Have you ever been EXCITED to see a homeless or panhandler person on the side of the road with a sign begging for money? I was a few weeks ago! Here’s the story.
Many of us have been there before. You’re driving in your car and take the off ramp from the freeway. Up ahead is a red light at the traffic signal. Then low and behold, it’s a trap! You find yourself subject to a vagrant with a handmade sign asking for money. It’s like they knew exactly where to get ya…and now your stuck! The traffic light stays red and a captive audience of commuter cars build up. The beggar starts making there way down the aisle of cars. He/She is getting closer to you with each step they moderately pace. What do you do?
Do you immediately reach for some cash or loose change and motion to the panhandler to come get it? Do you yell something out the window like, “hey man, get a job”? Or maybe you just ignore their solicitation and offer a smile instead…or maybe your like me and feel plain awkward cause you simply don’t know what is best in this situation. So like me maybe you reach for your phone and make it look like you are busy -or- just pretend that you don’t notice the vagabond. Or perhaps you reach for your purse to grab your compact and dab up your make up. Whatever you do you are sure not to make eye contact because that would just be too awkward. Then the light turns green and the line of vehicles that were sitting ducks finally moves and the homeless person fades in the rear view mirror. It’s over. You ended up not doing anything. On with the day.
One inherent benefit I’ve received of living in the Twin Cities, and having to traverse the surrounding metropolitan area daily for my job, is that I am afforded this opportunity with great frequency. When it happens I usually end up keeping my head down, checking my phone, or doing whatever it takes to avoid interaction. The whole process just makes me feel uncomfortable. I’m just going about my day and now I’ve been trapped into a position where I’m forced to respond. I don’t like it. I’m not great with thinking on my feet in general so out of what is probably a fight or flight response I almost always choose to fly away and ignore.
But even though I don’t give a hand out I always feel like I may have missed an opportunity to show God’s love to someone. Someone who probably needs it the most. I never feel good about driving off. I feel unsettled. I wish I could have done something. The incident will replay itself in my mind throughout the whole day. Why didn’t I just do something?
The cognitive dissonance comes in that in my heart of hearts I really DO want to help someone who is in need. And ESPECIALLY if they were a homeless person or someone with a valid want. In fact I’m MORE than happy to help out. The problem is that I have no way of knowing what type of need, if any, this person is actually in. I believe most humans are good-natured. I bet if we took a survey we would find that the overwhelming majority of us would give to a beggar with a sign if we knew for certain that they were in a position of true need. But none of us can verify the state of need of some random person on the street with a sign who just put us in an awkward situation. So I feel stuck…to give or not?
Here’s some of the thoughts that I will reluctantly admit that have gone through my mind during these encounters:
Is this person just going to use this money to buy drugs, or the next 40 ounce malt beer? Why can’t they get a job like the rest of us? They probably make a killing from all the people that give hand outs on the side of the freeway!? Why do they need money for food? Aren’t there food stamps? What about soup kitchens and shelters? Certainly they can get a meal there? Do they really need money for food? Even if they are mentally disabled and can’t keep a job/house they should still be able to get disability payments? Why do you REALLY need my money? You live in a large populated city, certainly there should be enough state and/or country programs, resources, and services that you don’t need to beg?? Do you write “God Bless” on your hand written sign because you are a person of faith or because you know you can easily take advantage of some one who is of faith? Why don’t you go to a church and ask for a hand out? Maybe cause they’ve already turned you down because you aren’t really in any need at all!
All, or some, or none of those could be true. How do we know where this person is at in life?
I had a face to face to face encounter with a beggar when I was 20. I still remember His name, George Cloud. My newlywed and I were sitting on a bench over a bridge in the Chippewa River in Eau Claire, WI when a man walked up to us and asked for some money. My wife said, “What do you need the money for?” He said that he needed it for food. My wife replied back, “If you need food my husband and will go out with you right now and get you some groceries?” He declined but she didn’t relent. “Or we can take you to a restaurant right now and buy you a meal. We’ve got nothing going on.” He declined again. She kept on asking him questions and gently prying and he eventually said, “actually I want the money for cigarettes.” We ended up having a nice conversation the man and took down his name and told him we would be praying for him. He didn’t get any money from us though. That was that first time I’ve directly questioned a beggar and of course I wasn’t surprised by his response.
But even with encounters like George Cloud, and with all the question that go through my head when I’m solicited, I still feel a draw to reach out to beggars. Crazy I know. I’m sure George Cloud doesn’t represent the state of all people asking for a hand out. And I believe that most of them, even those who don’t really need the money, need at minimum a touch of love. A touch to know that they are not forgotten. To know that there is hope. And to know that even if they are going to use the money for drugs, or whatever, that people out there, and their Creator, do care about them.
