October 29, 2007

Charity is Tricky

Our nephew had his rite of Christening this past weekend. Having been asked to be his godfather, I still hadn't finished personalizing a note on the inside cover of the gift I'd gotten for him when it was time to leave. So as we pulled up to Starbucks to pick up some coffee to help keep us awake for the 40 minute drive to the church, I decided to stay back in the car and finish my note.

On her way into the coffee shop, my wife was approached by a man asking for money. She truthfully told him that she carried no cash, but on the way back to our car and with her arms filled with overpriced coffee, she was quite overcome with guilt. And as I'd just finished my note and wrapped up the gift, we spent the rest of the drive to the church discussing the complexities of charity.

Nikki: I'm an evil person.

Me: I don't think that's exactly true, you didn't have any cash.

Nikki: But I had enough money for a grande non-fat sugar-free vanilla latte!

Me: True, but that just makes you pretentious, not evil.

Nikki: Shut up. I think I just need to accept my evilness.

Me: Here's the thing, and I don't expect you to agree with me, but I think I've made a conscious decision somewhere along the way to never give money to people on the street. There are so many other ways for people to get help if they need it, and there are so many people that simply work the street for extra money when they don't need help, that I think the whole system has been ruined.

Nikki: Yeah, it's really tough to know who needs help and who's just trying to get your money through guilt or something.

Me: Right, exactly. And what's someone going to do with the $2 I give him? Is that going to help him get out of his situation, or is it way more likely for him to use that on something not so helpful?

Nikki: I don't know that it's good to assume that they're using it on alcohol or drugs or something, though.

Me: I know, but is the best way for me to help someone who really needs help for me to give them the six quarters in my pocket?

Nikki: Probably not, but should I really just walk by with my hands in my pockets and my head down? That feels so... evil.

Me: Well, when I see people asking for money, I immediately feel guilty about how little I give to organizations that are actually helping people who need help. I'd love to give more money to them, and even work with them. Then when someone asks for money, I would know that I've done what I can to help their situation if they really need help, and I'm not giving money to people who are running a street scam or whatever.

Nikki: Yeah, the hard part is actually doing that, instead of just saying it.

Maybe you didn't care to read through that whole conversation, so I'll sum up the point--I don't think that giving money to people on the street can actually help them. They might not even need help (some friends of ours lived up the street from a house full of "homeless people" who would spend the day begging on the median and then come home each night to their successful meth lab). And if they do need help, your $2 is doubtfully going to give them the kind of help that they need.

If you're out of a job and out of a home and away from your family and friends, you need real help that isn't six quarters from my linty pocket or a bag of biscuits from Popeyes. You need help from a shelter or an organization who can really help you get out of your situation so you don't have to keep begging for change (and getting hot chocolate from McDonald's instead).

Giving to shelters can help, but only if people use the services provided there. And people will be far less likely to use those services (which come with some levels of responsibility) if they can make a fair amount of money on the streets because we keep giving change out of our car windows.

The parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25 is about the people who ask, "Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?" I wonder if the answer to us would be, "The least of these were all around you but you didn't help them because you only cared enough to lazily throw some spare change out your window to the first person who asked enough to make you feel guilty or scared."

Okay, that was a horrible summary, so here's a better one:

The next time you feel that pang of guilt as you watch someone stand on the corner and ask for money, channel it. Take the guilt home with you and write a big check to a responsible organization in your community that's doing everything they can to help people who really need help. Or volunteer with them, and actually serve the least of these.


Nicole & Cody Taylor said...

good post... ive felt like nikki a lot of times as well... while i agree with your ultimate resolution what do you do or say in the moment?

rachel said...

While I agree with your ultimate point, that it is most important to support charitable organizations and shelters that do the most good, I disagree that it is never valuable to give money or counsel to those in need.

It is a difficult thing to decide what to do in that spur of the moment. If someone approaches me, and I feel a calling to give to them and share with them, I will do it (if I have cash on me!). I understand Nikki's feelings of guilt and have felt them at times. Jesus didn't ignore the beggars (not that I'm saying you ignore them), but he talked with them, and healed them. Although I don't believe I can heal (that's another topic all together), if someone needs $2 and I have it, I can spare it.

Due to the fact that I already give to some charities and tons to my own church which filters some of that into charity, I can be Christ to that person. If he takes it, and uses it for alcohol, yes I am disappointed, but ... I think maybe the happiness I gave to them in that moment may have been the point? Who am I to say what they can and cannot use it for? If I give it as a gift.

Or am I just encouraging horrible habits?

AH! :-)

rachel said...

Another thought... what if that beggar just wanted coffee? What if Nikki had taken them into Starbucks and chose how the money was spent, and given them that gift?

I dunno... I wonder how that woudl have gone. Maybe they wouldn't have wanted it, becuase they wanted to do something not-so-good with her $2.

Jason said...

Some of you may choose to give, but I've simply had to make the decision that I won't. Because I can't be sure if they actually need $2, regardless of whether I have it or not, I feel as though my giving it is in vain.

In the moment, I simply say, "I'm sorry, I can't." I want to encourage the people who need help to get it, but I don't feel like there are words with which to do it. Instead, I think the act of taking that very $2 and immediately sending it to the nearest shelter in hopes that it will be put to good use is the best way I can "encourage" those who need help to do so.

We can't expect people to begin seeking out shelters and solutions if we continue to support them with a few unaccountable dollars on the street. None of us in that situation would have the will power to save the money and use it to climb out of our situation -- we need the help of others.

So if you're not prepared to welcome the person into your home, cook him a great meal, and help him get cleaned up and find a job (and let me assure you, I am NOT prepared to do any of that), then perhaps it's better to say, "I'm sorry, I can't" and then channel the money to people who can.

Nicole & Cody Taylor said...

yeah, i am definitely not in a position to invite anyone into my home and there have a few times that i have given to someone if i believed the Lord was calling me to but ultimately cody and i do not give to people who ask either of us from the street... if im in line at the grocery store i can see exactly what the money is for so that to me is different. i think my inclination to be silent or seem like i am ignoring is because sometimes people get pissed off if you dont want to give to them and you are coming out of some place like starbucks or the mall. meh... i dont even know if i said anything purposeful...