Kat recently posted a very terrific article about giving to the sketchy looking people who frequent the parking lots of churches. This spawned an interesting discussion on a listserve to which I belong. A lot of people said they are more comfortable offering food. That is wonderful, and we should all do it whenever we can. Another person suggested mentioning Catholic Charities to the person who approaches you. The idea is that a charity has better resources and will better know what to do. I get that impulse, and certainly think trying to get the person help through a charity is a wonderful thing, but surely it’s not enough to just point?Someone else said a lot of homeless people choose to be homeless. That’s debatable, but if it’s true, think how bad things must be to make homelessness an attractive option. If someone “wants to be there” they aren’t stable enough to live a normal life. If that’s the case, chances are they’re not going to take you up on your one time suggestion of getting to a reputable charity. I suppose it would be different if you saw the same beggar every day, and developed a relationship with him and then began to encourage him to go to Catholic Charities. Or, if you’ve engaged that person in a conversation about his needs. But if it’s just the guy you run into at the bus stop, I really don’t think it’s enough.
What’s the worst that can happen when you give money to a homeless person? You’re out a few bucks. So that person might spend it on something unsavory. So what? People get paid money for proper jobs and spend the money on all sorts of unsavory things. We don’t blame their bosses. It’s not really our business to know exactly how they intend to spend your gift of a dollar. Our business is to help, insofar as we can. Sometimes you need to just dig into your purse, hand them something and, here’s the kicker, not worry about what they are going to do with it. It’s not enabling. You don’t know this person. You can’t presume sin. You can only know their humanity, their diginity before the Lord. It’s not up to us to make a judgement call as to whether they are the “deserving” poor or the “underserving”. We’re all the undeserving poor. We just cover it up better with our homes, showers, lack of mental illness, supportive families and friends and church communities. We shouldn’t be like the Peanuts cartoon when Linus and Charlie Brown see Snoopy in the cold snow, and all they do is say “be of good cheer.” Giving, especially when we’re uncomfortable, is a way God has of stretching us and forcing us to see the presence of Christ where we’d rather not look.
So much for the spiritual stuff. Practically, what does this mean? Particularly for women, who are a bit more vulnerable and need to be careful. For what it’s worth, my take is to ask myself if it’s more dangerous to give, or not to give, when I’m approached by a beggar. Do I feel physically threatened? If so, pass on by. If you’re a mother with her children, are you picking up any weird vibes towards the children? If so, keep moving. If you’re not feeling threatened, though, ask yourself if you’re in danger of closing off your heart? Do I say “he’ll only do such and such with this gift”? We need to remember that every single thing we do for the poor is a gift. We’re to expect nothing back. They’re free to do with it what they will. That’s why JUST giving materially is never, ever enough. We have to give our prayer and our love with our material gift, in the hope that the recipient will have an encounter with transformative Love. The danger to us is that we become spiritual cheapskates. We let our idea of what is appropriate get in the way of the opportunity to give not just of our wealth but of ourselves.
When a beggar approaches you he is, in that moment, Jesus for you. What an opportunity for the giver. As Kat says, it may be the only time that week you get to have your charity really tested. That, my friends, is a reward. Don’t turn it down.