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.”