I have excused my reluctance to give to the sign holders who occupy freeway exits and high traffic intersections by telling myself they will just use the money to buy drugs or alcohol. And besides, if they are hungry, why don’t they just go somewhere that serves free meals to the homeless, or better yet, get a job and quit begging? I have sometimes given to these men and women, but to be honest, more often out of guilt than compassion.
Shame on me.
I grew up poor, one of six children raised on welfare by a hard-working single mother who suffered mental health problems. Yet we were mainstream, 1970’s American poor, wealthier than the vast majority of people on this planet. Our clothes came from the thrift store and there was always more month than money, but we were never homeless or hungry.
You would think that as a one time member of the working class poor, I would have a better handle on when and how best to help the needy.
When I worked in Portland, I once went to lunch with a co-worker named Darwin. As was often the case in downtown, we were approached by a homeless man who asked if we had any spare change. Darwin opened his wallet and handed the fellow a couple of dollars. As we walked away, I asked Darwin if he always gave when he was hit up for cash and whether he worried that the person would use the money to buy drugs. Darwin said he didn’t always give, but if he had a few extra bucks on him and it was unlikely he would be mugged (i.e., not at night, alone, in a high crime area), then he usually gave something. He told me he didn’t worry about what the recipient would do with the money. He figured it was simply his responsibility to give.
Still, isn’t it wiser to give money and time to reputable charities like the United Way, World Vision, Salvation Army, the World Food Bank, Habitat for Humanity, Meals on Wheels and the local homeless shelter? Maybe, but is this merely an excuse that makes my conscience comfortable, or am I actually doing that? If I am, do I do it regularly? And even if I do consistently support organizations dedicated to helping the needy, is it then okay for me to ignore the woman holding the sign that reads, “Cold and hungry – please help” as I pull out of the grocery store parking lot? If not all the time, then how about sometimes? Must I always roll down my window and hand her cash if I claim to love my neighbor as myself?
I do not presume to tell you what the right thing to do is in regard to the poor when I am still struggling to find my own answer to this dilemma. But I do encourage you to wrestle with the question and decide how you and your family will help those less fortunate than yourselves.
Recently, I got into my car after shopping at Fred Meyer and headed out of the parking lot. When I saw a sign holder near the exit, I made a beeline in the opposite direction. I sensed the Holy Spirit direct me to turn my car around and drive toward the woman with the sign. By the time I pulled alongside her, she was squatting down with her head between her hands and the sign was on the ground. I couldn’t tell if she was crying, but it looked like she had a painful headache. I noticed a large tattoo on her arm and I could see her lips moving, as if she were talking to herself. Silently, I labeled her as one of the multitude of homeless people with mental illness.
She did not see me as I stopped and rolled down my window, leaning toward her with a bill in my hand. So I called, “Ma’am, are you okay?” She looked up, startled, and walked over to my car. To my surprise, her eyes were clear, her hands and voice steady. She apologized for not seeing me there and said she was shook up because a man had just yelled at her, passing judgment on her. She told me she had been praying for him to be kind. She accepted my gift, thanked me and asked God to bless me.
Little did this woman know that God had answered her request before I even drove away. I do not know what brought her to this place. But I do know God used her example of kindness in response to such unkindness to teach me something about those who are hungry, about judging them, about grace and mercy.
We can disagree on how best to help the poor. But if we are human, and especially if we dare to call ourselves Christian, we cannot dispute that we must help the poor. God has quite a bit to say about that, including:
“If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” 1 John 3:17-18.
“Whoever shuts their ears to the cry of the poor will also cry out and not be answered.” Proverbs 21:13.
“The poor are shunned even by their neighbors, but the rich have many friends. It is a sin to despise one’s neighbor, but blessed is the one who is kind to the needy.” Proverbs 14:20-21.
“Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will reward them for what they have done.” Proverbs 19:17.
May we remember to be kind to the hungry. In doing so, we will both bless and be blessed.