Saturday, May 8, 2010

Of Panhandlers and Personal Transformation

This is a re-post of something I wrote a couple years ago. For some reason, it has come to mind a few times this week and I thought that maybe this means I should offer it up again to my readers. Or, maybe I've just been in need of the reminder. Whether its for my benefit only or for someone else too, I hope you find it worth your time.

"I used to think...that Christ might have been exaggerating when he warned about the dangers of wealth. Today I know better. I know how very hard it is to be rich and still keep the milk of human kindness. Money has a dangerous way of putting scales on one's eyes, a dangerous way of freezing people's hands, eyes, lips, and hearts." - Dom Helder Camara

I give to panhandlers. I give to anyone who asks. I have chosen to make it my personal practice.

Sometimes I give food, when and if I have brought my lunch with me, or I have just happened to purchase something, or I am near a restaurant or grocery store. Sometimes I give gift certificates, if I have them and if the restaurant from which the certificate comes is nearby. And, sometimes I give cash. Yes, cash: $3, $5, $10--whatever I happen to have on me at the time.

I know what you're thinking. Silly girl. Doesn't she know that its better to teach a man to fish than to give him a fish? Yes, my friends, I do. But, I have recognized that this attitude is typically used as an excuse not to teach a man to fish, but to do nothing at all. We say, "It is better to teach a man to fish, but since I do not teach fishing, I will not give a fish either." But, I am getting ahead of myself. Allow me to explain.

For some time, I struggled with giving to those who asked for money or food or something of the sort. On the one hand, I wanted to help those in need and be a generous person. On the other hand, the specter of scam artists and professional panhandlers loomed large in my mind. The truth is, over time, the reality of a few liars and cheats crowded out my impetus to give to the many in genuine need. It dulled over time and went away.

Then, I began reading through the Gospels and I discovered that Jesus has quite a bit to say about giving and money in general. These are the ones that step all over your toes:

"Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you." - Matt 5:42

"Jesus looked at him and loved him. 'One thing you lack,' he said. 'Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.'" - Mark 10:21

"Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back...And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even 'sinners' do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even 'sinners' lend to 'sinners,' expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back." - Luke 6:30, 33-35

"Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will not be exhausted, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." - Luke 12:32-33

"In the same way, any of you who does not give up all of his possessions cannot be my disciple." - Luke 14:33

I do not offer these verses as proof-texts for giving to panhandlers--by no means. I offer these verses so that we can look at some of the words of Jesus about giving. I find it very unsettling that in almost eight years of being a follower of Jesus, I have yet to hear these passages of scripture preached or taught as a way of life. As one country preacher has said, "We will worship the hind legs off of Jesus, we just won't do a thing he says."

But, my point is not to prove that giving to strangers who ask for money is good and right for everyone. Here's what I want to address: Why does Jesus instruct us to give to those who ask of us? What is the purpose? Surely Jesus, the all-wise teacher and preacher, knows that job training, drug treatment, counseling, and other forms of social help are more appropriate means of help for the beggar. Surely, he doesn't really mean that we are supposed to give to anyone who asks. Surely not!

The way that we normally get out doing what Jesus says is by making the excuses that I alluded to earlier. "I don't know what she will do with my money." "I don't know if he is an alcoholic or drug addict." "I don't want to waste my money on someone who doesn't need it." These are all reasonable concerns. These are all reasonable excuses for not giving. Yet, don't you think Jesus knows about these concerns? And yet, he still says to give.

Again, the question: Why does Jesus instruct us to give to those who ask, without holding back?

Here's what I think: We think that we are supposed to give in order to help the poor person. This is why we can justify not giving in most situations, because we can reason to ourselves that our money will not really help the person in need. It might just make the matter worse. But, I do not think that we are told to give primarily to help the poor person. We give to help ourselves. The poor person is not the one in need of help--you are.

"Woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort." - Luke 6:24

"I tell you the truth, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." - Matt 19:23-24

"Jesus looked at his disciples and said, 'How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!'" - Mark 10:23

Don't look around to find someone else richer than you. We are the rich man. We are the wealthy. Jesus instructs us to give to those who ask, without holding back, because we need to cultivate a life of giving in order to escape the trappings of wealth that will choke and kill our discipleship in the kingdom of God. If it is true that where your treasure is, there your heart will be also, then we must be giving away our treasure in order not to be a slave to "Mammon" instead of God.

Do you believe Jesus when he says that it is "hard" for the rich to enter the kingdom of God? Do you believe Jesus when he implies that wealth is dangerous? If so, then we should quake in fear and trembling.

I have determined that, for me, I must give to anyone who asks, even panhandlers, in order to become the kind of person who is not attached to my things, my possessions. I must give in order to be spiritually formed as a disciple of Jesus.

