Everyone involved in ministry eventually encounters a panhandler. As a campus minister, I dealt with a few every semester, usually during the colder weather. I had different ways of dealing with them, depending on the situation. As a student center, and not a parish, we didn’t have any resources at hand to help the general public in need, so I would either try to send them along to a nearby parish, let them know how to contact a social services agency, or give them a few bucks out of my own pocket.
Catholic social justice teaching encourages us to have a special “option for the poor,” a calling to do more for those in most need, to lift them up out of poverty which cuts them off from so much more than just monetary considerations. The problem is compounded by not knowing just how to help a particular person and not knowing the truth and legitimacy of the need.
If you drive around most cities, you will often see a “panhandler” standing at an intersection, holding a sign of some sort, hoping for donations from a passerby. These fleeting encounters tug at our heartstrings and force us to make a quick decision in the time before the traffic light changes.
Perhaps I’ve become a little callous because of the encounters I’ve had before, but I have to be honest and say that I don’t trust these drive-by panhandlers. I don’t feel compelled to help them in this way. Instead, I try to find other ways to help the poor in my community.
Just a few minutes ago, I passed a man at a particularly busy intersection. He was holding a crumpled rumpled cardboard sign with the message “Rather Beg Than Steal” scrawled upon it. I’ve seen this particular phrase before, but today I caught my attention and made me pensive about its meaning.
Is this a statement of personal conviction? Is this a warning, meant to guilt us into helping out as a way of preventing a crime?
I would prefer to see it as a plea for understanding, a plea of distress, a last resort before surrendering dignity and morality in the face of truly dire straits. Does this make me want to give to this man more than before?
When my youngest nephew was confirmed, Bishop Curlin, now Bishop Emeritus of the Diocese of Charlotte, told us a story of traveling in India with Mother Teresa. While walking the streets of Calcutta, Mother Teresa stopped to minister to a dying man on the streets. Later, Bishop Curlin asked her how she always found the strength to reach out to others. Paraphrasing from my poor memory, she said that “the Christ in her speaks to the Christ in others.”
Being made in the image and likeness of God, we know that Christ is in each human being, even if he doesn’t recognize it or accept it. Basic human dignity compels us to help. Upon reflection, I do feel a bit of guilt for not giving money to the man soliciting on the corner.
I know that 9 out of 10 such donations are probably not going to people who truly need the help. This money is probably going to feed an addiction or for other spurious purposes. But perhaps that 1 out of 10 is enough.
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit upon his glorious throne,
and all the nations will be assembled before him. And he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.
He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.
For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me,
naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.’
Then the righteous will answer him and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?
When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you?
When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’
And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’