To Give or Not To Give
I’m sitting on the 4 train in New York City at 7:30 am on my way to work when a rather disheveled looking older woman sits next to me about 1.5 feet away. She spits on the ground. The person across from me looks on in disgust. The woman takes out lotion and wipes it on her hands and face. She continues spitting. People on the train begin to complain and some even tell me to move away from her. At this point I’m frozen. I had just come back from a Missions Conference less than 48 hours prior. Less than 48 hours before I had been talking and learning about Jesus loving the least of society and providing for the poor. I was torn between staying and emulating Jesus by hanging out with those who are ostracized in society, or moving away in disgust. Yes, I did not want to get spat on, but I also wanted to show this woman that although people were yelling at her and calling her horrible names, she is loved, and that she does matter. Whether it was food, money, or social support, this wasn’t the first time I was faced with the question of “to give or not to give.”
Being a New Yorker, I have seen my fair share of people begging and asking for help. Each time I come across someone I am torn. I begin to ask myself, “Should I give this person money when I don’t know what they’re using it for? What if I’m perpetuating some harmful habits like addiction?” Considering whether or not giving money is fueling an addiction is a tough question to ask. It means projecting my own biases about the ailments of those in need and how they got to this place in their lives. It means questioning their actions rather than the systemic oppression, which may have propelled them into a life of poverty. It requires trusting those in need to put my gift to good use. It means questioning whether or not I should care what those in need do with the gifts they receive.
But perpetuating addiction wasn’t the only question I had. I wondered, “What if those who asked for help are just swindling me and don’t actually need it?” I found myself making criteria for giving to people in the street or on the train. Those criteria consisted of giving food instead of money and of not giving to people whom I see consistently for several weeks. I begin to wonder if asking for money on the street is their job. I wonder if they have sought out other sources of help or employment. Is it that simple to seek employment or other avenues of help? Am I naïve in thinking that consistent beggars have turned asking people for help into a form of employment? Am I wrong in “turning my face” in situations where I feel like I’m doing more harm than good? Is it okay to want to protect my own livelihood and myself? Does that mean that I don’t trust God to provide for me when I do his work and address the injustice I see around me? As these questions show, I still am very uncertain about how to approach this dilemma. I still struggle with the intricacies of giving. I think that as someone who wants to show her love for people by caring for them in their deepest need, these questions are important. I want to meet the needs of those around me rather than inflict more pain. I found myself asking these sorts of questions a lot, especially during my time abroad in Beijing, China.
When I first took the train in Beijing, I was with the other two program participants and our student activities coordinator. While on the train a woman with a child on one hip and music playing on the other came through the aisle bowing her head asking for money. The student activities coordinator told us not to pay her any mind and not to give her money. I figured that as a Beijing resident he would know how to deal with the situation better than I would. Later that day I asked the office assistant about why we shouldn’t give to people begging for money on the train and street. She told me that in the particular instance that I witnessed it is possible that the child the woman was holding may indeed have been stolen from his parents. At that point I felt helpless. I wanted to help, but I also didn’t want to perpetuate the system of child endangerment and kidnapping. All I could think was ?????(What do I do?).
Experiences like these have taught me the intricacies of giving. They made me wonder whether or not I should give to those in need. Do I dare protect myself or feel as though I am protecting others through these self-made giving criteria? I feel as though if I gave food rather than money then that would both help them and protect me. But then I still end up perpetuating poverty in that it may be difficult to get a job if one doesn’t have the financial means to pay for transportation. These experiences made me grapple with distinctions between societies’ expectations and reservations, my own desire to not ignore the people around me crying for help, and what God has to say on the matter. Society and even the NYC transit authority rules of conduct say that I shouldn’t give to people asking for money on the train. However the rules of conduct state that, “leafletting or distribution of written noncommercial materials;…; solicitation for religious or political causes; solicitation for charities” are allowed. The rules of conduct for the NYC transit authority say that it’s okay for me to spread the gospel but that it’s not okay to give to people asking for help on the train. When did the two become separated? When did meeting the needs of people become separated from sharing the good news of Jesus Christ? I found myself asking the oh so famous question “what would Jesus do?” I began to gain some insight into this question on a vacation trip while I was abroad.
