I was told that as students here at the Washington Journalism Center we were going to talk about this as a group at some point, but I figured I might as well get the thoughts rolling right now.
If you spend any time at all walking the streets of DC, chances are that someone has asked you for money. Maybe it’s the skinny old man in front of 7 Eleven, the old woman at Union Station who needs money for a bus fare, or the guy on the corner of 12th and F St. with nothing but a sleeping bag and a cardboard sign. In any case, it happens quite often.
I don't think there's one absolutely right blanket answer that we can give and be done with it. Poverty is much more complex than that. I mean, there’s a whole publication (Street Sense) devoted to poverty and homeless issues just in DC, not to mention the countless worldwide mission agencies, rescue missions, relief efforts, books, and a lot of Bible passages.
Perhaps I’ll get to a systematic approach to poverty later. For now, consider two recent situations I encountered.
Last week, I was walking to the gym after a long day at my internship. A heavyset black man with shoulder length dreadlocks, no older than his thirties, was standing on the street corner next to the gym asked me if I could spare some change. Sick with a cold and not in the best of moods, I brushed him off and went in to work out. When I came out he was still there, and he called out to me again. A flare of compassion, or perhaps pity, at his persistency stopped me from brushing him off again. As I started to reach for my wallet, I asked him what he was going to use the money for.
“Um, to get some beer,” he said sheepishly.
His response startled me. I appreciated his honesty and even felt some pity at the sight of his pleading face, but it didn’t help his case.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “but I don’t think that’s something I want to help you with.”
I started to turn away, but in a last ditch attempt, he pointed to my water bottle.
“Is that wine?”
“No it’s cranberry juice,” I said.
And that was the end of it—an easy decision on my part. I quietly congratulated myself on the discernment and wisdom I had shown in giving to—or rather, not giving and therefore not hurting—the poor.
The week before, I was walking through the city in Northwest, a few blocks away from the White House and the heart of business and news in DC. A rough-looking man stepped out from underneath the entrance to a building into my path. Naturally I slowed down, so he shook my hand and started introducing himself.
“Hey brotha’ how you doing…”
I’ve come across my fair share of people asking for change, but I was taken aback by this man’s boldness. He told me about how he had been in prison (the exact number of days, in fact) and how he had gotten out and was ready to turn over a new leaf—to do the right thing. He wanted a few bucks to go to McDonalds and get something to eat.
Just got out of prison.
Says he’ll do the right thing.
Has the humility and boldness to ask for help.
What do I do?
I’ve promised myself many times in that past that I would always take advantage of a situation like that. When someone comes up and asks for money, take him out to the nearest fast food place. What better way to share the love of Christ with this man than to not only provide for one of his physical needs, but to actually sit down with him and get to know him a little bit? I hadn’t had dinner yet myself, I was done with my internship for the day, and I didn’t have any pressing homework to do.
But I did have an intern bible study at Capitol Hill Baptist Church that evening. Well, actually it was intern bowling night with the bible study group—the only fun group activity that they had planned for the semester. It would be a great time of fun and fellowship and a good chance to get to know some people in the group better. They were leaving at 7:30 sharp, and I had to walk straight back if I wanted to be on time.
On the sidewalks of downtown DC at 6:55 in the evening, I found myself facing an ethical dilemma, and I had to decide on the spot. I probably bounced back and forth between the two sides three times in the twenty seconds it took the guy to explain himself.
On the one hand, my time with the church is precious. I’m only hear three and a half months, so every Sunday service and every bible study counts when it comes to getting plugged in at a church. There’s nothing like spending time in fellowship with the people of God, and I think one could argue that it’s spiritual suicide to try to live the Christian life without being part of a local church.
On the other hand, who knows what’s going to become of this guy? Who knows if another Christian will ever cross his path again? What is he going to eat, or where is he going to sleep tonight? What if he doesn’t have any friends or family to go to?
The bible study won out. I’d been looking forward to it for the past few days. Besides, it certainly wasn’t a bad choice, I reasoned. God calls us to both love the body of Christ and to love the poor and the loveless, and I could only choose one.
I wondered about that decision as I walked back to my apartment. I still wonder about it. I wonder if my rational was justified. Had I arbitrarily decided, if you will, between two equal options? Or did the entertaining and the easy route win out over the uncomfortable and the awkward?
As Christians, we’re called to love people, but what is love without sacrifice? Anyone can spare some loose change once in a while, but it’s a different thing all together—especially for people here in DC—to sit down in a McDonald’s for 45 minutes with an ex-convict, or to spend time getting to the root problem of a man begging for money so he can get a beer. We may really want to help these people; we just don’t always want to take a chunk out of our lives to do it.
That’s how I am, and it’s an easy attitude to justify. Everyone has a lot on their plate—we’ve got places to go and things to do, deadlines to make and appointments to keep. We need to spend time with our families. We want to do a good job for our employers by being knowledgeable and having network connections. We need to read the news. We want to spend more time with the church.
Did I make the right choice? Right now, I don’t know. It’s a tricky business. Even though we live in a sinful and fallen world, there are a lot of really good, legitimate life choices out there. The hard part is rising above the self-centered nature of our own hearts to decide which choice is best.