To Give or Not To Give: On Helping the Homeless

I don’t know who Reed Sandridge is nor did I know anything about him until I heard him being interviewed recently on a “Your Story Matters” podcast from 2010. It seems that on December 15, 2009, Mr. Sandridge began a project where he was going to give away $10 to someone every day for a year. He called it: “The Year of Giving.” Sandridge didn’t just give the money away, but he would also ask the person’s name, have a conversation with them about their life, and learn what they intended to do with the money. Sometimes they were poor, sometimes not. Then after returning home, he would blog about that day’s person. Even in the rain, snow and bitter cold, Sandridge did this day in and day out for the whole year. Oh, by the way, Sandridge himself was unemployed at the time, after being laid off as a manager from a local non-profit. One can imagine the impact this daily account of a person in need receiving an unexpected $10 had on people who followed the story—and “The Year of Giving” became a bit of a media event. During the podcast interview, Sandridge shared the data of his recipient’s stated goals for the $10. The top uses: 30% on food and non-alcoholic beverages; 16% give it to someone else; 11% transportation. The website shares further uses: 9% alcoholic beverages; 7% rent/utilities; 7% bought something for others; 7% church; 5% bought something for self. Who knows how the money actually got spent, but I like the idea of taking people at their word.

“What’s the most someone’s ever given you?”

From time to time, Sandridge would ask, ‘What’s the most you’ve ever received? What’s the most someone’s ever given you?’ and the most interesting answer he ever got was from a homeless guy in Washington, D.C.: “The most I’ve ever been given was conversation” he replied. Sandridge continues, “…it wasn’t about the money. But here is a guy who sits there by himself all day, and the fact that I took time to listen to his story and to talk with him, he said, was just amazing. He said he had certain people that would do that regularly, you know, stop and talk to him. He said he needs the money, that’s for sure, but he goes, ‘The conversation is something that–you really can’t put a value on that.’” What comes to my mind today is how this affects my spontaneous decisions whether to give money to anyone who might have the courage to ask a complete stranger for assistance. I have wrestled with this dilemma mightily: To give or not to give.  Jesus seems to be pretty clear about this in Matthew 5.42:

“Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.”

Once I had a man scream at me for assuming he might need money. I offered money for him to buy breakfast if he hadn’t eaten and he was indignant, even though he was pushing a shopping cart filled with his worldly possessions. You know what they say about assumptions. Another time, a guy screamed at me for not giving him money when he could see that I was dressed as a priest and therefore ought to give him something. This fellow then began to berate me to the drivers lined up behind me at the intersection, mocking me because a priest hadn’t given him anything when he asked. Garrison Keillor is right: Guilt is the gift that keeps on giving.

I Have To See This As An Opportunity

The gap between the “haves” and “have not’s” is ever widening in this country, that’s for sure. Homelessness is not going away, and most likely continues to grow nationwide. As a follower of Jesus of Nazareth, the Crucified and Risen One, I have to see this as an opportunity, not only for the church, but for me, my spiritual development, my growth into the image of Christ. Reed Sandridge modeled one way we can respond, and it’s something I have done as a parish priest: engage in conversation with people. Ask their name, ask how they came to be here and now. Listen to their story. When you open this door, offering the amazing gift of conversation, you often see a visible change in the person in front of you—they become more relaxed, once they realize you see them, and that you’re not in a hurry to move them on. Just that acknowledgment of one’s humanity is often more valuable than money itself. And then, if you have money, you might feel more inclined to give it.

One of my mentor priests when I was in seminary, the Rev. John Graham (who was then rector of Church of the Advent/Nuestra Señora de las Americas, in Logan Square on the near west side of Chicago), always told me that if he had money he gave it, and if he didn’t have money he said so. Fr. Graham was a firm practitioner of Matthew 5.42a: “Give to everyone who begs from you.” My darling, wonderful wife, Beth, who possesses a social justice streak in her that few people have and is admirable and holy to me, prefers to feed the homeless, sometimes buying a meal for someone who asks, or looks like they needed one (clearly she is harder to scream at than I am). Occasionally, she’ll eat with the person whose meal she bought and learn their story. This is truly worth making the time to do, because I believe we in some mystical way spend time with Jesus in situations like these (see Matt. 25:35-40).

What If It’s A Hungry Jesus?

I have no final answer for this dilemma, no pat advice, no “Do this, and all shall be well” kind of resolve. We all kind of have to figure this out on our own. But between Reed Sandridge’s “Year of Giving” and my own experiences, one thing I know: we are blessed when we risk seeing others and being seen by homeless and poor people and getting to know their story. They may need money, and most likely will use it for food, give it away or travel on it. We have money to spare, if we really dig down and admit it.

Give if you feel led to give. Because I would hate to miss the opportunity to actually do something for Jesus when he is standing right in front of me and staring me in the face as a homeless or indigent person. Especially if he or she is a hungry Jesus. My only hope is that I get it right more often than I get it wrong–even if I’m only one person over a .500 average in helping, so help me, God. Literally.

So, help me, God.