And, as I do so, I am made and more aware of just how much I hoard what I have, carressing my "precious" things, like Golum with the "ring of power." This is a bondage that saps the energy out of me, makes me into a person obsessed with me, myself, and all that belongs to me. I need to be delivered from this trap. I need to be saved from materialism. And, for my liberation, I need the poor. I think Jesus understood this and taught his disciples accordingly.

Now, I know what your questions are. What if they are scamming you? What if they are using your money for drugs or alcohol or something else? What if they keep coming back because you've given them money once?

I haven't figured all this out yet, but here's what I'm thinking right now: If they are scamming me, it is not my concern. So what if I lose $5 to someone who doesn't need it? How much do I have that I don't need? My money is not really my money. If God wants to shuffle my $5 to someone else who doesn't need it, what concern is that to me? If God owns everything, then that includes my $5, whether it's in my pocket or the pocket of a scam artist.

I can't tell for sure if someone will use what I give for drugs or alcohol. They could do so. Or, they could not. The same is true of the mission agencies, or the high school graduates, or other worthy causes to which I give. Again, what the recipient of my gift does with what I give is not something over which I have control and it is not something that Jesus gives as a condition of giving. He does not say, "Give to those whom you are certain will use your money for wise and industrious ends." And, if my act of giving is less about the person and more about my spiritual formation, then this question isn't as important.

Yes, it is possible that a person I give money to will continue to come to me for money in the future. And, why is this bad again? If the poor are "blessed," because to them belongs the kingdom of God, then I should be ecstatic that they will return to me. But, that's now how we are trained, is it? The poor, the needy, the outcast, are to be avoided. We give our money to shelters and mission agencies so that we don't have to spend time with them or see them on a personal level. I am the chief of sinners in this regard.

The truth is, I am blessed if the one in need continues to come back to me. In fact, in so doing, we can cultivate a relationship and maybe, just maybe, I will be able to address the root causes of the person's poverty, not just the symptoms. That's where job training and social services and other things enter the picture. But, I can't do this without a relationship and I can't cultivate a relationship unless I have shown mercy and love to him or her.

So, there you have it. Panhandlers and the poor are a part of my personal transformation. I give to those who ask of me because I am a greedy, covetous, materialistic, rich pig of a sinner who needs to be transformed.

I share this with you not because I think all people should act as I have chosen to act, but because I believe the words of Frederick Huntington are true: "It is not scientific doubt, not atheism, not pantheism, not agnosticism, that in our day and in this land is likely to quench the light of the gospel. It is a proud, sensuous, selfish, luxurious, church-going, hollow-hearted prosperity."

God help us all.


sean said...

Today I felt the urge to give money to a panhandler (which I almost never do) but didn't because I just really didn't want the awkward interaction with the person. How small is that?! Thank you for this article Emily, it is a completely different take on the subject than I have heard.

Jade said...


This post was a true blessing to me! I don't know if Scott told you about our recent encounter with a panhandler...if so, you can disregard the next few sentences.

While we were sitting at a local restaurant waiting for our check, a man came in from the street and started taking food that was left from the other people's tables (people who had already left). We watched as the owner started yelling at the man and told him to stop taking food from the tables - it was unsanitary. (I think) the owner packed him up some food for him because he left with a bag. But before going, Scott tried to offer him our chips. The man told us he would probably get in trouble but told us "God bless you" and asked us who he could pray for...we told him he could pray for our families and we would pray for him too.

When we left, we felt so awful because we knew we could have tried harder and we could have even ordered something for him, rather than trying to give him our own food. Our problem, is we are both not accustomed to this kind of poverty. Back home, everyone is "working poor" so we never really encountered beggars (only one time can I recall of this kind of situation when I was little - my dad ordered a whole meal for a man, but refused to give money)...I can still see this argument because I would much rather feed them with food than with alcohol or drugs, or whatever they might buy with it, but like you say, how do we know these other "causes" we give so willingly to are any better?

Scott and I have been praying for courage and well...boldness, because we are just shy about this kind of stuff and think these situations could turn dangerous (moving from a really small town to a city can do that to you I suppose). I see men sitting beside the road a lot and I am hesitant to stop and give them something for fear of my safety because I am usually alone. I know I should just have faith though. What do you do in these situations?

I have also noticed that many of the signs you will see people holding say, "God bless you," and just like the man we met asked who he could pray come we as Christians don't go around saying "God bless you" all the time and asking who we can pray for?? It's something to ask ourselves...maybe these people ARE richer than we are (in Spirit, I mean)...

