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    Woman walking alone in a parking garage

    Foolish Generosity

    When someone asks me for money, should I give?

    By Elise Tegegne

    March 20, 2023
    • Eve Fisher

      Back in the 1970s, I was homeless teenage runaway (violent alcoholic family) for two years, until I could get legal and get back in the normal world. And I did. Both being homeless and becoming non-homeless were very hard. There are a lot of reasons people end up on the streets, and a lot of reasons people beg for money. To this day, if someone asks me for money, I'll give it to them. I'd rather be taken for a sucker than be the one who doesn't help.

    • Margaret Larriva

      You should give! I try to give to those in need but I have limited money and goods but when I know the Lord touches my heart and I am able I try to always think of others as I feel like Jesus always thinks of me when I have a need! And He is always ready to give to me so I feel like I need to do the same! But I am married and I have to consider how my husband feels about giving at that moment because I follow his lead! Blessings!

    • Sharon McCart

      I have come to terms with this from a different point. God does not call me to judge, but to give. I receive grace---though I am not worthy---so I give without regard to the recipient's worthiness. What I discern is how much I can afford, when so many hands reach out for help. And once, like the author, I pulled out a bill much larger than I wanted to give, and gave it anyway. And I still had enough for my needs.

    • Carmen Mason Browne

      Powerful and beautifully story to shake our harden hearts from so much human suffering. Thank you for the honesty and mirror that reflects opportunity for responding with humble human Christ like grace.

    • Eric Snider

      I appreciate your story and the thoughts you have shared. Wrestling with the best ways to share with those with less is a very important responsibility for those who are blessed with more.

    • Joann Longton

      Excellent Article. well written and thought provoking. Our church has recently also begun to grapple with this topic. So far we have decided to not give money, but are packing bags to keep in our cars with a sandwich, juice boxes, various hygiene items, 2 pairs of socks, etc.--as well as a gospel tract and a Gospel of John. We also included a paper stating which church the person that gave him the bag went to, with contact info for the church. Also on that same paper is resource information for them to be able to find the local soup kitchen and other resources to help them. Another good thing to put in the bag is the local bus route so they can find a bus to take them to the soup kitchen. This all needs refinement, but I have forwarded this article (as well as the comments below --which were also helpful) to our Deacons to read and consider. Thank you for this article. We all need to find a better, more gospel oriented way to serve Jesus in the needy, besides just walking away....

    • Lee Allen

      I have worked on the streets of New York City's poorest neighborhoods for decades. Initially, I was like the author, and always looked away or only gave out money to get rid of a troublesome person. But with the passage of time I realized that nobody is a con. They are the desperate, impoverished and broken among us who come to us in their need. So what if they ask for food money and then buy a cheap bottle of wine. Those few dollars relieve their pain for an hour or two. To judge the least among us for their desperation because they prefer cash to a pair of socks is kind of missing the message.

    • Tim Wright

      Hi, I live in the UK and if someone is in a town asking for money there is a Greggs store which sells hot food. I always carry a Greggs card around with me that has enough money on for them to get a nice lunch or dinner. Its a great way to always be ready toBless.

