Give...Even if You’ve Been Taken

(photo: Alex Proimos/Wikipedia)

Some time ago, my husband and son were traveling to visit relatives. At a rest area, they were approached by a woman in need of some quick cash.  Her car had broken down, her cell phone was dead, she had a sick child in need of immediate care and she had no one to call for help, as she was traveling thousands of miles from home...or something to that effect. My husband offered to do everything from having the vehicle towed to putting the family up in a hotel.  In the end, he gave them cash.  No sooner had the money exchanged hands than the family skipped right over to their (perfectly functioning) car and drove away. 

Shortly after that event I learned that someone I know actually carries a cardboard sign and solicits money in the metro area where she lives.  This woman is not homeless, but claims that begging is much easier than working eight hours a day as a waitress.  Not only that, but the pay is better and it’s tax-free, she says. 

Needless to say, these experiences left my heart somewhat hardened toward anyone with a cardboard sign.  Rather than seeing individuals standing on the corner, I began to see only swindlers and I tried to avoid contact with panhandlers” altogether. 

But playing hardball was not the answer.  Each time I drove by, feigning interest in my radio dial as I avoided eye contact, my heart cried foul.  After all, even I knew that not everyone I see on the street was a crook.  And, if my call as Catholic is to love my neighbor, should it really matter to me whether they tore the cardboard off their breakfast cereal box and drove an SUV down to the local superstore to solicit or whether they retrieved it from a garbage bin near their makeshift bed a block away? 

Maybe it shouldn’t have, but it did. I really struggled with the thought that by helping someone who was “playing the system,” I was actually perpetuating a problem.  For a long time, I was sincerely unsure as to what course Christ would have me take.

Finally, I sought the advice of two women who deal with the poor on a daily basis.  Their advice was so constructive that I’ve included it below for anyone who may struggle with similar questions.  First they suggested two main principles:

Don’t give money. 

According to Cindy Engelkamp, president of St. Peter Catholic Church Society of St. Vincent de Paul in Omaha, NE, her organization follows the example of Father Benedict Groeschel, who had a policy of never giving cash when he worked with the poor in New York City.  She said that often poor people who are addicted to drugs and alcohol solicit to pay for their habit.  Additionally, the absence of cash impedes those who pick up a sign because it’s easier than holding down a job. 

Encounter Christ in the Person.

Christ in the City of Denver, CO takes this edict very seriously.  According to outreach coordinator, Irma Montes, it is paramount that we encounter the humanity of every individual we meet. 

Cindy and Irma also offered  a list of practical suggestions to help put the principles into action:

  1. Roll down the window and make eye contact. 
    By taking these simple steps, we make intimate contact with the person behind the sign. Eye contact demonstrates respect, interest, appreciation and understanding - things every person deserves by virtue of their human dignity.
  2. Smile.
    A genuine smile erases all social barriers and tells someone you recognize them as your brother or sister in Christ.     
  3. Ask the person’s name. 
    Asking someone’s name is a way of recognizing their identity.  Also, knowing a person’s name allows us to add him or her to our prayers.  We can serve him as an individual as opposed to remembering some nameless face on the street. 
  4. Offer tangible help.
    Following are just a few examples:  Hand out a bottle of water or small snack —you could even have “snack bags” readily available in your vehicle that may include a water bottle, prayer card or rosary, a granola bar, or any number of simple but healthful snacks contained in a Ziploc bag;  Give gift cards for various restaurants; In cold weather, hand out socks or gloves.

Regardless of what you do, Irma offered these words of wisdom: 

By the grace of God, is it not you or I who is standing on that street corner.  What has led a person to the street we may never entirely understand, but we always have the option to love. What we do know with confidence is that he or she is Christ in our midst.