For most of my adult life, I have spent a significant amount of time with homeless men and women. It started in college, after an inspiring visit to Philadelphia to visit my sister who was living at the Simple Way Community. I came home and the very next week I started bringing some bagged lunches with me to Union Station in D.C. and striking up conversations with strangers. A couple months later, I began to go every Saturday to visit my new friends. I still remember the very first people I had a conversation with, because I still see them from time to time. For two and a half years, nearly every Saturday I spent with people who were in very different circumstances than me.
I started inviting friends to accompany me, and soon we had a regular production line at 9 am on Saturday mornings with college kids, which is quite the feat. We would take anywhere from 20 to 60 lunches, split up, and chat with whoever was around. Over the years we had some great fun and developed some incredible relationships: we hosted a Thanksgiving dinner in College Park for about 15 of them; we took soup and grilled cheese sandwiches another time on a cold December day and had a little Christmas party; We’d bring a guitar and sing songs and let the folks there play. Those experiences have fundamentally altered my view of the world and of homeless individuals especially. They are why I joined Cornerstone Community, where I lived until just recently, which is an answer to the “What else” question when all the lunches have been handed out.
In building these relationships, I’ve been asked a number of times or have been in conversations about what to do when someone on the street asks for money. Many people living on the street are addicted to drugs or alcohol, and giving them money may just feed their habit, is usually how the discussion goes. What is a Christian to do?
To be honest, until just recently, it had been a few years since I’d really wrestled through this question. But a few weeks ago at church, in the small group I facilitate about “Sabbath Economics,” our small group committed to always giving something when asked, whether it’s money, food, or time and conversation. I feel really good about having that stance–it’s what I’ve tried to do for 6 years now. Jesus says “Give to the one who asks (Matt 5:42, Luke 6:30).”
That’s a tough Scripture passage. Jesus doesn’t make any qualifications, and in fact goes on to encourage the audience to let people risk being taken advantage of. It takes the Hebrew prohibition against usury (collecting interest) a step further–don’t even ask back for what was borrowed. If they return it, so be it, but if not, don’t demand it back. Tough stuff.
But we’re really good at coming up with excuses for not following it. When it comes to giving money to people on the street, it’s the “funding the habit” argument that wins. One formerly homeless resident at Cornerstone, who himself is in recovery, used to say that he always gave to people begging on the street because he used to do it himself and sure, sometimes he’d go spend it on drugs or booze, but sometimes he’d get something to eat. That was a real wake-up for me. But even still, most of us find ways to contextualize it.
In the book of Acts (ch 3), Peter and John face a similar problem. A paralyzed man begging in front of the temple asks them for money. How many time have I had that same experience, walking by churches in D.C. There’s always plenty of room for the homeless on church steps, but rarely any room for them inside the building. But I digress.
I find Peter’s response illuminating. “Silver and gold have I none, but such as I have give I thee,” in the old King James. He then heals the man, who leaps up and praises God.
First, Peter and John have no money. Like Jesus when confronted by the Pharisees about the temple tax, they aren’t prone to carrying much cash. Perhaps it’s because they have given it all to the community (Acts 2 and 4), where it is being used to meet needs.
Second, and most importantly, “Such as I have give I thee.” Peter feels a responsibility to give this man everything that he does have, which in this case is the gift of healing. Peter knows he has even that much to give which, as it turns out, is better than money. I think we, like Peter, have a responsibility to give what we have. We have time, we have the ability to strike up a conversation, to make a new friend. Maybe we don’t carry much cash, but we can buy someone a sandwich with a debit card. And sometimes we do have cash. Not many of us are able to heal someone on the spot, but Peter’s response reveals just how much we do have to give.
What I’m getting at is that we can’t know what anyone will do with whatever we give them, but that doesn’t change what we’re called to do. When we have money, we should gladly and joyfully give. And whether or not we have money, we should see such requests as an invitation for more, for a conversation, for a chance to see God’s kingdom come now in this moment. Peter Maurin, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, has this little story he would tell (I’m paraphrasing): If you want to get from point A to point B and it costs $50 and you only have $25, what do you do? Give away the $25. The $50 will come. We can see opportunities to give money as a chance to trust God more, to not worry about being taken advantage of from time to time. In fact, being taken advantage of occasionally is probably a good thing.
So let us announce the Jubilee, the year of the Lord’s favor, in which we celebrate God’s just economy by giving away all that we own and become the church we dream of.