We are continually confronted with those in need. Sometimes it may seem obvious. Other times it is not as easy to see the need. One Thanksgiving I drove up to an on-ramp for the highway and a man, who looked homeless, held a sign that read, "Why lie? Need money for beer." Another time, while working at the Nashville Rescue Mission, I had a woman tell me that in one day she made $400 while panhandling. Then there was a time I was driving to church in Tennessee and noticed a man lying in the ditch next to the off ramp. He was shaking violently and obviously in need of medical attention.
At first glance or first interaction, we might balk at someone's motives or assume many things about their character or how they ended up where they are. Only in relationship with people do we begin to understand their story, what brought them to this place of need. After a little bit of time and conversation I found out that the guy with the beer sign didn't really want to buy beer. He was trying to use humor to attract attention, hoping someone would offer to help him get home since he was stranded. The woman who seemed to be raking it in by panhandling, was living in fear for her life due to abuse and the only place she had to stay was the shelter. She lacked the confidence and know-how to move herself beyond the street corner. And I picked up the guy in the ditch. As I drove him to the hospital, I learned that he was a veteran with severe PTSD and was suffering demented tremors due to alcohol withdrawal.
Yes, some people who panhandle are lazy, but many are infirm, abused, traumatized, alone. Without relationship, how can we discern these things? Truly, anyone who is standing on a corner begging, who places themselves under that scrutiny and possible humiliation, has some secret sadness, longing, something in need of redemption and restoration.
These interactions, and many more like them, have forced me to think more deeply about the panhandler, the beggar, the drunk. We often ask the wrong questions when we come in contact with someone panhandling. Do they really need my money? What if they buy beer or drugs? Why don't they get a job? Don't they have more dignity than to beg?
These are not the most important questions. This approach does not put us face-to-face with a person in need, but rather a nuisance or problem to be handled. Rather than trying to justify their need or our role in rescuing, I propose that we instead practice mercy, stewardship, veneration, and preparation.
Practice Mercy: Mercy is hard. Mercy gets in the way of what we really want--justice and fairness. Mother Teresa said, "If you judge people, you have no time to love them." When we turn our hearts towards mercy, we find that it is difficult to judge. It is difficult to accuse and suspect. Mercy can be a powerful act, especially when dealing with our enemies or those we feel are undeserving of it. Mercy means you see the other person, even in their sin and brokenness, even in the consequences of their own choices, and you love anyway. Jesus said, "Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy." It can mend the heart and restore faith. Consider how others have shown you mercy ... even when you didn't deserve it.
Practice Stewardship: There really is no such thing as a "self-made" man. We are who we are because of the love and labor of those who came before us and those who surround and support us. We cannot regard ourselves as powerful possessors, but rather as faithful managers of all we have. The Scriptures remind us that to those who have been given much (and I would add earned much), much is expected. St. John of Kronstadt was a faithful priest in Russia at the end of the 19th Century who served the poorest of the poor. He said, "As the sun, the air, fire, water and earth are all common to us, so also in part are food and drink, money, books and in general all the Lord's gifts shared in common; for they are given in common to all, and yet are easily divisible for distribution amongst many." Inasmuch as you are a member of a family, a community, a human race, steward rightly your time, talent and treasures. Part of being a good steward is giving. Give for the good of others and out of gratitude for what you have been given.
Practice Veneration: When we practice veneration we find that we cannot despise anyone for their appearance or their asking. We should be respectful and hold good intentions towards everyone, especially the poor. Everyone is worthy of compassion and respect as each person is a living icon of God, made in His image. To disrespect this icon is to cruelly wound our own soul. But it is difficult to love and venerate our neighbor. Sometimes they are very unlovable and the image of God is hard to see. In learning to practice veneration we should attempt to be without suspicion, doubt, or a tendency towards minute investigation. Jesus said, inasmuch as you have done it unto one of the least of these, my brethren, you have done it unto me. To be kind, brotherly, open-handed and loving towards our neighbor is to share and participate in extending God's love to all around us.
Practice Preparation: Oftentimes I carry a dollar or two with me during the day to be sure that I have something to give, at least to the first few people that ask. Practice preparation by thinking about how you will respond before you are asked. If we do not have money to give we can still give our attention, a smile, and the respect of listening without judgement. I try to prepare myself not to question or judge the story that goes along with a request for money. But you do not always have to give what is being asked of you in order to be merciful. In the book of Acts the apostles were walking by a man who was begging for money and when asked, Peter responded, "Silver and gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you."
One simple way of practicing preparation is to direct someone to professional resources that are available at places like Reconciliation Services, where trained staff and volunteers are ready to help those most in need. On our website under the programs tab you can find out more about the many services we offer.
As the Thanksgiving holiday arrives, how can you express your thanksgiving by practicing mercy, stewardship, veneration and preparation? Follow us on Facebook and leave a comment about how you practice these things.