I pull out from Wal-Mart, past the man with the cardboard sign, and once again I’m slapping my forehead that I’ve forgotten to print the cards. I’ve decided that in these situations I’m going to stop and talk to him, hear his story, share my encouragement, ask if I can take him to the Food and Care for lunch, give him a quick hug, and leave him with a card with addresses and phone numbers for places he can find food and help. (I’m not suggesting this for everyone; it is simply what feels right to me.) When I get home I’m busy unloading, and I forget. Every time.
An article this morning has me thinking about this again, as if I ever stop. As a practitioner in the field, I know that panhandling siphons money (and more importantly, the feeling of having done something productive) into temporary situations instead of into solid initiatives that are making a difference. The mantra we repeat is “give to an established local organization that is creating solid pathways to self-sufficiency.” It’s a reasonable thing to say to people who manage their money well and are in the habit of price-shopping for the best deal. Philanthropy has an element of business management, and those of us who direct efforts know that we are selling something in a market of philanthropic opportunities. To the degree that we offer an appealing product for a good price, people will buy and that is what allows us to keep doing good.
Even as I say this, and know this, and tailor work to be as efficient and life-changing as possible on the shoestring budgets that are our lot, I know that giving is more than a product.
My sister who lives in LA told me of an experience she had in the grocery store. She was standing in a checkout line as she watched an altercation between a store manager and a scruffy-looking gentleman outside the glass windows. He had approached a woman who was leaving the store and apparently asked for some food. She had recoiled fearfully and the manager had run outside and loudly told him that he would have to leave. The man stood his ground and shouted that he just needed something to eat.
Mary is a reasonable person. We’ve discussed panhandling before, and she knows it doesn’t solve anything. But she hurriedly grabbed the first thing she touched, a loaf of bread off the conveyor belt, and ran outside. The man was facing her as she approached him holding out the loaf of bread. He stopped wrestling with the store manager and stood still as she put it in his hands. His eyes welled up with tears and he said, “Thank you. I’m so hungry.” Her eyes welled up too, and she hugged him and whispered in his ear, “God loves us all. I wish this were more.” The store manager objected, but she patted his arm and told him to let it all be. They walked into the store together as the man walked away, the store manager offering to replace her bread and Mary refusing.
This is her pattern. We had a discussion more recently in which she told me of trotting quickly out of a take-out Chinese place with dinner to see a very young family sitting on a curb sharing a frozen yogurt. She walked by them, and something told her to “help them.” She walked on, thinking about her family waiting for dinner, and the thought came again. So she turned around and walked back, and in the rudimentary Spanish she’s trying to teach herself, she said, “necesita comida” (need food)? They sat frozen, looking at her carefully. The toddler looked at his mother, barely an adult herself, and she looked longingly at the food, then at her husband, then down. The young man sat up straight for long moments, his face a mask, then his back slowly bent and he looked down with tears in his eyes and said, “por favor, para ellos” (please, for them). They shared dinner and history and became friends. Such is my sister.
An LDS prophet, Brigham Young, once said, “Prayer is good, but when baked potatoes and milk are needed, prayer will not supply their place.” We could almost substitute, “A solid business plan is good, but can never replace instantaneous, personal charity.”
More important even than money or bread or potatoes or milk is a feeling that we are one. I’ve long believed that the most devastating aspect of poverty is the wall that goes up between people. We are all unsure what goes on on the other side. Poor people think they know what rich people think, about life and about them, and they act based on how they think. Rich people think they know what poor people think, about life and about them, and they act based on that too. The people in the middle (some of the angriest people in our society) think they know what both poor and rich people think, and that controls their action. Unless they’ve spent some time scaling the wall, they’re all usually wrong.
To the degree that people see one another accurately, the better angels of their natures prevail. This true sight happens more often when benefactors and recipients are face-to-face. Not only is there an exchange of a needed commodity, there is the possibility of an exchange of understanding, a hole broken in that unity-disabling wall.
In the article I linked above, the couple drove away silenced by their surprise that people are sorry about being needy. In fact, it is the most common feeling of those who survive want, once you peel away the anger and embarrassment that is layered protectively over it. A profound sense of sorrow that one doesn’t measure up, that one is a burden, that one makes others uncomfortable. In that situation, the most profound help is acceptance, an acknowledgement (despite how personally unsettling the fact is) that we are family.
It is also sorrow that undergirds the various emotions of people when they pass by panhandlers without helping – sorrow that they can’t change the situation, sorrow that people suffer, for whatever reason. They would feel less sorrow if they stopped and talked. Unfortunately, the player with the trump card is the one with money, because although the needy have something to give, they can’t initiate the conversation. We have to stop.
The story is told of the apostles stopping at the lame man lying by the temple, who healed him because they had that power and the willingness to use it. They didn’t give the alms that would have assuaged their conscience and that are the responsibility of any disciple of Christ, much like the fast offerings disciples in my faith give, because they likely didn’t have any themselves. They offered him something more. They acknowledged their own limitation at helping him with all his needs, they touched him, lifted him up, steadied him as his ankle bones received strength, and walked with him into the temple to share his joy.
We may not be able to turn the causes of poverty completely, but we can offer all that these apostles did. We can stop, look deeply at suffering others, be willing to have them look deeply at us, reach out to them in friendship, steady them as they work through being healed, and then continue friends as they move forward. This does happen in tried-and-true programs and volunteering in one is a great way to be part of that process. But sometimes it also happens when we press a few dollars into someone’s hand and tell them God loves us all.
And the danger of being taken advantage of or of wasting our investment? Probably not as significant as the danger of being finally judged for having withheld our substance. I’m curious about all the “suggestions” in scripture that encourage us to give to people according to their needs and their wants … here and here and here and here. I think I’ll be stopping more often. People in my life have sure been kind to me.
By the way, I made the cards.