I committed a sin of omission this week. That’s a fancy name for chickening out. Here’s what happened.
It started out all right. Walking to the subway, I passed a woman on a bench, who asked me “Do you have any spare change?” As I walked by without giving her anything, she said, “Thank you, God bless you. Have a great evening.” Would I be that cheerful if I had nothing? No, I get cranky when the subway’s late. I went into a deli to get her a sandwich, but they were closing. So I kept going.
Half a block later, a man sitting on the pavement held out a cup. I asked him his name. He said, “Mitchell.” I told him my name and asked him to pray for me and that I would do the same for him. That’s pretty much what scripture says not to do – pretend that good wishes are good enough for someone who needs the basics.
I have this rule that I don’t hand people money. I wasn’t flexible enough to notice in that moment that Mitchell was hungry, not drunk. He reached out, but I pulled back. His face is still in my mind. Peaceful, engaged.
So I’m reminded that I need always to have something to eat and drink with me so there’s something to give. St. Augustine said that mercy is heartfelt sympathy for those in distress, impelling us to comfort them if we can. Another virtue, prudence, enables us to plan ahead so we’ll be prepared for what’s likely to happen. May Mitchell’s prayers gain us all more mercy and prudence.
What’s your approach to those begging on the street — do you know beforehand what you’ll do when you’re asked to give?
P.S. After I wrote this, I went to the grocery store. On leaving, I saw a woman begging. I was able to give Doris something from my cart. Had I planned ahead? No. But God provided a way to start my new habit of being prepared!
Sr. Mary Grace, OP
We always give food when a needy person comes to the door but are advised not to give money, as we do not know how that money will be spent. However, when someone was waiting outside our door shoutging that he was sick and would we please call for an ambulance, of course we did that, but with caution as well as compassion. I remember one of my sisters running for a blanket while we waited for the ambulance and putting a compassionate hand on his shoulder. It’s a hard call sometimes.
Good reminder to be cautious, too. Wise as serpents and meek as doves.
There was a time when, should I give or not, tugged at my heart. I no longer judge the situation. I see everyone that begs has a need and believe that person is “Jesus in disguise”….says Saint Mother Theresa of Calcutta. Recently, It was a hot day 98 degrees, 1 pm. I left my house to run to the post office. I saw a man in a wheelchair at the bus stop as I drived past. I was touched by his situation, as he looked helpless with the hot sun beating down on him. I immediately felt the need to reach out to him and went to the store and purchased 2 bottles of cold water and gave it to him with some money. He said “Thank you, I needed this water, but could not go to get it, God bless you”. The humility in his voice touched me so much that I immediately believed that he was Jesus in disguise and I thanked God for giving me this opportunity to serve Him.
Your approach takes all the inner turmoil out of giving. Thanks for sharing this with us.
I’m often torn when stopping at heavily traveled intersections with people asking for (monetary) help. I like the idea of carrying something with me at all times, so I have something to offer to assuage hunger or thirst; now, if I can just get in the habit of actually doing so!
To help build a habit of being prepared, I just googled “food packets for homeless” and found a good site for ideas: https://www.portlandrescuemission.org/get-involved/learn/pack-a-care-kit/. They suggest gallon ziplock bags, but I’d make smaller ones to carry on foot. I suppose a group of people could share he cost of buying the items in bulk at Costco!
Rose, thanks for that practical guidance and link to the resource suggestions in Portland. I’m inspired to keep some items handy. Band aids never would have occurred to me before. Appreciating these kind suggestions. I’ll feel prepared rather than awkward when I encounter those in need.
So true. We tend to think only of food and drink — but if I couldn’t brush my teeth today, I know I’d appreciate some mints! The little things are big when we have nothing.
Duke Ellington said “Love is unconditional. It’s not ‘where have you been’, it’s ‘How are you?'” About a week ago a person I know stole nearly $300 from me. I felt exploited and was in a bad mood. I saw a young woman on a traffic island with a cardboard sign hanging from her neck. Nothing in my present life would have put me in her place. So I crossed the street to the island and said “I’m having a bad day, but not as bad as your’s.” I gave her fifty dollars. She said “Bless you.” Had I not met her I would have gone home and spread my bad mood. But I didn’t have a bad mood. What put her there at that time? I don’t know.
I think Pope Francis is showing us what Duke Ellington said (and did) decades before. Thank you for that quote. I’ll keep it with me.
What a great lesson. I will tell my kids also. To be aware of others in time of need and pray for all. Thank you
I love St. Teresa of Calcutta’s statement that she gives the poor for free what the rich get with money. Recognition of their worth and material necessities, in that order.
This is a question I have struggled with for a long time. The story of Lazarus the beggar and the rich man always rises before me when I see people begging and yet there is always the question of whether I enabling addictions if I give money. The other thing that hits me is the pain of being in need and invisible. I am not wise enough to know the answer. I tend to keep a small amount of money ($1) with me to hand to someone who asks me directly – this is more about trying to acknowledge them than solve any problem at the moment – and giving to food pantries on a regular basis. I am looking forward to reading new ideas to add to these small gestures
I have a friend who keeps boxes of granola bars in her car – she also hands out hand warmers in the winter when she is downtown sometimes to people who are sleeping on the grates.
You mention “the pain of being in need and invisible.” You’ll remember that St. Teresa of Calcutta said the greatest poverty she had encountered was in the Bronx. “What?!” people said, “you found the greatest poverty in America?” She explained it was the lack of love at being abandoned that was the greatest poverty. So I always tell them my name, ask them theirs, shake their hand, repeat their name out loud, ask for their prayers and assure them of mine. At least they have “existed” in someone’s eyes for a few moments that day.
Yes – giving them a dollar gives me an”excuse” for saying hello.
Beautiful. I can’t think of a better example of “being Jesus to them.”