What does one do when the homeless guy at the corner approaches your drivers’ window?
Ever wrestle this? Be rude? Ignore? Give it up? Think, “If they would get a job, then…”. Is it about me? That person? Should I give them dignity by a non-working blue tooth ear piece, so at least it looks like they are talking to someone, anyone? Why don’t they just go away and let us alone, let us create Never Never Land?
Red Letter Christians, has another super read to consider:
On the Receiving End: Beggars and PBJ
by Chris Lahr Friday, January 13th, 2012
I have had many people ask me whether or not they should give money to beggars. My reply is always, “First beg, then you’ll know how to NOT give to beggars.”
There are many responses to this question that a beggar sees as he sits with the hand extended hoping for your spare change… some casually walk to the other side of the street and act as if the beggar does not exist. Others come up on the beggar suddenly and do not have the time to cross to the other side of the street so they simply inform him that they do not have any “spare” change. Others approach the panhandler with a mission and begin preaching “the Good News” and letting him know what is needed to get his life straight now and in the life to come. Rare is the person who takes the time to get to know the person on the street, to listen to their story, to hear their struggle, to hear their wisdom.
When I was in college I traveled into Center City Philadelphia every Saturday to hang out with homeless folks. On our limited college budgets we would take down peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and milk. We took so many pb&j sandwiches down that the folks on the streets started referring to us as the peanut butter and jelly Christians (a denomination that I was very proud to be a part of). It was all fine until one of the guys we had met on the streets informed us that he did not like peanut butter and jelly, but would rather have ham-n-cheese. Hmmm, this sounded more like a job for a prosperity denomination to me, but I told him we would do our best to accommodate him the next week.
During those days we made some meaningful relationships. One of my dearest friends was Ricky. Though it was Ricky’s mental health issue that kept him on the streets, he was very bright and we would talk for hours about different topics ranging from life on the streets, the Bible, the Church, rich people, our bangin’ pb&j sandwiches, etc. One weekend we decided to bring Ricky to our campus. Not really sure how we pulled this off, but one thing is for sure, if you want to invite the homeless to stay over in your dorm for a weekend, don’t ask for permission. Ricky had a great visit, met some new friends, ate lots of food, but eventually had to go back to the streets. Taking Ricky back was really hard. It was in the middle of winter! No longer was he just some homeless dude on the streets, but he was my friend, Ricky.
A couple weeks later I talked a couple friends into going to Philadelphia to spend the night on the streets. We went with no pb&j’s to hand out, no food for ourselves, and no money. At first I thought we would be hitting the streets with nothing to give, but I quickly learned that we did have something to give… ourselves! I also learned that we had so much to receive from our brothers and sisters with no place to call home.
There is a danger inherent with those who serve. Those who serve with good motives are often still the ones in charge. They hold the power. Power is not bad in and of itself, but it can become dangerous when it is not used properly. Rather than taking the time to get to know someone and truly understanding their real felt needs, there is the temptation to give them what we think they need.
Paulo Freire in his book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, talks about false generosity (p.26 ff). He states that any attempt to soften the power of the oppressor in deference to the weakness of the oppressed almost always manifests itself in the form of false generosity. False generosity gives you a warm feeling inside as you hand out food to the homeless, but the deeper questions of why they are homeless is never explored. False generosity makes it ok to come into a poor community unannounced to pass out tracks, hand out candy, and preach the Word… never building meaningful relationships and opening yourself up to truly making a change for the sake of justice. Think about it… do prisons want crime to cease? Do homeless shelters really want homelessness to be a thing of the past? Prisons and homeless shelters are booming businesses that can only survive if these issues continue. Freire says that, “injustice is perpetuated so generosity can continue to be expressed.” He goes on to say that “True generosity consists precisely in fighting to destroy the causes which nurture false generosity” (p.27).
If we really want to be able to destroy the causes which nurture false generosity, we must be able to live in solidarity with those in need. Justice cannot be handed top down, but is created in the context of beloved community. In solidarity we are able to see the image of God in others, as well as see our own humanity. Those days on the streets of Philly as a college kid opened my eyes to what it means to be in solidarity by “being on the receiving end.” It was in these times that we discovered a deep faith in Jesus as we learned what it means to not worry about tomorrow for tomorrow will worry about itself.
Over the past several years we have been running a weekend poverty simulation through Mission Year called PRoP (Pauper’s Rite of Passage). In many areas of the world, people practice Rites of Passage where a child goes through a series of events lead by the elders of the community and when the Rites is over they are viewed as a man or woman in that society. The Church is in a state of adolescence at best until she embraces God’s heart for the poor. PRoP was created to be a starting point in that direction.
PRoP takes place over a weekend. What makes PRoP unique is that there is no service involved! Instead, participants come to the city to learn from those living on the streets. A lot of PRoP is spent on the streets either panhandling for your next meal or sitting at the feet of homeless folks hearing their stories. Participants do not “pretend to be homeless,” rather they tell folks they have been challenged to spend the day on the streets with no money and to learn from people. I am amazed every time we debrief their experience and they talk about their time panhandling. They are amazed at the stares they receive and the rejection they feel, and even the feeling of inhumanity. Often they also become overwhelmed at the kindness they experience when someone gives them something. Should you give money to beggars? Beg first then you will know how NOT to give to beggars. PRoP allows people to see other people’s humanity (as well as their own) at a deeper level. PRoP is not solidarity with the poor, but perhaps it is a stepping stone in the direction for some.
Chris Lahr is a Recruiter and the Academic Director for Mission Year. He is also a part of the Simple Way in Philadelphia. He is a writer and a speaker. For information about having Chris speak, email Jen Casselberry.