Maybe I should give to those I see

Ragged five dollar bill

Never before 2020 can I recall handing cash to poor people waiting at street lights. I believed, and I’m pretty sure I was told, it’s better to give to the organizations that can help them find housing, food and employment.

I see weathered men with the handwritten cardboard signs that say, “Anything helps,” or “Need $ for shoes.” I think, you probably have shoes. You made it to this median, to stand next to a traffic light near a popular freeway on ramp. And now the shoes are in the backpack next to you. These days, though, I start to shift around in the drivers seat to reach my wallet, power down the window and hand over a few dollars. Because who the hell am I to know? The truth is there’s a person who is very clearly telling me they could use some money, and I am literally sitting on cash as I look at them.

Don’t get me wrong. We all should support the charities and nonprofit organizations that support the homeless and near-homeless. They get people in need what they need — warm food, warm beds, warm showers. My sister works for a food bank, and she will tell you writing a check to your local food bank helps people. Food banks can get more food for the dollar than you can, and they can more efficiently deliver it to the people — adults and children alike — who need it.

The person who got me to literally open my wallet, in addition to opening my checkbook, was Pope Francis, in comments that took a few years to sink in with me.

 “There are many arguments to justify oneself when you do not give alms. ‘But what, I give money and then he spends it on a glass of wine?’ If a glass of wine is the only happiness he has in life, that is fine. Instead, ask yourself what you do secretly. What ‘happiness’ do you seek in private? Or, on the contrary to him, you are more fortunate, with a house, a wife, children, which leads you to say, ‘Take care of him yourselves’. Help is always right.”

Pope Francis

I took it as a reminder that we shouldn’t anoint ourselves social worker, judge and financial advisor to beggars. They are people. A person asked something of you, and God considers your response to that fellow human, not your analysis of the causes of poverty.

It got me to thinking about who is in my mind when I do give. First, I’m not that generous overall. Something to work on. But on top of not being especially generous, I used to give only to organizations, not to individuals. Then I realized when I made donations online to do-gooders, maybe subconsciously I imagined I was giving it to a more trustworthy person. A person like me, with a house and a degree and pants that fit.

What I definitely was not doing was giving to the poor people I saw with my eyes in real life. I was not responding to the signs written in black Sharpie, or the words repeatedly directed to me on sidewalks and in parking lots: “Do you have a few bucks you could spare?”

What I would say is, “Sorry, man.” And yes, it’s almost always a man asking — not actually always, but nearly. But maybe what I meant was, “I don’t give money to people with missing teeth, or unwashed hair, or three coats on.”

So, I’m trying to change that. I’m trying to do something that’s hard for me, which is to physically part with my hard-earned cash. To give that money I got for doing my professional job to a stranger who will do whatever he damn well pleases with it. Because that’s what is being asked of me.

Just to be clear, I am not holding myself out as some kind of expert on donation, or even as significant donor to any cause. As my wife frequently remarks, I can pinch pennies until they scream. So you do what you like, fair reader. I’m not the judge. I’m just sharing a way of thinking about giving that has been meaningful to me. I think I’m not supposed to begrudgingly make my donation via the mail or Internet to an abstract good cause just so I can ignore the panhandler and still feel like I’m a contributing member of society.

It’s been dawning on me that I am probably supposed to be listening to the fellow humans who come up to me and ask me for a favor. I don’t have to do as they ask. I’m allowed to consider and choose. But I should actually consider. I should listen to the real voices reaching my ears, the signs my eyes behold out in the sun and rain.

I didn’t know it until I wrote this post and looked up the Pope’s full comments, but Francis also reminded people to use their eyes — to look into the eyes of the poor. Here’s the rest of his comment.

“Certainly, it is not a good thing just to throw a few coins at the poor. The gesture is important, helping those who ask, looking them in the eyes and touching their hands. Tossing the money without looking in the eyes, that is not the gesture of a Christian. Teaching in charity is not about offloading one’s own sense of guilt, but it is touching, looking at our inner poverty that the Lord understands and saves. Because we all have inner poverty”.

Pope Francis

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