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Sunday Wrestle: To Give or Not to Give?

At an earlier point in life it was simple. If a homeless person asked me for money, I gave it. It seemed like the ‘Christian’ thing to do. Plus, I felt like I was being a holy type guy in giving whenever asked.

Then when I was about nineteen, I was having lunch at a restaurant where our table was next to a side walk on a fairly busy city street. A lady approached me – she didn’t seem to completely fit the homeless bill – she didn’t have the whole bags in the shopping cart thing going on with the chimney soot on the cheeks. She just seemed like a lady that fell on some hard times.

“Excuse me”, she asked, “My daughter lives up in San Francisco, and I just need five more dollars for the bus fair to get up there and see her…”

She rambled on for a while about not seeing her in weeks because she couldn’t get the cash together because she got laid off and so she came to San Diego for work and blah, blah, blah. I asked her a number of detailed questions about her daughter’s name, who she was staying with, why she wasn’t living with her and whatever else I could think of. Her answers where detailed and quick in response so I decide she wasn’t lying. I checked my wallet and all I had was two twenties which for me with my first job out of high school, was about a day’s pay. I gave her the $40. She was tearfully overjoyed and skipped off to catch the next bus.

Seconds after she left, our waitress came out and asked, “Was she bothering you?”

“No, I just gave her a few bucks for the bus.”

“Oh, she’s here all the time asking people for money.”

I was shocked. “What? She told me she was from San Francisco and needed to get back up there to see her daughter.”

“Ahh, no. She’s a drug addict. She’s here all the time…”


No wonder she was overjoyed, I just set her up with a whole night of some serious tweaking. Those were tears of joy at the thought of the buzz that awaited.

That was it. I was done. No more giving to homeless people.

So after a few years of a hardline ‘no-giving’ policy, I started to feel a bit guilty, realizing I was acting out of a personal offense. So I started giving occasionally, always a bit skeptical and with a lot of questions. I wasn’t going to be scammed again but I didn’t want to withhold from those truly in need either.

Then after awhile my random benevolence policy started to feel a bit, well, random. So my giving pendulum swung back again and I started back with the ‘always give’ policy. But this time it wasn’t in an ambiguous Christianese haze. No, this time I was taking Christ’s words literally where he said, “Give to everyone who asks of you”. OK then. I will. And if I get asked by a drug addict then so be it. What they use it for is on their own head.

For years I had zero interest in politics aside from my nuclear arms race obsession when I was eleven. But when the whole Bush v. Gore fiasco went down I was drawn in and hooked. I devoured all things political both national and international, past and present.

One thing that came from my political obsession was the realization how ridiculously good we have it here in the U.S. and how ridiculously bad others have it most everywhere else. Here in the U.S. we are for the most part only limited by what we do or don’t do. We are not limited by who we are –race, religion, family or whatever.

In the U.S. we have endless choices. In most of the world they have few to none.

In Christ’s day the beggar had few to no choices. They were screwed. Cast out. On the periphery of society with no way to change. So when a beggar asked for money, that was the only way he would get it. He couldn’t just go ‘get a job’. And the same goes for many underdeveloped parts of the world today.

But here? We have A.A. We have N.A. Homeless shelters, rehab programs, drug treatment centers, scholarships, loan programs, job training programs; it’s endless.

So when somebody asks me for money I have to ask- am I really helping them? Or am I just prolonging their unhealthy state of dependence? Am I giving them a fish for a day rather than teaching them to fish?

What I know I can’t do is judge. “Just get a job you lazy bum…” does not ring with the love of God. I have no idea what happened to this person in life. I have no idea of the trauma or abuse they endured leaving them crippled in mind and spirit.

But as far as helping them – is giving them money really helping or is it actually hurting?

In India there is a group of people called the Dalits who are at the bottom end of the caste system. For them, there is no way out and no way up.

In Egypt the Copts are considered second-class; they cannot marry outside of their community. They are oppressed by their society and persecuted daily.

In Sudan, the slaughter of both Christian and non-Arabic Muslims is staggering.

In the U.S. it has been reported that many of those folks by the freeway with the ‘Please Help’ signs make thousands of dollars.

What I’m getting at is when I look at real destitution in the rest of world I find I don’t have a whole lot of pity for a homeless person in sunny San Diego where I know there is help available; if they want it and if they go get it. So I give to parts of the world where I know they literally have no way out.

And with the homeless folks down the street, I’m currently back to a hardline no-give policy. But, you know, with a non-judgmental heart of course.

