Saturday, May 12, 2012

Beggars: To Give or Not to Give? That is My Question

Photo from

I was waiting outside my husband's office a few months ago, reading a book, when a homeless looking guy walks up to me and just stands there. "Hello," I say. He mumbles something unintelligible. His mouth is full of granola, which makes sense since he's holding a plastic baggie with granola. "You're hungry?" I attempt to translate. He shakes his head yes. "I'm sorry, I don't have any food on me," I tell him. "Come up the street and buy me some rice," he responds. "I'm sorry, I don't have money to spare." He starts walking away mumbling at me something that sounds like "eight years," and that I don't mean "sorry" because it doesn't come from my heart, then calls me a b#%*+.  I felt a angry - I did mean sorry from my heart!

In fact, the subject of the "right" response to beggars has been on my mind a lot lately.  Especially after reading The Jungle by Upton Sinclair.  The book is famous for portraying the grisly reality of the Chicago meat packing district in the early 1900s, but I thought more disturbing was the plight of the immigrant family and their seemingly futile struggle to make ends meet.  They suffered hunger, cold, and death, despite working hard and being good, moral people.  The descriptions of starvation hit home to me, reminding me of the beggars I see daily.  I started to think how if they are hungry, like the characters in this book are hungry, and if I am repulsed by the inaction by the people the immigrant family meets - then shouldn't I feel compelled to provide the beggars with something.  So, why don't I?

This inner struggle becomes more real as I ponder the idea that if I presume to be Christian, which I do, then I should be acting as Christ would, if he were here.  Of course he's perfect and he would be able to tell the scam artist from the person in genuine need.  But, what does he ask of me who can't make that judgement?  I think he asks me to give to anyone who asks (Luke 6:30) and that when I do good to others, I am doing good to my Savior (Matthew 25:35-40).

Around this time I had heard a story of a friend who had shared a simple granola bar from her bag with a beggar.  I thought, hey, that would allow me to help people without just giving them money.  So, I tried that the next time I came across a beggar who said he was hungry.  I offered him the granola bar and he said no!  He told me he had a ton of granola bars, but what he really needed was-  And I just cut him off there and walked away, I didn't want to hear the rest of the sentence.  Apparently he was hungry, but just wanted cash.  It validated my earlier concerns, and I haven't offered a beggar anything since.  I feel so jaded after that experience.

I am just as conflicted about how to respond to beggars as I was before.  My heart goes out to anyone who is in need.  Yet, if I give to one beggar, really shouldn't I be giving to each beggar - because how can I judge who needs it and who doesn't?  But, I can't afford to give to each beggar.  But, can I spiritually afford to do nothing?

What are your thoughts on this issue?  What do you think and do when you encounter a beggar?

1 comment:

tim-berly said...

This is a dilemma for me too. Basically, my policy is to ignore street beggars, though I try to remain open to giving, should I have an overwhelming feeling to do so--I haven't experienced this feeling yet, but maybe I will someday. I try, instead, to give to other organizations that I trust to serve the poor.