Last summer I was downtown. A middle-aged black man in tattered clothes approached me. “Man, I ain’t going to lie to you”, he said. “I’m trying to get money to buy some beer.” I laughed, thanked him for his honesty, and handed him a couple of dollars. It was a hot day; I was planning on having a beer when I got home, and I didn’t begrudge the man the simple pleasure of a cold brew on a hot day.
I mention this because I don’t know how many times I have heard people say that they do not give money to beggars because they fear they will not spend it on food but on drugs or liquor. I have never been of this mind, and always give to those who ask. It is pretty clear to me that this is commanded by Christ, and I don’t remember him adding “Unless you are pretty sure they are not really hungry.” And the Fathers remind us that when we give to the needy from our abundance it is not charity but justice; it is theirs’ by right. I have always felt it was my obligation to give, and the obligation to tell the truth was the beggar’s, not that I think the merciful God would be harsh on some poor addict who lied to obtain the only solace he knows. For that matter, who knows what sort of life the poor person has lived; a disproportionate number of homeless people are combat veterans, witnesses or participants in God knows what horrors. Others come from such dysfunctional homes that I can hardly imagine. Mercy does not stop at addiction.
And what if you judge a person to be lying and you are wrong? I tremble at the thought of standing before Christ on the Last Day and hearing “I was hungry and you did not feed me.”
A number of years ago, when my two oldest sons were small, we attended a minor league baseball game in Akron with a new acquaintance and his sons, who were around my sons’ age. Our wives had met and hit it off, and as Catholic homeschooling dads of many children we, at least superficially, had a lot in common.
The drive to Akron was pleasant enough; small talk and brief autobiographies. The game was great; the Aeros’ stadium is a beautiful venue for my favorite game, and the Aeros won.
Walking through downtown on the way back to our car the children spotted a couple of homeless people sleeping in a sheltered place in a parking garage. We don’t go to the city much, and they were curious. The other man explained to his questioning children that people were homeless because they were drunks or on drugs, that there is no reason to be homeless in America, and that they should never give money to such people.
I countered that in America vast numbers of working class people were only a paycheck or two or a sudden medical debt away from being homeless -this before the recession- and that I had personal experience in two shelters and knew many hardworking people that were homeless. And I added that Christ never authorized us to judge which beggar deserved our alms.
The argument continued and expanded during the half hour drive home. And while our wives are still fond of each other, on the rare occasions that we are in the same room it is cordial but tense.
I am not one to sort my friends based on politics, and I have friends across the spectrum, from anarchists to monarchists and everything in between. But this was beyond politics; this was hostility to the poor, and that from someone professing love of Christ. It stunned me, just as it stuns me when I meet Christians who are seemingly indifferent to any dead babies who are not killed in American abortion clinics, or Christians who are enthusiastic proponents of nationalistic wars, or….
I am pretty much permanently stunned.
There are various forms of urban legend to the effect that so-and-so offered, instead of money, food to someone claiming to be hungry and it was refused, thus proving that the whole thing is really a ruse.
I am sceptical.
When I was young I lived near DC, far from family, and with no girlfriend for long stretches. I had a lot of time on my hands, and when you live alone Sunday afternoons are the loneliest of the week. I figured I might as well do good works.
So I would pack a grocery bag with food and drive into DC. It never took me long to find a homeless person, and they never once refused the food I offered. And I was always moved by the fact that they never found a hidden spot to eat and then stash the remains for later. They always went and found others with whom to share it.
And when I lived with a Franciscan community in the South Bronx in the 80s- at the time a place of utter desolation- we always, lacking cash, packed some sandwiches and bags of peanuts when we rode the subway into town. Never once was our food refused.
And what’s more, I don’t ever remember my gifts of cash or food being received without a “God bless you.”
And that is perhaps the greatest reason to give to the poor: you receive a blessing.
And I for one believe that God honors beggars’ blessings.