Several weeks ago, Pope Francis said in an interview that Christians are obliged to help beggars on the street by giving them money. Even if we know that they may buy alcohol with it or otherwise spend it in ways that might not be the most prudent. Further, Pope Francis says that we shouldn’t just toss coins into their cup, but that we should take the time to look the person in the eyes and make a respectful and compassionate connection with them. This teaching is consistent with what the Pope did as an Archbishop in Argentina. He would “sneak out” of his residence at night to give money to the street people in Buenos Aires. Many of his efforts as Pope have been aimed at helping the poor and encouraging all of us to do the same.
For some reason, though, the idea of giving money to beggars has been met with grumbling. And I think this may be born of pride. It’s as if we know what’s “best” for folks and so we don’t want to see our hard-earned money go towards a can of beer or a pack of cigarettes. We feel better when we know we’re helping by dropping off.a hamburger or a pair of socks and gloves. And these are fine, of course. But these gifts are our ideas of what’s best for the person. We make a decision that isn’t ours to make, even if we make it with the best of intentions. Does that make sense?
We’ve all probably heard of the “blessing bags” that folks carry in their cars to share with folks living rough. They’re plastic bags that have been filled with grooming and toiletry items, small snacks, tissues and other things. The point is that all those “blessings” that some kind person has gathered together in charity are the donor’s idea of what they want and need—not the recipient’s.
Would we want to be told what would make us happy? I know I wouldn’t. As Pope Francis said, “(What) if a glass of wine is his only happiness in life?” Sometimes this will mean that the money we give may indeed be spent on alcohol or tobacco or something else we might think is wasteful or harmful. But that’s really none of our business. Just as that chocolate fudge cake we love isn’t good for us either, but it makes us happy for a few minutes. Or that ever-present bottle of Chardonnay in the fridge, which we don’t need but which tastes so good at the end of a long day. We get to make those choices for ourselves, but we don’t want to give that same freedom to the poorest among us.
Certainly our support for the homeless should go much further than our occasional cash gifts on the streets. Our charitable gifts are a part of our Christian vocation. Our churches should actively provide support and assistance with food, housing, and employment. Local and state programs and agencies must help the poor as well. but the one-on-one, person-to-person help we can provide is also a human encounter that can do much more to provide dignity than a food voucher from a county office. When we give our money, we say,”You’re a human person like me and your choices give you dignity like mine do for me.” Maybe my $10 will go for wine or something else. I trust in the Lord to take my small gift and to help it bear good fruit. The giving is my part. I’ll leave the rest up to God.
“In the shoes of the other, we learn to have a great capacity for understanding, for getting to know difficult situations.”