But honestly, I can’t say I feel 100% comfortable in my current state.

I guess that’s why it’s something I wrestle with.

Update: I would throw money at this guy though…

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{ 9 comments… add one }
  • Krista Pratschner November 28, 11:28 PM

    You are right, alot of the downtrodden do have an idea of where they can go for help. Some choose to do so and some do not. I think its a good idea to check into worthwhile org. who really do make a diffferance in peoples lives and support them finanially if you feel so inclined. Or do like my oldest son and just buy them a sandwhich at subway. 🙂

  • Nick November 29, 5:58 PM

    Great post Keith. Spot on. You captured my feelings to a “T”. There’s a part of me that really wants to help, but a big part that doesn’t want to enable a destructive lifestyle. My pride also gets in the way, and I hate being taken advantage of. The tricky part for me is guarding my heart so I don’t become callous and remembering they took advantage of Christ. Perhaps the best route is to give very generously to church/missions/child sponsor, and when approached by a stranger, to give a Subway gift card (thanks Krista!) If planned ahead, it could even be a total ministry opportunity (ex. envelope w/ subway card, invitation to church, note that Jesus loves them, etc).

  • Joey November 29, 7:28 PM

    Interesting post, I’ve been in that place a few times, trying to decide if i should help the slob or homeless person who had asked me for money, because I’ve heard differents stories they say and later i’ve realized some weren’t true, but i just remember what my dad usually says about it:”God has commanded us to help those in need”. We’ll never know If we’re feeding poverty, drug addicts, or certainly helping people with a big need.But giving food or clothes, and show a smile, instead of taking money off from our pockets would be a good choice.

  • Michael P November 30, 10:30 AM

    Yeah, good questions man – I actually quit giving money a few years ago. What I usually ask is “what are you trying to do?” if the answer is “get something to eat”, then there is almost always a fast food joint with a dollar menu within a few blocks and I have no problem with 5 bucks worth of food – but I’ve seen the “professional” panhandlers too many times.

  • keith December 1, 12:14 AM

    Perhaps it’s as simple as a ‘no money/only food’ policy…

  • jason haury December 10, 4:06 PM

    Nick’s giftcard idea is one I’ve seen people use more and more. Of course, I’ve also heard from retailers that some recipients will just try to exchange it for cash. In dealing with these areas where personal subjectivity is involved (we’re a person with money dealing with a person who wants money, and we have to go based on our subjective senses on whether they’re really in need or just hustlin’), there’s that sappy yet way-too-useful answer of “oh just let the Holy Spirit guide you”. I think your “random method” might be the way to go. Sometimes it just feels right to give…sometimes it feels right to just keep on a-walkin’. And as a dude who thinks there an overarching God who is also a Person with insight into all our hearts, I find it reasonable to believe that He can look into Mr. Havenot’s heart and then whisper into my heart if I’d really be helping him (or helping myself even? ) by giving. It’s almost like with our subjective experiences with God have to be somehow universally experienceable by all people such that in a way, it’s the most Objective thing out there. All of us can feel Divine peace, concern, pity, love, strength, unease, etc. , even if it’s a different circumstance that ushers that experience. In other words, in order for me to rest in the idea that my Divine experiences are valid, I have to believe that others can experience them too. That means I can rest in being puppeteered by heart strings, and also rest in the idea that if fail to help someone who needs it by mistake, and God wants him helped, He’ll tug on someone else’s heartstrings. This way I can fret-not more easily, and zen out in the whole experience to better “listen to my heart”. The Sunday school flannel board spake truth.

  • keith December 14, 10:53 PM

    I think I’m just going to carry a flannel board with me wherever I go and give a Sunday school lesson whenever I am asked for money. That or a free puppet show.

  • Brandon December 29, 11:58 PM

    I agree wholeheartedly man. I try to give to those who need it a whole lot more than the worst off here in the u.s. Have you ever used kiva? Check it out. It’s a micro loan program I’ve been a member for a few years now and have loaned $25 to ten different people that was combined with other lenders to help them start a business – (the teaching them how to fish idea you mentioned). 6 have paid me back in full and four have made all their scheduled payments. It isn’t a lot to us but it can make all the difference in a third world country. Also, I’m glad I found your blog and really dig your music. Thanks for the email on last.fm

  • keith January 1, 10:17 PM

    Thanks Brandon. I have heard of Kiva but have not checked it out yet -it is a great idea. I mainly give to overseas charities as well knowing that the people in other parts of the world are REALLY destitute.

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