I’ve struggled with my inability to react positively to panhandlers. The words of Jesus from Matthew 5:42, “Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you”, are always in the front of my mind. In fact, if I read that verse and continue reading to the end of that chapter there seems to be an special emphasis on doing good to others who specifically DON’T deserve it. But yet my brain can’t seem to balance out Jesus’s instruction to give to someone without me thinking that I’m just enabling the poor behavior of the beggar. So my heart wants to give but my logical brain cripples me from taking action. There is too much I just don’t know about this random beggar to give money with any confidence, compassion, or joy.
With all the weighting and debating that goes on in mind during an encounter I’ve truly striven to keep my self open to the leading of God’s Spirit. Actually, that’s how I’ve been trying to navigate these situations for some time. The promise that we have as Christians is that when we come to believe in Jesus He gives us the gift of His Spirit, which is Gods presence in us. And the Bible tells us that His Spirit guides us, leads us, and gives us direction. So my prayer has been that I would hear from His Spirit in street begging situations and do whatever He tells me to do. Sounds like a good plan right? But for whatever reason(s) I haven’t had very many times when I’ve heard His voice when I’m caught off guard in these moments – and I’ve been taking this approach for like 20 years. It been driving me nuts.
Also, I’ve come to realize that I rely far to heavily what my eyes see, that is in regard to a persons outward appearance, for the basis of my decision for whether to give or not: Are they young? Do they look dirty enough to be in need? Do they look strung out? Are they too clean and tidy? Are they a man or woman? Are they white, black, hispanic, first nations?..etc.
Perhaps some of that is good thinking, perhaps not, but regardless of how I end up sizing up the person in this brief sidewalk moment I’m sure I have biases that I’m not even aware of and I’m sure I’ve judged wrongly. And I want to me led of the Spirit with giving to the poor and not too heavily influenced by with what I think I can judge with my eyes. All this kept weighing on my heart and my frustrations grew to where I knew it was time to do something different.
The last of the backstory I’ll give is that I have of friend of mine who is a big giver to street folks. He told me a story about once when he was driving into town. On the street corner where he stopped a man was asking for gas money, for just a few bucks to get home. Without hesitation he gave the man some money. I think the story goes that He saw the man go back toward his car and met a woman standing outside and the two got in and drove off. A few blocks later my friend reaches his destination, went in to the building and came back out, then proceeded to drive out of the parking lot only to now get stopped by the same woman that had left with the man who just got 20 bucks off him! She gave him the same line about needing just a few bucks for gas to go home. And sure enough, a few cars down the street was parked the SAME CAR with the previously man behind the wheel! Clearly they had a racket going. My friend said to the woman, “I know your lying. Your friend over there just got 20 bucks of me. But, so that you know that God still loves you even when you don’t deserve to be loved, I’m still gonna give you a few bucks.” When my friend told me this story my heart jumped. Everything in my brain said that was stupid, while everything in my heart said that was right. This was the kind of giving I wanted to do. You might think his response was crazy, or enabling of bad behavior. You might be right. Here’s a personal story that resonates with me.
When I was about 16 I was in a bad place. Drugs, sex, stealing, causing problems, depressed, stressed, and seeking after things that never lead to good. One of those unhealthy vices was smoking cigarettes. Of course I tried to hide it from my folks from some degree but they knew what was up. My dad threatened me with consequences if I didn’t give up smoking but they bounced right off me. I could have cared less about what they said. But I distinctly remember one evening in the basement of My house. My mom came down and wanted to give me something. She said she found a pack of cigarettes that in the laundry. She said that she had been finding them off and on for months and she always had just thrown them out. She said she wasn’t going to do that anymore and that she wanted me to have this pack back. So she handed them back to me. And the final blow was that she said that she wanted me to know that she loved me just the same. I could tell by her mannerisms and body language that she was completely sincere. She had such love and compassion in her eye it stopped me dead in my tracks.
We’ll, I didn’t quit smoking right that minute but the experience had a profound effect on me. I never saw my mom in the same way. I felt unconditional love. It really messed with me. In less than a year the cigarettes were out of my life. And now I always look back to that night when my mom gave me my smokes back. It was the single event that started a slow gradual change in me that has lasted nearly 20 years.
