What does the Lord require of you?

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.

The Gifts of Joy and Doubt

This is the first in a series of guest blogs about panhandling: when, how, and why to give.

Many thanks to Sarah Rosangela for sharing her own experiences encountering poverty on the streets of Toronto and Washington, D.C..  Sarah is a poet, a mother, and an Orthodox Christian.  You can read more from Sarah at her blog, Death Sentences, and follow her on Twitter.

A few weeks ago my partner and I went on a little stay-cation in our home city of Toronto. We wanted to take time to appreciate everything our day to day lives allowed us to overlook, so we booked a few nights at a charming hotel and set off to get to know our neighbourhood. As we crossed the sidewalk on our way to dinner I noticed a pile of garbage on the corner and quickly grabbed my partner, hoping to keep him from stepping in it. He swerved, but I looked down long enough to notice hands sticking out from beneath the heap of papers and bags. It wasn’t trash. We both looked over our shoulder as we walked away. It was 19 degrees that night.

We suddenly noticed there was a homeless person on nearly every block. Canada is one of the few countries without a national housing plan; Toronto has only 9 city run shelters. With over 24,000 homeless individuals in the Greater Toronto Area, the welfare of many is left in the hands of a few private shelters and ordinary citizens. That night, I gave money to each one I came across; first change, then bills. At one point, overcome with emotion, I turned my bag upside down and poured every last coin and dollar out, doll shoes and dinosaurs falling into the lap of a man who laughed as I blushed and pulled them out. He looked about my age.

My partner gently reminded me that I could not save them all, and at any rate, did I know where my money was going? Still, as we came across yet another panhandler, this one with a long story explaining how she needed a train ticket home, he didn’t hesitate to dig into his pocket and pull out what cash he had left, which was about three dollars. As we walked away we heard her mutter sarcastically, “Gee, weren’t you thoughtful?”
A week later I saw her hustling a different part of the city.

With the line between the destitute and the deceitful so blurred it can be difficult to decipher when someone on the street is truly in need. My solution?
Give when you feel compelled.
Give when you feel like ‘a joyful giver’ in whom the Lord rejoices. (2 Corinthians 9:7)
Give when your heart has stirred, when the desire is instantaneous.
Give before you compose a battery of reasons not to.

This sounds easy enough, but as Christians we are accustomed to deconstructivism. We are actively encouraged to question; question our texts, our faith, our hearts. Therefore, it is all too easy to find ourselves running the recipients of our compassion through the same tests.
‘Is this person an alcoholic?’
‘Are they lazy and just refuse to work?’
‘Will they spend my money the right way?’

All of this questioning can often overshadow what should be our instinctual reaction as Christians, which is to lift one another up and embrace all in unconditional love. (Matthew 5: 43-48)

Brothers and sisters, let us not question one another.

My native Washington DC is a city of 632,000 with more than 18,500 of those inhabitants reported as homeless. It is home to the largest income gap in the nation as well as the highest rate of family poverty. 33% of its homeless population is composed of families, a number that continues to rise due to the ongoing recession. I do not know their stories. I do not know if their homes were foreclosed upon or if they have received state assistance for decades. I do know that statistics tell me most of them are working and that more than half self identify as Christian. I know that I am called to Good, especially to those in Christ, that to love them is to love Him, you know this, we know this, we are all beautifully wonderfully made. (Galatians 6: 10)

We do not need to know the motives or the hearts of our street-stricken brethren; that is for Christ alone. We need only to know our own.

For me, this means to remember John 7:24;
“Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.”

As a people we are instructed to seek wisdom and insight and to employ sound judgment. However, it is all too often that we equate the instruction to be wise with our money with being discerning as to where and to whom we give it, rather than the state of our hearts when we do so. It is all too easy to dress our discretion in faux concern, when what we truly mean is,
‘will this person use my money in a way I will agree with? Do they live a lifestyle of which I approve?’

But panhandlers and the homeless need not seek our approval; any money in our purse belongs to God and Him alone. The Bible holds more than 300 verses instructing us to serve the poor, but just how to do that is often confusing. In an attempt to not equate my way with the ‘Biblical way’, I do the only thing I feel I can: I give the benefit of the doubt. I have material possessions and a brother in need, and with the love of God within me, I must take pity on him and not with words, but with action and in truth. (1 John 3:17-18)

Whether and how we give money is more important than how a recipient uses it. He answers for his actions and we for ours. Our goal in giving should be to share faith as an experience from which we all benefit. A dollar placed in an empty palm may seem insignificant, but it speaks to our greater truths,
“I am doing the best I can. We are all in desperate need.”

To give or not to give

So this is the blog entry in which I finally get around to answering the question: “When should one give and not give money [to beggars/panhandlers]?”

Drumroll, please!

Upon consideration, there is not one complicated answer to this question, but 3 simple answers:

  1. One ought always to give money to those who ask.
  2. One ought never to give money to those who ask.
  3. One ought sometimes to give money to those who ask.

It may appear that I am trying to wiggle my way out of answering the question.  Instead, I want to begin answering it by denying that it is possible for me to answer the question in a general way, as I am a particular human with a particular life narrative, living within a particular community of particlar humans with their own particular ways of growing in their relationship with God.

And before I make that denial, I want to at the same time make an affirmation: that those who ask for money are themselves particular human beings who ask for particular reasons, reasons that may be different from the reasons they themselves asked yesterday or last week.  They live in particular cities and towns at particular points in time.  They have particular histories, and a limited set of choices available to them which are particular to them.

I built the groundwork for this affirmation yesterday with a blog post which gestured at the diversity of those who are homeless and do not panhandle, as well as the diversity amongst the poor in America.

We are all in this together – and each of us is unique.

So – to that end, over the next couple of weeks, I will be soliciting answers to this question from particular Christians – people whose decision on whether and when to give is rooted in their relationship with God, with people in living in poverty, and with people who have worked with people living in poverty.  And I will share my own answer to this question, too.

Each of us answers this question out of our own understanding of God, even as we are convinced that we live our answer in community, and that we are called to live in love and peace with one another.  It is not a contest or a debate – the goal is not to demonstrate who has the strongest argument, so that the reader can then go and do likewise.  Rather, my hope is that after you read a diversity of narratives, you too will be empowered to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”