Sunday, July 19, 2009

How Should We Respond to Panhandlers?

Panhandlers seem to bombard us in the city. They wash our car windshields at the gas station and then come to our windows expecting payments. They cling to rag tag cardboard signs and approach us with forlorn faces. Some are in obvious need. We can tell by their faces that they truly are blind or they are missing legs or they are sitting in wheelchairs holding dirty cups.

What should we do?

As the leader of a large organization that specializes in ministry among the homeless, let me give you my expert opinion: I don’t know!

I think God gives us these dilemmas to cause us to rely on the compassion of Christ he has implanted in our hearts. Coming face to face with someone who asks us for money is an opportunity to be led by the Spirit instead of being driven by need or guilt or obligation or the desire to bolster our own ego as a “generous person.” There is no simple answer.

Jesus said in Luke 6:30 that we are to give to everyone who asks of us. Most of us are hesitant to do that because we are afraid that we will be taken advantage of. Perhaps the recipient of our charity will use our hard earned cash for booze or drugs. Surely giving to someone who would use our money for those purposes would not be in anyone’s best interest, would it? Yet, the directive is clear. We are to give without question and without judgment.

While we don’t want to contribute to someone’s addiction, it is helpful to understand that people who are living on the street usually do not have access to appropriate pain medicine, mental health counseling, or the gentle pacifiers such as chocolate and ice cream that we turn to when we need a lift. Who are we to judge them for how they spend money? I certainly have not always made the best decisions with the money that God sends my way. Yet God keeps giving to me.

On the other hand, our gifts do not always have to be cash. I urge people to give their financial gifts to an organization like Breakthrough that specializes in wise care for the under-resourced and then get involved by volunteering to help the ministry. Then when asked for cash, we can then respond like Peter and John did when confronted by the crippled beggar. “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.”

A financial gift to a mission or an organization that provides opportunities for the homeless will help men and women who have been crippled by life get back on their feet and—in the name of Jesus Christ—walk a new walk. As stewards of the resources God entrusts to us, we want to make sure our gifts to the poor are invested wisely.

Instead of giving cash to people on the street, we can give directions, or perhaps a ride, to the nearest ministry that provides loving care in the name of Christ. Like the Good Samaritan that Jesus described in Luke 10, we can transport those who are battered and broken to the nearest rehab center and pay for their rehabilitation.

I have a friend who always gives people exactly what they ask for. If they ask for change, he gives them change. If they ask for a couple of dollars, he gives them a couple of dollars. He says that in the grand scheme of things, considering his budget for giving to the poor, the amount of money he hands out is actually relatively small. He thinks we make a bigger deal of being taken advantage of than we should. After all, Jesus let himself be stripped, beaten and hung on a cross unjustly to show his great love. It is not likely that we will ever experience that much injustice in our giving to the poor.

Oswald Chambers says in his June 13th devotional in his great book, My Utmost for His Highest, “Never make a principle out of your experience; let God be as original with other people as He is with you.” So, again, we are asked to let the Spirit guide our practices when we come face to face with someone asking us for money.

One thing I am quite certain about is this:
When I stand before God in the judgment, I don’t think God is going to drill me about how smart and frugal I was when face to face with someone who asked me for money. I doubt that God will point out how proud he is of me that I didn’t let myself get scammed by someone who was lying to get a few bucks out of me.

God is more likely to say something like this, “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.… I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”


Megan Cottrell said...

Thank you, Arloa, for talking about this. I think about it daily and always wonder what to do. I wonder about the "give to those who ask of you" verse and also about spending my money on a treasure worth investing in - like what you're doing at Breakthrough. Sometimes, I do feel the Spirit move in me, prompting me to give something. Often, I don't have any cash, but I at least try to look a person in the eye and be kind. This is such a dilemma for me - but I love the way you lay it out as not needing a once-and-for-all answer - that we can trust God and trust ourselves to react and be fully alive and present in these situations, atune to our hearts and maybe with not such a vice grip on our wallets.

Robert L Woodley said...

Great Post. I do think we worry too much about being scammed. It is a big inhibitor. When we withhold for fear of being gullible we are like the man who buried his talents in the ground and was proud that none were lost. Some money will be wasted and given to the wrong people for the wrong reasons, but when the money (or gifts in kind) go to the right people the return is so much greater.

Anonymous said...

I don't really think it's about being scammed, but enabling an addiction. I worked with the hardest to work with homeless for 2 years with my husband (6 years for him) doing assessments and referring them to resources. There are enough soup kitchens and clothing closets that no one should go hungry or naked (especially in Uptown). We counseled anyone who asked us about it to never give money on the street. 99.9% of the time it went to an addiction. This also coming from our coworkers who were formerly homeless, recovering addicts. Instead we encouraged them to give to organizations like Breakthrough that could actually make a difference in their lives.
We one time had a pregnant young mother come up to us asking for money in the parking lot of Jewel for diapers and formula.
She should have been recieving WIC but refused to answer when we asked. She did not want any help we had to offer if it did not involve cash. We suspected that her boyfriend was making her beg because she looked clean and didn't look like she was using.