    • Dan

      I spent a long time serving the "homeless" on a weekly basis in a Midwestern city in the U.S. Like the author, I've heard it all. If you choose to minister to these people, you will get duped, you will be fooled, you will be taken advantage of. It's part of the ministry. But you do learn along the way how to filter some out and determine their true motives. When a man would come to me for money to eat, I'd tell them, "I won't give you cash, but I'll take you into this pizza joint here and buy you dinner and a chat." I'd estimate 90% of the time these men would turn me down. When a man would approach me with need of cash for a bus ticket, I'd offer to take them to the destination even if it was 2-3 hours away. Nearly 100% of the time they would turn me down. When the ploy of "I won't lie to you, can you give me $5 for a bottle of drink." I'd say, "Only if I can FIRST talk to you about how God has changed my life." After about 10 minutes of conversation, they would invariably walk away without the money. I had a long-time homeless person who I befriended and he got back on his feet tell me that homeless people see us as "opportunity" to use his word. We represent the opportunity to get something from us, whether we give it to them of they take it from us. This may seem cynical, but is a hard-won understanding of ministering to street people and interviewing them on a weekly basis. This doesn't mean we can't minister to these people. What it means is you go into this prepared. Yes, keep donation items in your vehicle. Socks are a great gift to someone living on the street. Offer to take them to a laundry mat to wash their clothes. Offer to take them to lunch and present the gospel while they eat. My wife used to make a sack lunch every morning for me to take to work and hand out to the person at a stop light begging for money. I came to know this person after many weeks and later was able to supply transportation to a job interview. When going into the streets to be with these people, I left my wallet in my truck that was parked several blocks away and stuffed no more than $20 in my pocket. This was usually used to buy a warm meal for someone rather than give it to them for who knows what purpose. Each encounter like this was an opportunity to present the gospel to them or maybe just share what God was doing in my life at that time in life. We are going to encounter many people in need. Most of them will be that way due to their own actions. You will "get burned" if you minister to them. But you can go into the world a little wiser when you encounter them. This is one of those occasions where being wise as serpents is relevant. Yes, be innocent in the sins that got a homeless person to that point, but be wise in the way of a needy person who has several motivations to approach you and attempt to gain from you something they want. If you do choose to give money to someone on the street, you cannot be surprised if they do something different with it than what they said to you to get the money from you. You are taking that risk when you pass over cash. This is largely why handing over other needed things, such as used clothing, some fresh fruit, water on hot days, coats and boots on cold days, is a better approach. Yes, you will get taken if you minister to street people. But, I'm still ministering to someone if I give them an apple I put in my car just for that person ... just as much as I would be if I gave them a $5 bill. In short, ministering to street people, homeless people, doesn't have to be on their terms. You can minister to them on your terms and are still "remembering the poor." For what am I doing if I stock my truck with some fresh fruit or socks to give to someone who asks me for money if I'm not remembering the poor ... even ahead of time?

    • Trish Holcomb Harris

      This is a gorgeous reminder of how tricky it can be to live as a disciple of Jesus in this chaotic world. When we stop grappling with "the best way" to handle situations, we lose part of our connection to the "big picture" and the "big problems." So....we show up, love one another exuberantly and sometimes that seems "foolish." May we continue to love one another with exuberance!

    • Michael Nacrelli

      As a postscript to my previous comment, there are better alternatives to handing out cash, like carrying packs of socks in your car or keeping some gift certificates to soup kitchens or fast food restaurants in your wallet.

    • Larry Smith

      Why not accompany her to the mechanic? And if the story is true, also fill up her tank with fuel?

    • Scott

      Yeah... I've come around to this perspective. It's difficult to share with others because many good hearted people have the perspective you describe, that giving is the exact wrong move. But I think you're right. Maybe even say, "I don't believe a word of your story, but here's why I'm giving you what you've asked for anyway."

    • Michael Nacrelli

      Biblical "foolishness" doesn't entail a lack of discernment. Giving cash to panhandlers is usually neither wise nor helpful. There are good reasons why most organizations that help the homeless get off the streets discourage cash handouts. A homeless guy once approached me as I exited a grocery store, asking for money to feed his family. Instead of cash, I invited him to take whatever food I had in my very full shopping cart. Of course, he declined.

    • Jensine Lee

      Your writing touched on all the feelings and questions that I ponder every single time I see someone asking for money. Sometimes I give cash and think God is in charge of what they do with it. In the summer, I carry water bottles. Sometimes I ask what they'd like for lunch. But mostly I just keep going. Thank you for your thoughtful article that will have me stopping more often I think.

    • Nadine

      Nicely said.

    • Jay

      Great story! Well done!

    In seconds I drop off a bag of Halloween candy at a local YMCA for a community Trunk or Treat. Buoyed on the breeze of efficient, contact-free giving, I back out from my parking space and am about to peel away, when a lady emerges from a nearby car and motions for me to stop. My first thought is that I have somehow nicked her fender, especially when she begins, “I know this is not an ideal situation …”

    In the drizzle, Lang Lang’s Debussy trickling through my speakers, she bends toward my window, gray hair loose to her shoulders. Her eyes are an intriguing green, or blue. She wears a woolish sweater and grasps her car keys in rough-hewn hands.

