Her name was Angel, a name that made me think of that verse about entertaining angels. She appeared in the local Buy Nothing group last November, asking for help. The Buy Nothing group is a Facebook page for our town here in Appalachia, where some people post photos of furniture and knicknacks they’re getting rid of for others to take for free, and others try to give away their extra garden vegetables in the summer.
Other times, people show up in the Buy Nothing group asking for help or small gifts: the lady who had a rabbit and rabbit food to give her granddaughter as a gift but no rabbit hutch before pay day, for example. I asked in there for someone with a truck to come help me move furniture once, and got help.
I love that group.
I think of it as a microcosm of the way Christians are supposed to live. We should all ask for help without shame and be willing to give it with no strings attached.
Glad to Help
Angel came into the group saying she had escaped domestic violence; she was pregnant and had other children at home. She didn’t have household items or a stick of furniture for her new apartment and nothing for her daughter to play with, so we all pitched in and helped. She said she had two daughters, and Michael, Rosie, and I enjoyed buying little Christmas presents for both little girls. We dropped them off at her apartment and she thanked us — though we didn’t see the children themselves.
Next, Angel ended up moving back to her home state. She messaged me that she was living in a hotel with her children, one of whom needed seizure medicine, but she didn’t quite have the paperwork together to get housing assistance and Medicaid in the new state. I don’t have a ton of money myself.
Michael and I are always one step ahead of disaster with our monthly finances; that’s the life of a writer. But I slipped her fifty dollars here and there where I could, until she assured me she was in housing. I was glad to do that too. When I couldn’t afford to help, I asked my friends to help her, and they did.
Some of my friends friended Angel on Facebook, and that’s when her story started to break down. She started messaging me from two different Facebook accounts, for one thing. For another we compared notes and realized she’d told us all slightly different stories. One said she’d claimed she was pregnant with twins, another said she was having a boy, while I heard a girl. She’d told all three of us she just needed thirty dollars for her daughter’s seizure medication and we’d all three given thirty at once, yet she still needed the next week of the prescription later.
And then she started making more and more outlandish claims. She would claim her phone was about to be shut off and then text me with no trouble the next day. She would claim the landlord was going to evict her for some reason at midnight and then talk about the church that got her assistance at 11:30.
Things Got Ridiculous
I am not a confident person, so I was inclined to think I was being selfish if I doubted her. But as things got more ridiculous I decided to cut her off, gently, and warn my friends to do the same.
One night she told me she was going in for a Caesarian the next morning. The next morning, there was nothing new on either of her Facebook pages but the usual memes.
On Mother’s Day she was sharing photos of exactly one daughter, the same one daughter whose photo was all over her Facebook page, even though by my count she should have had three by then.
I said “can’t wait to see photos of your new baby!” just to see what would happen. To my surprise, she messaged me a photo of a newborn. I thought I might have been too quick to judge. But then I scrolled down her page and found that she’d posted the exact same photo a year ago, an old photo of her daughter, on her “other” Facebook page.
I thought of Rosie helping me wrap the Christmas presents, going to so much trouble to make sure each of Angel’s children got the same amount of candy in the stocking, when, in fact, there was only one child. I hoped the child had gotten some of that candy. I had the mental image of Angel eating it all.
A Disturbing Response
I remembered the time, a long, long time ago, when Michael and I were much poorer than we are now, and I was trapped with nothing to do to keep the utilities on but message friend after friend for help. I was terrified. I was panicking at the end of every month, every time a bill came in the mail. Someone I’d thought was a friend decided I was lying to get money and blocked me. Then they told other people I was a liar, and I lost some friends. But I wasn’t lying. The need was complex and not easily fixed, but it was real. That hurt.
My stomach lurched at the thought of causing that kind of hurt to somebody else. I wondered again if there was some innocent explanation for all of this. But I realized there wasn’t. I confronted Angel, and blocked her, and warned my friends.
I grumbled on social media about what kind of person fakes a pregnancy to take advantage of a Buy Nothing group. And a friend who is a Protestant minister answered: “Someone who is greatly broken in ways we can never see or understand. I hope you don’t let her deceit and thievery color your perception of your own compassion and advocacy. You did what you were called to do. She responded in a disturbing way, for which she bears full responsibility.”
My friend is right.
When we practice the works of mercy, we’re leaving ourselves vulnerable to being duped. If we try to do something pure-hearted and fun like the Buy Nothing group, some people will eventually take us for a ride. We need to exercise prudence to minimize the risk, but we will be fooled now and again if we’re living as Christ wants us to live. And that will hurt. I wish it didn’t.
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