I’m a much better listener than I am a speaker. And I like to listen in an environment where everybody is comfortable – seated, warm enough, with a glass of water, and often a lit candle to mark holy space. Nevertheless I have had a sort of relationship with a panhandler at my local grocery store.
This woman is from somewhere south of the US, probably south of Mexico. Our exchanges have been nonverbal – I don’t speak Spanish – short encounters in which I do or do not give her money.
At first, she was a very grateful recipient of my donations. Standing at the entrance to the grocery store parking lot, she would wave cheerfully when she saw me. Somebody had helped her make a sign on a piece of cardboard. It said she had three children, and her husband was out of work. “Anything will help,” it read – the ubiquitous panhandler’s plea.
I would walk up to her after shopping to give her a few dollars – whatever change I had. “Gracias,” she would say, smiling warmly. But one day I didn’t have any extra money. When I walked to my car, she gazed at me hopefully, and I shrugged, showing her empty palms. Her face screwed up into a snarl, and she gestured, “Why?” I again showed her my empty hands.
“It is not my responsibility to take care of her,” I muttered to myself as I drove away. I was indignant and a little hurt that she became so angry when I couldn’t (wouldn’t?) help her.
After that I felt angry at her because I had to pass her every time I came into the grocery store parking lot. I no longer felt entirely comfortable walking up to her with money – though I did. But I took to parking on the other side of the lot when I didn’t have anything to give her. I didn’t want to be confronted by her.
I’ve heard – and I’ve myself given – all the excuses for not responding to panhandlers’ pleas. None of these rationalizations really convince me. Should I just take my extra cash and give it to the homeless shelters? I know how many people fall through the cracks there, especially immigrants who cannot speak English. Perhaps the panhandler will just use my money to buy booze or drugs? Yes, and perhaps they really do need food, gas, and supplies. Perhaps they can make $35K a year panhandling? But I have certainly seen no evidence of that. When I give them money how they use it is between them and God.
She is right there in front of me, like Lazarus at the rich man’s door in Jesus’ parable for today. (Luke 16:19-31) The numbers of indigent and homeless people in this country is huge and growing rapidly. That’s just plain wrong. I live in a society that routinely takes care of the rich man and leaves Lazarus to die. What would Jesus say to that?
Lately I haven’t seen my panhandler. Did she get what she needed in order to move on? Knowing how difficult that would be, I doubt it. She moved on anyway. I hope she is all right.
She was enterprising, to put herself out there day after day where she would have to suffer people’s scorn, dislike, and fear. I’m not sure I could do it, were I in her shoes. We live in a world where hundreds of thousands of people have to take these desperate measures every day, just to survive – for their families just to survive. It’s wrong, and it’s getting worse. We each must figure out what we can do to help, and then we have to do it, despite our discomfort. We owe it to those who are in such dire straits. We owe it to Christ, our Master.