Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Giving with an Open Heart: On Charity and Street People

by Doug Hyden

On the subject of giving money to beggars, I often hear expressions such as, "Why doesn’t this person get a job? He’s just lazy. The bum wants to live on charity. I have to work for a living; why not him? I would be glad to give if I could just be sure that he’d use it wisely, but he’ll probably just buy beer. He doesn’t deserve it." The pretexts for denying the people on the street are endless, and with a will we use them to avoid feeling guilty as we avert our faces and pass them by.

Recently, I was touched by a letter in the Tallahassee Democrat, in which a woman named Angie spoke of a "homeless" man to whom she gave money. She subsequently observed him using the money to buy beer, and she saw him disappear into a trailer park where, she presumed, he did, indeed, have a roof over his head. She was upset. She felt that she had been cheated. She felt that her gift had been worthless. She vowed not to give money in this way again and warned us against doing so as well.

I empathize and sympathize with Angie’s perfectly human and natural feelings of anger, betrayal, and frustration. I have been there. So have you, probably. How many among us can say that she has never been victimized by some kind of charity swindle? There exists a class of people who routinely take advantage of "the angels of our better nature" and play us for suckers. When it happens, we feel foolish. We hate to feel foolish.

Many people who are caught in charity scams are not Christian, because the urge to help is a universal. All of the world’s major religions stress the importance of almsgiving by those who are in a position to do so. I contacted her by email, so I know that Angie is a committed Christian, striving to live her life by Jesus' teachings. Jesus, in particular, stressed our obligation to do acts of charity. He definitely did not, however, impose on us a requirement that we take social histories or conduct interrogations of our beneficiaries in order to determine their worthiness. He commanded us to give; he did not command the recipients of our charity to be worthy of receiving gifts. To Jesus, the emphasis was always upon giving with an open heart, not the gift’s recipient. He loved the fact of the gift but not the gift in and of itself. He believed that no matter what material object one gives, so long as one gives with an open and loving heart, the real gift is the gift of one's spirit. You will find similar ethical pronouncements in the Hebrew scriptures, the Koran, the teachings of the Buddha, and the rest of the world’s holy books.

What Angie did was a good thing, a pure act of what the Jews call tikkun, that is, a contribution to the world’s desperately needed healing. Out of the charity of her heart, she gave succor to the poor. The man may not have really been homeless, but we all know that he (and others like him) was poor—in spirit, if nothing else. Some kind of deficit, after all, reduced him to beggary. Whether he was really homeless or in need, though, is finally irrelevant; the fact that this particular act of charity went to a person who may have abused the gift does not change the fact that the very next homeless person she encounters might be veryworthy; might, indeed, contain the essence of Christ himself. Thomas Merton, the great Catholic theologian and peacemaker, reminded us that if we truly believe in the Incarnation, we must be prepared to find the image of Christ in every single person on earth, no exceptions. 

To all of us: do not worry that a "homeless" person might not be truly homeless or worthy of our charity. Give anyway. It is not for us to judge one’s worthiness. It is enough that we see suffering and seek to alleviate it. If we are swindled, what does it matter? The swindlers will have to answer for themselves in due course. The swindle does not diminish the gift. Remember that each of us has been given gifts of incalculable value—God’s love and God’s own son—and surely none of us have proven that we deserve them. Can you honestly say that you have never "swindled" God out of God’s great gifts? Remember that the gift of unearned love is grace. Keep kind hearts, friends, and do not stop giving to the poor gladly. We are all equally unworthy, and we are all equally worthy. End of sermon.
We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human one.
Teilhard deChardin