Gary Hoag, the Generosity Monk; Andy Bales, the chief executive of Union Rescue Mission; and Ron Sider, president of Evangelicals for Social Action, offer their views on whether Christians should always give money to street people who ask for it.
Give to Street People? Freely
Gary Hoag, the Generosity Monk
Jesus ministered to social outcasts and the undeserving on numerous occasions, so why don't we? Three possible hang-ups to serving street people have troubled Christians through the centuries.
First, we judge them.
We judge whether or not they are worthy of assistance and what they will do with our aid. Consider this illustration, from C. S. Lewis:
One day, Lewis and a friend were walking down the road and came upon a street person who reached out to them for help. While his friend kept walking, Lewis stopped and proceeded to empty his wallet. When they resumed their journey, his friend asked, "What are you doing giving him your money like that? Don't you know he's just going to go squander all that on ale?" Lewis paused and replied, "That's all I was going to do with it."
Why stop judging those in need? John the Almsgiver (A.D. 550-616) offers an answer. When a person who was not really in need applied for alms and was detected by those administering care, John merely said, "Give unto him; he may be our Lord in disguise."
Second, we hesitate to give freely to those who ask because we fear it may leave us as givers without resources.
I believe many followers of Jesus lack faith to believe that if we empty ourselves of the resources God has provided us, he will fill our cups again.
Paul reminds us, "Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God" (2 Cor. 9:10-11).
To be generous "on every occasion" requires faith to believe that God will, indeed, care for our needs if we show his love by caring for others. As Brennan Manning says, "God's call for each of us to live a life of unlimited generosity is rooted in his limitless love and care for us."
Finally, I believe we fail to give freely to all who ask because we value our possessions more than people.
We cherish stuff more than souls. In The Shepherd of Hermas, an early church writing, we are urged, "Instead of fields, buy souls that are in trouble according to your ability."
What if we adopted this perspective when it came to our asset portfolios? How many street people could we bless in the name of Jesus if we all gave freely? As Jesus sent the first disciples, I believe he is sending us: "Freely you have received; freely give" (Matt. 10:8b).
May God help us stop judging people; freely give to others, trusting him to provide the resources for our generosity; and stop treasuring stuff over people. In so doing, this postmodern world will see Jesus in our generosity, and we may "rebuild the church" as Francis of Assisi did in his day.
Give to Street People? Only as a Last Resort
Andy Bales, the chief executive of Union Rescue Mission
Scripture clearly tells us to keep an open hand to our brothers and sisters in need: "You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land" (Deut. 15:11, ESV).
However, experience has taught me that almost all of the folks standing on corners, sitting at the exits and entrances of freeway ramps, panhandling in public, or even coming to churches to connect with the person in charge of benevolence are not truly homeless or impoverished.
My dad, Carl Bales, helped develop a news exposé in Des Moines, Iowa, that showed that many panhandlers were making as much as $300 per day. The story also tracked the panhandlers as they spent the money on alcohol and drugs.
I know by name more than 400 people experiencing homelessness in Pasadena, and more than 1,000 people by name on the streets of Skid Row, and I have never seen one of these truly homeless people panhandling on a street corner.
I do know folks who panhandle all day, earn about $300, then walk to their car and drive to an apartment or home.
As the manager of several church benevolent funds over the years, I realized that no matter how many safeguards I put up to make sure the funds were dispensed to people truly in need, I could have spent $1 million and not made a dent in the need.
People experiencing homelessness and poverty need a caring community. The scriptural basis for this is the story in Acts of Peter and John healing the lame man. The men respond to the beggar's request for funds not by giving him money but by giving him a better gift: the gift of healing.
People need permanent help in becoming strong. They need a connection with Jesus Christ and a faith community.
Giving cash to someone in need is the least helpful and most temporary solution, and should only be a last resort. When someone approaches me and asks for funds to get a place to stay, I connect them with resources, often hand them my card, and ask them to come to our mission. I also work to get them enrolled in a program that will provide not only a roof over their head but also, possibly, a life-transforming experience.
At rare times, giving funds may be the only option. When an elderly lady on the streets of Shanghai approached me for help, I was unaware of services available, and also aware that there is no Social Security for elderly Chinese without family. I gave her all of the cash I had with me.
Now I've been asked to come back and help Shanghai establish a rescue mission, and I'd say that will be real help.
Give to Street People? Don't
Ron Sider, president of Evangelicals for Social Action
Everyone asking for a handout is an immeasurably precious person made in the image of God whom I am called to love. But a quick donation is, at best, cheap love.
One reason we should not give handouts is that some people are begging for money to support irresponsible behavior. Some want money for alcohol or drugs. Some beg because they are lazy. I have heard some amazingly convincing stories—and on occasion been taken in. It is extremely difficult to quickly distinguish such persons from those in real need.
Love is acting in the best interests of others. Providing money so someone can continue immoral, destructive behavior is simply not a loving act.
A small, quick handout lets us off the hook from a more thoughtful response to the person's need. Even the lazy or addicted person is made in God's image and needs comprehensive assistance from a loving Christian community. That demands time and financial resources.
We need to change our affluent lifestyles in order to give more generously to effective, holistic programs. Some are desperately poor because of unjust structures that we need to challenge and correct. A handout lets me feel morally righteous while obscuring my obligation to work for sweeping reflection and change.
Some give because they remember that hundreds of Bible verses talk about God's special concern for the poor. That is true and important, but the fact that God demands that his people side with the poor does not free us to give irresponsibly.
Some people toss a little money to a street person to assuage guilty feelings about their affluence in the midst of poverty. The guilt is often warranted. Many rich Christians spend vast sums on themselves even in the midst of desperate poverty. Instead of tossing a few coins to a beggar to assuage their conscience, these people should resolve to live far more simply, give to effective programs that empower poor people, and explore honestly poverty's structural causes.
So what should we do? We must give in ways that truly liberate, empower, and transform.
Rather than hand someone money, we can offer to buy the person a meal and then sit down and listen to the person's story. People almost always need love even more than money.
We should be part of Christian congregations that love the whole person the way Jesus did and operate holistic community centers that combine evangelism and a full range of social programs. Then we can direct or take the person to these centers to get groceries if necessary and—more importantly—to find help for deeper socioeconomic problems. There, staff can gently, appropriately share the love of Christ and invite the person to come to church, where Christians throw their arms around hurting persons as God transforms them for a lifetime.
Copyright © 2011 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Gary Hoag, the Generosity Monk, has dedicated his life to encouraging Christian generosity.
Andy Bales is the chief executive of Union Rescue Mission, which works with the homeless in Los Angeles.
Ron Sider is president of Evangelicals for Social Action and author of Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger.
Previous Christianity Today articles on giving include:
Church Giving Outlook: You've Got Some Time | Research shows that members' contributions stay steady through first years of recession. (October 16, 2008)
The Dread Cancer of Stinginess | When it comes to missions giving, donor dependency may not be the greatest problem. (October 2, 2007)
Directions: Are Christians Required to Tithe? | We should be careful not to isolate the tithe from broader demands of generosity and social justice. (November 15, 1999)
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