Today I sat by the window of a small café in a capital city of the developing world. The waitress brought the Greek salad I’d ordered and placed it on the table beside my Macbook Pro while I continued reading on my iPad and checked my iPhone for texting notifications.
Moments later, I looked up to see two small children standing in front of the window. Their eyes took in the scene of my work venue and their hands were pressed together in a praying motion. Their faces were dirty, their clothes were tattered, and they held out a large water scoop typically used for bathing in SE Asia.
Did I have some money to spare? Their eyes and hands easily communicated their nonverbal request.
There was a disgusting amount of wealth spread out on the table between us. Three different screens represented material riches, text messages represented social support, and nutritious food represented physical wellness.
Laying out these facts should make giving to the poor a no-nonsense, easy-to-make decision.
Yet, when I’m confronted with such situations, I question the ethics of giving to the poor rather than accept the simplicity of handing a few dollars to a beggar.
Am I perpetuating poverty?
Am I encouraging a lack of work ethic?
Am I creating dependency?
It saddens me deeply that the foundation of such questions is rooted in the influence of the Christian teaching of my youth.
So many of the champions of faith I looked up to as a child were strongly opposed to giving to the homeless and the needy.
I specifically remember working with a church one summer as a youth intern. Every day on my way to the office, I passed a soup kitchen sponsored by different churches in the area. The names of the churches involved in the ministry spilled down the sign out front.
Just a block up from the soup kitchen, I walked into the office where I was working and finally asked the question that had been bugging me all summer.
Why doesn’t our church help out with the soup kitchen down the street?
Well, we believe that rather than giving a man a fish, it’s much more important to teach a man to fish, I was told.
Of course I understood the proverb, and could even get behind its instruction. There was still a major disconnect for me.
Will someone be able to focus on your teaching if their belly is growling? And will they be willing to hear your teaching if they don’t first know you’re concerned about their immediate needs?
And, who exactly are you teaching to fish, anyway?
I wanted to start back with these protests, but I decided to hold my tongue that day.
Now, I don’t want to hold my tongue anymore.
There has been a seriously unbiblical frame of thought circulated around the American church. In a predominately white, middle-class, religious society, the disconnect between Christianity and poverty has continued to grow.
Christians have been more easily defined by what we aren’t than what we are.
So, one can simply assume that in order to be grafted into the fellowship of faith, it’s a requirement to be chaste, successful, self-dependent, and part of a loving family.
When did we walk away from Scripture and choose for ourselves who was worthy of the Gospel? When did we forget what we are?
For too long we have considered the problems of the needy a result of their own poor choices rather than a result of our embarrassing effort to assist.
And we have come up with all kinds of eloquent reasons why helping the poor could really be hurting them worse.
If we give to beggars, we are encouraging laziness. We are only creating dependency and promoting generational poverty. We are supporting the bad habits that put them into that place.
Christians are to be good stewards of their wealth, and that does not include giving money to people who will then go buy cigarettes and alcohol.
This is our justification. And then we top if all off with a nice Bible verse:
“If a man will not work, he shall not eat.” 2 Thessalonians 3:10
This issue is one that has plagued me for years. It’s the reason I went to graduate school to study development. It’s the reason I’ve read articles about giving well and books about aid distribution.
So I can’t write this post without linking to great resources about the corruption involved with child begging trafficking rings in India or the ineffectiveness of short-term mission trips.
But even with the sociological complexity of the issue and the layers of theological baggage so many of us carry, I’m still left sitting in a café with children staring through the window in front of me.
As I looked past them this morning, I saw their grandmother with another baby on her hip. There was no questioning the right thing to do in that particular circumstance.
It’s taken a lot of discipline to see an immediate need, suppress the voices of nay-sayers, and believe the best about the person with his hand outstretched.
Sometimes the issue of giving to beggars is a lot simpler than our biblical defenses or development degrees.
Perhaps we were made to coexist so that we could understand the power of community that much more.
I’ve come to believe that I need the poor just as much as the poor need me.
We depend on one another—those who live with and those who live without.
The beautiful brokenness of the world’s poor mends the tattered pieces of my pride and selfishness.
Every opportunity a beggar may have to ask me for something is an opportunity for me to remember how needy I am at the foot of the Throne.
Use discernment, yes. Be educated, yes.
But there’s something about the song of the poor that falls into rhythm with my own life’s tune.
I continue to give to beggars because they remind me of my humanity. I continue to give to beggars because they remind me that I, too, am needy.
For a thought-provoking video, watch below.