While laying in a bed on a train from Shenzhen to Beijing, I began reading Radical: Taking back Your Faith from the American Dream, by David Platt. Platt raised a good point that very much describes my thoughts on giving: “If I have been commanded to make disciples of all nations, and if poverty is rampant in the world to which God has called me, then I cannot ignore these realities. Anyone wanting to proclaim the glory of Christ to the ends of the earth must consider not only how to declare the gospel verbally but also how to demonstrate the gospel visibly in a world where so many are urgently hungry. If I am going to address urgent spiritual need by sharing the gospel of Christ or building up the body of Christ around the world, then I cannot overlook dire physical need in the process.”1 Here Platt is referring to the scripture Matthew 28:18-20 where Jesus tells his disciples to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and [teach] them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Platt shows the struggles of heeding Jesus’ call in the society in which we live. Platt reminded me that when Jesus drew people to him he didn’t just heal their souls, he also healed their bodies. If Jesus cared about and met the needs of those who were without both physically and spiritually, then as a follower of Christ I am called to do the same. Jesus addressed the physical and social needs of those around him, even to the point of turning water into wine at a wedding. If he could meet the need of saving someone’s face at a wedding how much more would he meet the needs of someone in poverty? After reading Platt’s section on consumer society and giving in the United States I felt so convicted and motivated. But as soon as I got off that train I couldn’t help but wonder if I would be perpetuating a system by thoughtlessly giving my money to anyone who needed it.
During my time at Swarthmore, I was fortunate to be friends with Josh Satre who once said “the more I give the more I have to give.” In other words, the more I give the more God will supply me with things to give. Taking up this ideology requires me to have total faith and trust that God will continue to supply my needs as I share his love through meeting the needs of those around me. I’ve found that it is easy to slip into a place of uncertainty when I don’t rely on the fact that God will provide and take care of me as I do his work. At this point in my life, I think that searching for organizations that help those in need in a way that doesn’t cause one to question the existence of an ulterior motive is the best way. Giving my time, a helping hand, and a comforting word is also equally important. Sometimes meeting the needs of those in poverty comes in the form of love that is more than just a physical gift of food or water but being there, being a friend in the midst of a society that looks down on the poor in disgust. This does not mean that meeting physical needs aren’t important, it means that there is more beneath the surface than the need for food and money. So then the question isn’t “to give or not to give” but “how do we give?”
Some organizations that I have come across that address the needs of the public are Convoy of Hope and Love Wins. I particularly like Convoy of Hope because of the range of ways in which they support people, from job placement and food, to training churches to be more active in meeting the needs of their community. Also a large portion of their funds goes to funding these programs; in 2012, 90% of the funds went toward funding the programs. Love Wins deals with both homelessness and hunger in a unique way in that they don’t consider themselves to be just a feeding ministry or a shelter, but an organization that is focused on caring for people. They acknowledge the fact that homelessness is much more than the loss of a house, but rather can be the result of a series of losses. Love Wins chooses to support people who are impoverished and lets them know that they have not lost everything. Their vision allows people to realize there is more to homelessness and hunger than material needs. They produce awareness about the variety of scenarios that may result in homelessness and poverty. I think that keeping this in mind helps me remember that there is more that I can do than just giving someone food.
In terms of how to help those who do not fall into the structures of charities and organizations, I’m still not completely sure. However, I think prayer and love really play a large role. I see prayer as a love language, a low-risk form of love, in that I am saying that I believe that there is someone greater than I who can meet your need and that I will act as a mediator on your behalf. I think through prayer God can also give direction on how to best love the person in front of me. When considering the subset of homeless people who have to resort to swindling and hustling, I must remember that that action may be coming from a place of being hurt by others and not being able to trust people. Thus, I think being a person whom they can trust and working to soften their heart is key. I think this is the stance to take in those moments when I am on the train and everyone around me is telling me to shun the woman that they don’t understand. It means praying for that woman right then and there. Is it scary? Yes. But I wonder how that woman would have reacted if I had said to her, “Despite what these people are saying, you are loved by God and I’m sorry that you have to go through this.”
I think love is the key to answering the questions I posed at the beginning of this reflection. I think it is important to focus on loving in the way that Christ loves me, in a way that is counter cultural, and radical, and doesn’t make sense. I think by asking myself this question, I can better understand how best to show that love and meet the needs of those around me. For me, loving people is different from being nice. If I gave a dollar to every homeless person I came across that would be being nice, but that would only scratch the surface of the real issue at hand, the lack of relationship and hope. It means not just providing a hand-out but also a hand that supports. It means reminding the homeless and the marginalized that they are still human beings. I think that if enough people loved the homeless instead of attacking them, maybe we wouldn’t worry as much about ulterior motives because it’s easier to trust someone who loves you.
In closing, I think loving and giving to those in poverty looks a lot like Matthew 25: 34-40: “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”
So how do we give? BY LOVING!
- Platt, David. Taking Back Your Faith in Action. 108-109.
- Matthew 28: 18-20. NIV
- Matthew 25: 34-40, NIV
Briani is a Health and Societies special major and Chinese minor. She often enjoys making chipmunk cheeks and random dancing.
charity, Convoy of Help, David Platt, economics, homelessness, injustice, Josh Satre, love, Love Wins, money, poverty, prayer