The feeling/act of unconditional love is a mighty force for hope, compassion, and change. When I give I too want it to be with unconditional love. For me, unconditional love means that there are no strings attached. For example, I love my daughter because she is my daughter, not because she does what is right. I love my wife not because I always feel love for her but because I gave her my word that I would. I certainly hope my daughter and wife will love me back, but if they don’t I shouldn’t be disappointed. It’s unconditional love.
If our love and acts of service are conditional then that means they come with an condition, or an expectation. And when it comes to street giving we usually have an expectation – and that expectation is that if we give a few bucks then we expect the person use the gift for good, like food or something. I’m not say that’s wrong, in fact that’s what I hope they will do with my gift as well. But there is no way to know what the beggar is going to do. It’s impossible. So I figured out that I’m going to have to figure out a way to either give unconditionally and be happy about it, or just not give. Either way I need to feel at peace with my decision because what I’ve been doing the last 20 years usually leaves me frustrated.
Alright, that brings us up to a few months ago. It seemed like I had been running into homeless folks asking for money almost daily. And finally I got fed up. I had been waiting on the Holy Spirit for years to just speak to me when I was in these moments and nothing ever happened. For whatever reason I just couldn’t hear from God in these moments. I don’t blame God for that, I blame myself. But deep down I knew I needed to have a change of heart in my responses to these opportunities. So I started to pray and take this up with God personally. I kept it in my mind and kept coming back to it. I played out scenarios in my imaginations of what I would say and do next time. I talked it over with my wife. I knew there was a solution but I still came up empty. This went on for a few weeks.
On a trip away for business I went to bed thinking about this again. When I awoke the very first thing on my mind was a clear idea of exactly what I should do with expressing my love on compassion for the homeless sign-toting beggars. Here’s what I felt God had downloaded into my mind: type up a note of encouragement in my own words and print it out, take 10 separate 10-dollar bills (total of $100), and wrap that around your note like a scroll, put all ten of them in your car and pass them out to ANY homeless with only one condition – if I get a strong compelling urge to withhold it then don’t give. That was it. And it didn’t matter if the person read the note or not. All I needed to know was that an opportunity to share God’s love to someone was made available. I knew this was right for me and was elated!
That day I got home and spent the next few nights crafting my letter (I’ve pasted it below if you want to read it). I assembled the scrolls (I’ve named them H-bombs-Homeless Bombs) and stuck them in my car. I was all set. Let the homeless come!
I couldn’t believe what happened next. No homeless. My drives didn’t bring me by a homeless for weeks – how unusual.
But finally the day came. I was on my way to lunch when I saw my first victim 🙂 I was parked at an off ramp at a red light and out of the corner of my eye I spied a man getting up off the ground and starting to raise a brown sign. I got so excited and joyfully happy to give that I actually got nervous and got a lump in my stomach. At the same time the light turned green. Did I have enough time? I was two lanes of traffic over from the man, but I wasn’t going to let him get away! I checked the rear view mirror and no one was there so I slammed the gas, cut over two lanes, and hit the button to auto-roll my window down. I grabbed an H-Bomb and the words came off my lips ever so easy. I said, “Hey man, God loves you and hasn’t forgot about you. Here’s a few bucks. Read the note too, you’ll like it!” I had a huge smile on my face. He grabbed the note and said thanks and I drove off.
I’ve never been so excited and joyful to give to a homeless person in my life. And it was truly unconditional. The scripture that says, “God loves a cheerful giver” and it sure made a lot more sense in this context then when the preachers used it when I sat in a church pew Sunday morning.
I’m sure this approach sounds crazy to some but this is a personal solution for me. I’m not sure what will happen after all 10 H-Bombs are gone but at least I am giving with a joyful heart and I’m happy that I won’t be immobilized in these occurrences for awhile.
I’ll finish with this. I did some research about giving cash to homeless/street beggars. Most institutions (states, shelters, cities, missions, etc.) strongly recommend us to not give. My old stomping grounds of Colorado Springs has gone as far as to put up signs on some of their street corners telling drivers NOT to give. On the other hand, many online testimonies I found from former homeless people said that they did actually need the hand out and they even give to current homeless because they remember was it was like for them. I can see the issue from both sides.
I like what Jesus said about the Kingdom of God in Mark 4 wherein He describes a farmer going out to plant a crop. He says that some of the seed falls on good ground and some on bad ground, and if you read the whole passage you find out that 3 out of 4 times the seed falls on bad ground. The take away for me personally is that the sower, who is the farmer as described in Mark 4, still scatters the seed everywhere, not only on the good soil but also on the bad. This is a parable that is suppose to show us God’s unconditional love. God is sowing his Kingdom, His presence and love with us, to all. It may not be received by everyone, but His love is unconditional. He will sow it even on those who don’t respond. it’s not a waste, it’s just a reflection of how much God loves us.