    As I carefully stare at her, keenly aware of my baby in the back seat, she tells me her story. She lives in her car, she says, and at any moment it will break down. All she needs is a ninety-dollar repair. I look at her car. It looks clean and sound, much newer and trendier than my nearly decade-old Ford Focus. I sort of sigh inside. Yet another con.

    I’ve heard plenty. At gas stations mostly, people would ask for a few dollars for bus fare or something to eat. I’d respectfully listen to the spiel all the while knowing my answer: no. No, I would not be tricked. No, I would not enable addictions. The right thing to do, the loving thing, would be to say no. I’d tell them I didn’t have cash (which was true most times), a convenient excuse to drive away.

    In the YMCA parking lot, the woman in wool continues: homeless shelters won’t help with car repairs. She found a mechanic who would fix her car for “paperwork” she promised to do in exchange. (At this point she looks to the left just a hair.) I don’t believe her. Not one word.

    But I keep listening.

    For the past year or so, I’ve been meditating on the Old Testament prophets. Throughout these books God reveals the sins of his people, pleading with them to turn from their waywardness and receive mercy. One of the most egregious sins is their neglect of the vulnerable: the widow, the fatherless, the foreigner, the poor. Again and again, God commands his people to take special care of the needy in their midst.

    For years I have largely chosen to ignore people who beg: the man jingling change in a Styrofoam cup on the sidewalk, the sunburned woman holding a cardboard sign at a freeway exit. When I taught in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, some missionaries and locals offered advice that only ossified my cold-hearted habits: Mothers who beg borrow babies. The wheel-chair bound often fake their paralysis. Giving to children only encourages them to skip school to beg. Based more on my own internal proclivities (to caution, to fear, to greed) than on the advice itself, I made a decision: I would not be duped. Too often, I gripped my purse tight. Too often, I looked away.

    But lately, I’ve been questioning myself. Did Jesus glance at the hungry faces before him, smile politely, then ignore their repeated pleas? Did he check his emotions and avert his eyes while a mother draped in a languid baby asked for bread again and again and again?

    Woman Walking Alone Parking Garage

    Photograph by Photoongraphy

    Only this morning, I read in Micah 4 how God, after judging his people, will gather the lame, the outcasts, the weak, and the afflicted as his chosen remnant. He’ll welcome sex workers, drug addicts, people with AIDS, lepers, transgender teenagers, IRS employees. And homeless con artists in wool sweaters.

    The lady in the rain says she can show me the paperwork, the itemized bill the mechanic has given her. And I’m her only hope.

    I don’t believe this either. She isn’t going to trick me by tickling my savior complex. (If I am this woman’s only hope, her situation is indeed dire.) I know this woman’s problems are much bigger than the car repair I don’t believe exists. She’s likely jobless and homeless. There’s no way giving her a few dollars could meaningfully help her in the long run.

    I give to organizations, time-proven, God-centered institutions grappling with the root causes of poverty. But when looking at individual, breathing, hungry faces, I freeze. I grip my wallet in a kind of icy control. My cold refusals, I’m realizing, are deeply contrary to the Jesus I am called to imitate, the Messiah who not only looked the needy in the face, not only showed them love in the form of healed bones and broken bread – but actively, intentionally sought them out. Looking at the woman in the YMCA parking lot, her hair dampening in the drizzle, I think, this is the kind of person I should be learning to pay attention to. This is the kind of person I am called to have eyes for. This is the kind of person I should be attracted to: a homeless woman with rough, empty hands.

    I wonder what those hands have held. Popsicles turning to slush in the summer sun. Notebooks doodled in algebra and unicorns. Plates of eggs scrambled on a Sunday morning. Receipts, clean towels, photographs. Other hands. A nuzzling newborn, as I once held my son.

    I know if I give to the greenblue-eyed woman I am a fool. I know I won’t be sustainably helping her. All the evidence – her classic petition, the formulaic unfolding of events, the new-looking car, my prior experience – shouts that I will be duped by a time-worn con. But maybe such foolishness is part of the way of compassion.

    All the evidence shouts that I will be duped by a time-worn con. But maybe such foolishness is part of the way of compassion.

