One of the most common questions people ask me at our Jacob's Well workshops is whether I give money to panhandlers or beggars. My thoughts have shifted on this topic over the last year, so I decided to try re-settle them into words and sentences.
Even though most Vancouverites who beg live in my neighbourhood, they don't beg as often here as they do in the downtown core, where all the money is, so I don't get asked for money nearly as much as people who work downtown. (To be honest, I struggle more with whether to lend money to my low-income friends here on the DTES, whether the borrower-lender dynamic will strengthen or distort the friendship.) Still, I probably get asked for money by strangers at least once a week.
For most of my life, I thought it was best not to give money to panhandlers. You can probably guess some of my reasons. Giving away money to one person would not help solve any of the deep-seated root causes of poverty. I didn't want to risk enabling or contributing to peoples' substance abuse and addictions. I had also heard that many of them made more money begging than I did in my work at a non-profit organization.
In the last year, though, I have done some reading that has caused me to reconsider this, including this blog post by Emily Hunter McGowin (whom I don't know personally, but whose blog I somehow found), and a section in a book called Bent Hope by Tim Huff, who works with street youth in Toronto.
Emily and Tim both know that money is a tricky thing. Let's take a five-dollar bill. In a physical sense, it's worth 500 cents, no matter what. But in a spiritual sense, its value is changeable - it all depends on the circumstances and the state of our heart. Jesus hints at this when he talks about the widow giving away her last two pennies (though I think he's really pointing out injustice and corruption in the church, but that's for another blog entry). When given as an expression of deep generosity and surrender, like the widow's, the five-dollar bill can become priceless. Dropped begrudgingly, guilt-laden, into a beggar's cup, it's worthless. Clutched and loved, it's dangerous, the root of all kinds of evil; just when you think you're controlling it, you find it's controlling you.
Let me use another example of the weird, changeable value of money. Jacob's Well, where I work, is a non-profit community, depending entirely on the donations of churches and individuals to pay rent and staff salaries. Essentially, we are beggars! And yet as a community, Jacob's Well tithes every month, giving away 10% of what we get. We recently gave some money to a non-profit that supports at-risk youth in Winnipeg, to encourage them. One of the people on their staff was so blown away by this that she donated a similar amount online to Jacob's Well. This is completely illogical! Dollars and cents were sent eastward to them, and those same dollars and cents were wired back west to us. A waste of time and energy, a zero sum, you might think. But in Kingdom accounting, we both gained incredible amounts of encouragement through these mutual gifts, and we lost something important, too - we lost some of the hold money has on us.
Jesus says crazy things about money. They're too straightforward, too easy to rationalize and spiritualize:
"Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you." - Matt 5:42
"But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back." - Luke 6:35
Why does Jesus ask us to give in such broad, undiscriminating ways? Certainly for the sake of the person who is in need. But could there be another equally important reason?
Maybe, Emily suggests, it's for your own good. For your own spiritual formation and protection. Maybe it's because, as Emily puts it, you're a "greedy, covetous, materialistic, rich pig of a sinner who needs to be transformed."
Yes, we're supposed to be wise with the resources we're given to steward. But I agree with Emily: I believe Christ calls us to be even wiser about the potential soul-numbing, blinding effect those resources have on us, especially in our current cultural situation. Money itself is not evil - it is merely a tool. But in the Western world, and yes, in the Western church, this tool is a pickaxe, and it's stuck deep in us, because we love it too much. We love the comfort of money; we love the privilege of deciding how much of it to hoard, how much of it to spend, how little of it to give. As a resource and a blessing, it's meant to flow freely and generously and joyfully through our fingers into the hands of those who actually need it, but it sticks and stays, covered in honey of our rationalizations. We abuse and misuse the privilege of wealth, and I think Jesus knew we would.
I like to think money doesn't tempt me, doesn't exert control over me, but I know that it does. So I've started taking Jesus a bit more literally, and giving it to complete strangers who ask me for it, without being able to define what they're allowed or not allowed to do with it. (After all, my employer, who gave it to me, made no such demands.) Sure, it might be used to buy drugs... but I cannot pretend that I have not also misused money to numb pain. It also might be used to buy food. It also might be given away to someone else, accruing even more spiritual value. Jesus does not ask me to discover or legislate what it is used for; He asks only that I let go of it.
As I open my wallet to give to the stranger, my hands whisper to my heart this truth:
This paper note, this metal coin - it doesn't belong to me, and it never did, and it never will. I was only holding on to it for a while. It doesn't own me. It doesn't provide for me - my Creator does, and will continue to do so, as long as I follow his instructions about what to do with it.
So that's where I'm at... I'm giving to panhandlers because it feels like freedom, it feels like joy, and every time I do so, it pulls the pick-axe a millimeter further out of my heart, and washes a bit more honey off my hands.
Post-script: If people are still concerned about strangers unwisely using money, here's some great counsel from Tim : "Set aside a jar on your kitchen windowsill, or at the corner of your desk, and every time you have gently said "no" to a person panhandling, take the coin you decided not to give and put it in that jar. And when the jar is filled donate it to a mission or outreach or program that you know will use the money well for those who are homeless. Be released from the strife caused by the battling little voices in your head telling you it is a bad idea. But do something that will at least dam the flooding hypocrisy of speaking this great concern and doing nothing." (128)