This resonated with me. Our charity has to be done in balance, and with wisdom, but I believe that charity should most of all reflect the heart of God.
I totally believe that another person could seek God on what to do and be brought to a completely different conclusion. And both conclusions, though different, would be from God. We have a personal God who can give us both unified instruction and individual guidance. The important thing is to seek Him in all that we do and to let His Spirit guide us. If you feel a stirring in your heart for homeless I would encourage you to seek it out and see where it takes you.
After I handed out my first H-Bomb I rounded the corner and immediately hit another red light. I wasn’t expecting to know if anyone actually reads the H-Bomb’s (my personal letter of encouragement). I figured they’d just take the $10 and I’d be lucky if ANY ever read the letter. But it turned out that I was still close enough to turn my head around and see the guy standing there. To my surprise he was actually reading the note. Perhaps he felt a touch of the love of God for a moment. Perhaps not. But no doubt, I joyfully sowed some seed.
*As always, I’d love to hear what’s on your mind so please drop your thoughts in the comments section below!
Vinnie’s Letter of Encouragement
You are loved by God. He has His eye is on you and cares for you. I don’t believe that He wants be in need or to have to ask for money on the street. Instead, I believe that He wants us to know Him and His love. He wants for us to be in good health, free from troubles, and living a beautiful life.
Life can be SOOOOO hard and I feel for your situation. Sometimes crap just happens. Or at other times we make bad choices which then brings about our own troubles. Don’t let that get you down forever, we all make mistakes. Also, we should not be fooled: there is a devil. We call him satan. He is out to make our lives absolute hell. He is a liar and often makes us think that we deserve all this crap. He lies and tells us that God is punishing us through our suffering. Don’t listen to that guy!
But there is good news. God sent His Son Jesus to save us from both ourselves and from satan’s power and lies. And for those of us who believe on Jesus we do have hope. And I really hope you are a believer in Jesus too….because for those of us who believe on Jesus, and are baptized in water, we know that He has taken away our sins and has fully forgiven us. He does this so that we can be in relationship with Him and receive His Holy Spirit. And in Jesus we are now children of God and have a hope that goes beyond the ugly and darkness of this present world. And through the gift of His Spirit we can begin living with the power and presence of God in our lives right now. This is GREAT news!!
I’ve learned that there are many street folks that are already Christians. If that is you then be encouraged today!! God loves you and is with you. You are a child of the King. Don’t give up. Keep seeking Him out. Hang in there. I hope to meet you some day in God’s kingdom in eternity where we will celebrate. It will be AWESOME!
If you’re not a believer in Jesus then know that what Jesus offers you is a joyous a relationship with God both right now and for eternity with Him and His family. I can’t promise that your current circumstances will change but I can promise you that God wants to comfort you, be your hope, and give you a future with Him. And as you seek Him I believe He is faithful and will provide for your needs.
You don’t need a pastor or priest to help you talk to God. You can talk to Him directly. Call out to Jesus and turn your heart to Him. Whatever you’ve been relying on up to now, turn from that, and believe in God. Believe that through Jesus’s death on the cross you have now been forgiven and welcome His Kingdom into your heart.
Don’t stop there, it gets better. Now start thanking Him that you have total forgiveness. Thank Him that no matter what happens in this life you will be with Him forever. Thank Him for loving us when we don’t even deserve it– that’s called grace. And now ask Him to fill you with His Holy Spirit. Ask Him fill you up with His Spirit from the top of your head to the bottom of your toes. You might feel something as He gives you the gift of His Spirit, you may not, but either way believe that He has and will fill you with His Spirit.
And once you’ve turned to God don’t let your mind or satan lie to you, they will lie and tell you that nothing changed. BUT, you really are now a new person on the inside and God lives in you through His Spirit! And don’t forget – find another believer or a church to water baptize you ASAP so you can declare your faith to the world and make your new life official. Don’t wait, do it today.
Lastly, I know some of you out there you really could care less about God. You just want money for whatever reason – I won’t judge. Well, just know that He still cares for you too. Even if you don’t care for Him. Just think, He loves you so much that He told ME, some random person in Minnesota, to write this note and print it out and hand it to you today. Here’s some truth – you can’t run from God, He cares about you too much. As hard as you try He is always right there knocking at your door…waiting for you to open it so He can come in. He’s still got His eyes on you too friend. You are loved.