I went to bible college in downtown Chicago. We lived less than a mile from the Gold Coast district where the wealthy lived in their lakefront skyscrapers, and less than a mile from the Cabrini Green projects where the poor lived until their homes were torn down in one giant attempt at a do-over. As part of freshman orientation, we learned how to cope with big-city living, since most of us had no experience with it. We learned to never travel alone at night, to take gentlemen with us if we were going near the projects, to carry pepper spray and shove an assailant’s nose into their brain in such-and-such a way, and to never give money to homeless people because they’ll just buy drugs or alcohol with it.
For the most part, we followed the advice. A well-meaning friend of mine once bought diapers for a homeless man who said he needed them for his daughter. The man persuaded my friend to give him the receipt as well, in case the diapers were the wrong size. My friend did, and then watched as the man headed right back into the store to return the diapers for cash. We reminded ourselves of these stories when we felt uncomfortable twinges after saying “no” to yet another request from a homeless person.
We were being wise. We were not going to participate in the cycle of addiction that kept them on the streets asking for money. We were hoping they’d find meaningful, long-term solutions to their underlying issues and eventually be living functional lives off the streets. Some of us were working in ministries that were trying to accomplish these long-term goals – it wasn’t all just wishful thinking and good intentions.
But still…if this was the wise thing to do, why those uncomfortable twinges?
I’ve been reading about fasting in this Lenten season, and came across this definition of the kind of fast that is pleasing to God:
“Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?” (Isaiah 58)
Did you catch the part about determining from a glance whether or not the hungry person is hungry because he didn’t try hard enough to get a job? And the part about ensuring that the homeless poor are not addicted to anything before helping them? And that last bit about making sure that you have plenty of extra before giving anything to the poor?
This fasting stuff is extreme. Share your bread. Bring the homeless into your house. Give the naked the shirt off your back if it’s all you have and expose yourself to nakedness.
I don’t see much here about being “wise” when giving to the poor. In fact, the degree to which we are being asked to give sounds foolish – really, put myself in a position of needing something because I gave my last one away? That’s reckless.
Reckless giving makes sense in God’s economy.
I think that’s what those uncomfortable twinges were about, back on the streets of Chicago. Here stood another human being, asking me for money, for food, for help, and I withheld. I hid from my own flesh. Sure, maybe he was going to use that money for booze and spend the rest of the night drunk in an alley. Maybe he needed that drink to warm him up, to numb himself from thinking about the family he lost, to forget about the reality of his life. Who am I to judge if that’s why he wanted money? And maybe he was going to use that money for food and went to sleep hungry because of me. What then? Reckless giving.
It’s my job to give. Not because I’m some great human being but because I’m one human being and the hungry person I’m talking to is another human being. We’re all bare flesh underneath. We’re here on this earth to love each other and learn from each other, God help us. And love doesn’t come out with judgments blazing, conditions stated, and the carrot held just out of reach. Love just gives, every time.
Today I met David, a homeless man about 40ish with clear blue eyes and a direct gaze. Yes, he knows about the Haven of Rest but he avoids that area of Akron because it’s too dangerous. He has his own way – he has a tent, although he’d like a better one. There’s a lady that sometimes lets him sleep in her garage. Once a week he gets a room at a motel so he can get cleaned up and watch the news, because he likes to see what’s going on, who shot who. He needs batteries and hand warmers.
He appreciates the food and money I give him. He says God bless you. I say it’s the least I could do and I’ll pray for you. He says I love God and Jesus is my best friend. I can’t tell if he means it or if he’s cutting off what he perceives as yet another attempt to convert him. I instantly wish I hadn’t told him I would pray for him and I want to tell him that he doesn’t have to love God for my sake, I'm not interested in converting him. Don’t worry, David.
I get back in my warm van to drive to my warm house with my trunk full of groceries and I cry for David and pray that someone who’s in a position to do so will give him a chance, give him a job if that’s what he wants. I thank God for the lady who lets him sleep in her garage. I pray that his family is alive, hasn’t forgotten him, will reach out to him.
I feel a little broken, like a little more of my heart-flesh is exposed. I hope that David feels a little cared for. He let me into his world today, gave me a glimpse of what his life is like, gave me gratitude and warmth.