Ever wonder what the correct Christian-y approach is when you encounter a beggar on the street? Consider these words straight from the mouth of Jesus:
Give to everyone who asks.
Notice that he doesn’t say “cross the street to avoid a scary-looking homeless person,” or “avoid eye contact with a beggar if you’re in a hurry” or “give only to those who don’t seem like drug addicts.”
Nope. He tells us to give to everyone.
Let me tell you a story I’ve told here before. But don’t stop reading now — it’s got a new ending.
A couple of summers ago, I was walking on a city street with my wife and my teenage son. A beggar stopped me and asked for money. I smiled politely, said “sorry” and walked on by.
After about a dozen steps, I found myself wondering what my son might be thinking about me. I considered turning around and chasing after the man. But before I could do anything we ran into another beggar.
He told me his name was John and pleaded for money so that he could buy food for his family. Feeling guilty about my previous snub, I reached into my pockets and gave him all the cash I had: $23. “GOD BLESS YOU!” he shouted and then started telling everyone (very loudly) in the general vicinity what a great guy I was.
I felt good for about five seconds but then quickly found myself embroiled in a debate with my family. What if the guy’s an alcoholic? Didn’t I basically just buy him his next bottle of whiskey? Shouldn’t I have just taken him to a store and bought him some food?
The next day, any “what a great guy” buzz I had left was killed when I spotted John staggering down the street, looking decidedly hung over and far worse than the day before.
Rather than saying “I told you so,” my wonderful family instead helped me come up with a plan. As we walked past a Potbelly sandwich shop, she suggested that we stock up on gift cards so that we’d be armed with something useful the next time someone asked for help.
So we did. Sure enough, within a few minutes after leaving the restaurant we ran into another beggar. My wife asked him if he was hungry. When he said “yes,” I handed him the gift card. He turned to a friend and exclaimed, “Dude — Potbelly — LET’S EAT!” and off they went toward the restaurant.
I resolved at that moment never to be caught unprepared again. I pledged to carry gift cards in my pocket and to pray for each person I encounter who asks for my help.
But that’s not the end of the story.
A few weeks ago, my wife and I got a (very) late-night call from our teenage daughter who was working at a hotel in a not-so-great neighborhood. She was calling to inform us that she had just taken a homeless couple out for food and was wondering if we knew of any place they might stay.
Rather than saying something like, “WOW, you were actually listening to all that Bible-y stuff we taught you growing up,” I pictured the worst, freaked out and drove like a madman downtown to “rescue” her. When I got there, the homeless couple had departed to seek shelter elsewhere. I lectured my daughter about being unsafe and gullible and even made her cry a little.
When I saw her tears, it felt like God was ripping open my cold and clammy heart and showing me what a hypocrite I am. I prayed right then and there for forgiveness and asked God to fill my heart with love instead of fear.
The next day, I called about a dozen homeless shelters and was surprised to find out that almost none allow late-night drop-ins. With lots of help from others, I put together a little 24-hour local homeless resource guide to carry around at all times. My wife and I then spent an afternoon rounding up bus passes, Subway gift cards and other practical things and gave ’em to my daughter, son and others who live downtown to hand out. We also discovered a free 24-hour nationwide service that provides info about community assistance and volunteer opportunities to anyone who calls. Just dial 211. Of course, physical needs are only part of the equation. If you’d like to give out some spiritual nourishment as well, here and here are two of my favorites.
I’d love to hear about other creative approaches anyone uses. Please share ’em by leaving a comment below or emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org.