    Surely, God has given humans the gifts of discernment and reason. Surely, he guides us in some circumstances not to give. Jesus calls us to be wise as serpents. But he also calls us to be innocent as doves. The Bible’s only other occurrence of this Greek word for innocent is in Philippians 2:15, where it is paired with the word children. I pray for divine discernment; I’m also learning to allow myself to be taken advantage of, to be as guileless as children are. To give space for childlike foolishness in my habits of generosity.

    The desert father Abba Zosimas tells the story of an old man who was robbed by thieves. When they said, “We have come to take everything in your cell,” he replied, “Children, take whatever you think you should take.” The robbers took everything, leaving only a small sack. The old man ran after them crying, “Children, take this too, which you left behind in my cell.” They were so shocked at his guilelessness that they returned everything and repented.

    Justice might say the old man neglected to hold the robbers accountable for their actions. He had every right to stop an action that was wrong. When burglars broke into our home a couple of years ago, we assessed the damage (missing PlayStation, Nikes, beer, burgers, buns) and promptly called the police.

    I’m challenged by the humility of the old man. Not only does he think little of his possessions, gladly giving them up, he also calls those who would rob him children. This naming immediately shifts their relationship from victim and perpetrators to parent and children. In calling the robbers children, he accepts a father’s responsibility to care for them. He sees through their aberrant actions to their profound vulnerability. He knows their problems are far bigger than a monk’s scanty offerings could cover; but he offers them anyway, gladly and freely.

    In Ethiopia, people address strangers as family relations. A woman is mother. A man is father. A girl or young woman is sister, a boy or young man is brother. Child is what God the Father calls me. In accepting the name of child, I acknowledge the reality of my own vulnerability, one I’ve hidden under layers of adult responsibilities and symbols of power (car, house, credit card).

    My thoughts are brought back to the woman in the rain. What if I named her mother? As if I, her daughter, was called to care for her. As if she, my mother, could nourish me and not the other way around. Then I wonder: How would it change our relationship if I acknowledged that we were both children, both fraught with need, both fools, both playing at this game of Trick or Treat in the YMCA parking lot?

    Looking back at my habits of giving (or rather not giving), I see the greed corroding my heart, a tight-fistedness rooted in the fear – and even disgust – of people made in the divine image, endowed with dignity just as I am. Maybe it is not I who have been sent to help this woman; maybe she has been sent to help me, to offer a step toward the healing of my parsimony. Perhaps we are both in need of healing and can both find, in each other, a way to redemption.

    Robbers (I presume) work quickly. Abba Zosimas’s old man doesn’t have time to calculate pros and cons to figure out the most expedient course of action. Instead, he acts out of a compassion so deep inside him that it spontaneously pours forth in gushes. Like the father running toward his prodigal son (although in this case the old man’s sons were running away from him!), he runs.

    In response to such strange grace, the robbers repent. The old man’s foolishness is redemptive. It leads those who would harm him to new life.

    We see such foolishness in biblical heroes. Noah builds an ark nowhere near water. Abraham all but slaughters his only son on a handmade altar. Jochebed puts her baby in a basket and sets it loose in the Nile River. In the New Testament, Paul writes that all saints are called to be fools.

    Believers have an example in Christ himself. He allows himself to be duped by Judas. He does not defend himself in court. If anyone had rights, Christ did – and he gave them up. In following him, I am called to relinquish my rights too: my rights to be in control, to be financially secure, to be street-smart or worldly-wise. Those smarts and securities are illusions anyway. God calls me child, after all.

    I came to the YMCA to do a good deed: a clean, convenient one, unattached to human hands and faces. But I see now that God has invited me to something different: less a good deed and more a step in a dance. A dance whose choreography is unique for each person, giver or receiver. A dance that is messy and complicated, one that doesn’t always feel breezy and cool.

    As I watch the woman’s face, I know what I should do. I have known it almost since she began her story. I unzip a pocket in my son’s diaper bag in the front passenger seat and pull out a bill. I was hoping it would be a small denomination, but it happens to be more than I expected. Doubt gives me pause. But in spite of feeling profoundly foolish, in spite of regrets that will likely plague me, I press the bill into her hand, say something awkwardly about the love of Christ, and drive away.

    Contributed By EliseTegegne Elise Tegegne

    Elise Tegegne holds an MFA in creative writing from Seattle Pacific University.

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