty about it. She felt she needed to help if she could. "I debated whether to call 911 and see if an officer could take the man to an agency for help, but then I thought they probably don't do that."
So then she asked me the obvious question: "What would you have done? It's a moral dilemma, especially with it being Holy Week. You want to do the right thing and help your fellow man," she said. "What if that would be you out there asking for help and no one stopped?"
Well, I've been in her shoes. And I stopped to help two different times -- once to teach my 10-year-old daughter a life lesson about being a good Samaritan. I never felt in fear of my life, but I must say I was taken advantage of both times.
Looking back on it, it was a stupid thing for me to have done. I could easily have put my daughter and myself in harm's way. And I would be hard-pressed to ever do it again.
But Firebaugh wasn't so sure. Are there people to call who will help in that situation? she asked. What's the right thing to do? "I wanted to help, but a lone woman (or man) stopping could be a set up for a bad situation."
As it turns out, according to a West Manchester Township police spokesman, in situations such as this, "there is a right thing -- define as 'moral' -- to do, and a safe thing to do."
The "right" thing to do is what's in your mind, how you feel about something.
The "safe" thing to do, he said, is what you have to do to "not become a victim."
So the police will always recommend one thing for everyone who find themselves in the situation Firebaugh found herself in. Call 911. Let the police handle it. "Let law enforcement intervene" on the public's behalf, the police spokesman said.
The police will do that without tossing the homeless person in jail? I asked.
"Absolutely, we will. We would check the person out, of course. And if they're legitimate, we'll take them to a homeless shelter, help them find a safe place to go. If they're not legitimate, we'll respond to that, too."
That's the safe thing to do.
And it's the only thing that makes sense to me. You see hungry, unemployed, and homeless people with signs all over the place these days. But life is too precious to take unnecessary risks.
There was a time in this country when it might have been good enough to just ask yourself WWJD -- you know, what would Jesus do?
And then respond accordingly. If that meant giving a needy person a meal, a sandwich, something to drink, a ride somewhere or a few dollars for a bus ticket, you'd do it and not give it a second thought.
But in the here and now, that's not a wise course of action.
There's a "right" thing and a "safe" thing to do.
Me? Well, more times than not I'm taking the "safe" path, and letting the police take care of the rest.
And since Deborah Firebaugh asked me what I would have done in her situation, that's my response to her, too.
It tugs at your heartstrings, I know, not to always do the nice thing.
So in this case, the "right" thing and the "safe" thing are the "same" thing.
Call 911. Let the police sort it out.
It's good advice.
Columns by Larry A. Hicks, Dispatch columnist, run Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.