I am returning to my earlier series on giving to roadside beggars with this guest post by Lezley (Peach) McDouall. I first met Peach at Duke Divinity School – I was a student and she was a teaching assistant, especially well-loved for her gracious and extensive comments on student papers. We attend the same church together, and I value her insight and her friendship. You can read more of Peach’s writing on the blog of Saint Luke’s Episcopal Church.
In response to Sarah’s question about giving money to people who beg, it’s important to begin by saying that my answer is not meant to be everyone’s answer. The movement of the Spirit is delicate and various, sanctifying the whole by blessing each unique part uniquely. So here is what I have been given to understand:
While attending seminary in Berkeley CA, I attended All Souls parish church nearby. This parish had a monthly Open-Door Dinner for anyone who wanted to be fed some chicken jambalaya, rice, corn, and cookies. The task I enjoyed most, which other parishioners seemed less comfortable doing, was hanging out in the courtyard with the folks who were waiting to eat. I made sure the coffeepot and its accessories stayed full, handed out numbered tickets, and invited in groups of 10 ticket-holders at a time so the servers/seats weren’t overcrowded.
Talking to the folks who were waiting helped me understand how incredibly various the stories of homeless people are. Talking to one man in particular, who had been a math teacher, was an epiphany for me. He taught me that most people on the street are chronically sleep-deprived, and that many who are addicted &/or mentally-ill become addicted &/or mentally-ill on the street, self-medicating for sleeplessness, depression, and constant anxiety. That possibility had never occurred to me, or to any housed individual I’d ever talked with about “the plight of the homeless.”
Each person of faith has Touchstone Scriptures that are particularly authoritative for them. Even the literalists have to make some choices. I happen to be something of a ‘red-letter fundamentalist,’ which is to say that while I don’t consider everything in the Bible to be God’s Binding Word On All Generations™, I take the words of Jesus Christ particularly seriously. I tend to read them as if He meant exactly what He said, even knowing that much of what He says is impossible for us.
E.g., “Love one another as I have loved you” (unto death on a cross); “Give to everyone who asks you” (until you have nothing left? See quote 1); “Judge not, lest ye be judged” (yike!); and “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”
What does this mean, concretely, about the guy with a sign next to the freeway? It’s way too easy for me to over-think this, to try to guess his particular situation or suss what he ‘really needs’ rather than simply give what he’s asking. So I devised a personal metric:
1) Do I have any cash? (I often don’t). If yes, then
2) Am I, or can I get into, the right lane? If yes, then
3) Is the light red, or (in a non-traffic-light situation) can I stop here without blocking traffic unduly? If yes, then
4) I give money.
I consider that if the above conditions are fulfilled, the Spirit has maneuvered me into a position to help THIS person in THIS way on THIS day. If any question gets a ‘no,’ I consider that this isn’t the task I’ve been allotted at the moment – maybe next time, or maybe some of my tithe will reach them via an agency our parish supports. In any case, I pray for them, hope for them, and ask God to lift up all who are oppressed by this evil economic system, which discards precious human beings as though they weren’t beloved children of the Most High.
I know my metric is simplistic, but it prevents me from experiencing utter anguish and frustration with our political context repeatedly, day after day. I’m already on meds for depression. I help some people, I remove personal judgment of my fellow humans from the decision, and I trust that God is in action in their lives as well as my own. May God soon bring us all to that Kingdom where this decision will be completely unnecessary.