Thank you so much for reposting this message. I will continue praying for my own personal transformation as well as yours!

jade @

Christiane said...

"Nothing that you have not given away will ever be really yours."

C.S. Lewis
from 'Mere Christianity'

Emily Hunter McGowin said...


I'm sorry for the delay in responding to your comment. Thank you for sharing about your recent experience.

I understand and fully sympathize with your concerns about awkwardness and safety. As far as the awkwardness goes, I'm not sure that ever goes away. Its a very strange thing to be in a position to "give charity" to someone else. It feels unnatural--perhaps because poverty is, at base, unnatural (in the sense of not being a part of God's design for the universe). So, I'm not sure there's anything we can or should do about that. Perhaps that unnatural feeling is good for us. Maybe the awkwardness is a key part of keeping us from getting comfortable with our position of privilege (compared to those who have nothing). What do you think?

As far as safety is concerned, that's really a tough one--one I've struggled with a lot. I wrote this post when I was commuting to school in Waco, TX, an hour and a half from our home. Waco is a very poor city with a large homeless population and I was always encountering panhandlers to and from school. For me, I began to take it on a case by case basis. If I was stopped at a busy intersection during the day, very often I would feel comfortable rolling down my window to give some cash or whatever I had. If it was at night, I rarely did so. Of course, people still need things at night, but I just didn't feel compelled to make that risk. (Ronnie had some input in that decision too!)

(Now, when Ronnie and I are together, its a very different story. I know you haven't met him, but Ronnie's around 6'3" and 315 lbs. He was a football player and looks it. So, I have rarely--if ever--felt unsafe with him. When we're together, the exercise of charity is "easier" in the sense that anxiety about personal safety isn't as much of a problem.)

Now, I do have one more thought about the issue of safety. I have to wonder if our day and time really is as unsafe as we think it is. That is to say, compared to first century Palestine, when Jesus taught, are we really living in a less safe world? Are there really more crimes now than when the Romans occupied Palestine? We can't know the answer to this for sure, but I wonder if our perception of more crime is actually due to mass media and not a true increase in crime. I think I question the idea that we are less safe today than we were 50 years ago. I know its a truism to believe that, but I'm not so sure. Perhaps the sense of being unsafe, constantly threatened by strangers, etc, is created for us by the news, movies, crime shows, etc, and doesn't reflect a fair picture of reality. Maybe I'm wrong, but this is something I've been thinking about.

That said, at the end of the day, I think we're called to walk by the Spirit. So, that means listening to what God is doing at every moment. When the Spirit says give, which I think is most of the time, I give. When I feel a sense that there's a reason to withhold, then I do so as well. That makes it sound so subjective, but in some ways it is. Each of us is called to follow, in many ways, it can look very different. I think that's OK.

Thanks again for your thoughts, Jade!


Steve said...

That's the thing aout giving to any who ask - it'd not about them and me, it's about me and Jesus.

Anonymous said...

Several years ago, my wife and I were at Johnny Carino's. It had been a long day and we were sitting at a corner of our table, holding hands and talking. We had placed our order when a young man came over and said that he was really enjoying how we were acting. He asked if we were on a date and we smiled and said we were.

Our meal arrived. The young man and his companion paid their check and left--after some quiet discussion with the waiter. When we got our bill, the waiter said, "It has been taken care of." That was one of the nicest gifts we ever received. We keep trying to pay it back but it is the gift that keeps on giving.

I encourage each of us to do things of this sort--and to help panhandlers. Some things bring unexpected joy forever. And I expect that he still enjoys the gift too. Who knows, maybe he will read this. :)

Fred Smith said...

Emily. Two memories:

In Texas, I was once approached by a man who told me he had a flat tire and not enough money to purchase a can of "Fix-a-Flat" from the place across the street. He asked for a couple of bucks. I said I could do better than that, and opened the trunk of my car and handed him a can of "Fix-a-Flat". Then I offered him a gospel tract. He said, "Wait! Are you a Christian?" "Yes," I replied. He handed me back the can and said, "Sir, I don't have a flat tire. I was just looking for money to buy something to drink. But I cannot lie to a Christian. I am going to find someone else!"

2) In Memphis, I saw a homeless man near my house and went home to make him a sandwich. In the bag with the sandwich, I put an apple, a diet soda pop, and a gospel tract. When I gave this to him, he was thrilled, especially with the gospel tract. "Thank you! I am going to put this with all the others!" He pulled out a wad of soiled gospel tracts and started showing them to me. "This one came from a member of Peabody Baptist. A seminary student gave me this one! Someone from Bellevue Baptist gave me these!" and so on. "I am going to keep this one too! Thank you so much!"

You never know what's going to happen with that ministry.