Growing up in upper-middle class America, I was taught that when you see panhandlers and homeless, you shouldn’t give them any money “because they’re probably going to use it on drugs or alcohol.” This popular middle-American proverb has a cousin- “Don’t engage, don’t make eye contact, you don’t know what they’re going to do, and you can’t trust them.”
I never questioned these at all. I never even thought about them. Sure, in high school we would make sandwiches for soup kitchens and have toy drives and can drives and all sorts of events to help out in the community, but the actual, in-person encounters with homeless and beggars was still something that was out of my ability, as far as my teenage self was concerned.
And then something happened. I was riding in the car with a friend, and we came across a homeless man on a street corner. My friend rolled down his window, opened up his wallet, and handed the guy a $20 bill. Being startled (and naturally obnoxious), I said, “I thought you’re not supposed to give to those people, because they might use it for drugs and it will feed their addiction.”
My friend said, calmly, “Well, it’s his choice what he does with it. It’s my job to give.”
My friend had planted a seed in my teenage brain. It lay dormant for years, but it was there, and it nagged at me every time I passed someone on the street. Then, something started to happen.
There’s a thing with virtue, called, “fake it til you make it.” (That’s how Aristotle put it, right?) If you want a virtue that you don’t have, start practicing it. For example, if you’re cowardly, start acting as though you have courage. It will be hard at first, but soon enough it will become second nature. I took this approach with the homeless. I started giving them things, and even saying hello. It was absolutely terrifying at first. But every time I chickened out, I would feel terrible. After all, when Christ himself says, “Whatsoever you do for the least of these, you do unto me”, and “If anyone asks you for your tunic, give him your cloak as well.” Who are we to argue?
I’m ashamed to admit that even recently, I’ve sometimes been afraid to help people in need. Beating back against your ingrained fears is not easy. In the last few months, I’ve been trying this “fake it til you make it” thing- trying to make eye contact, give what I can, and tell them that they are in my prayers. It’s been years and I still haven’t “made it”- but I’m getting better.
And as for those “proverbs”- I know what they are now. They’re from devil, and they’re designed to make us afraid of doing good. The father of lies delights in twisting our thoughts until we’ve decided that it’s wrong to do good. When Christ says to give to those who ask, without counting the cost, Satan says, “Yeah but not to those people who look really poor, because they might hurt you, and your gift might be used wrongly, and it’s not your job anyways- send them to a church.”
We are called to be Christ’s body in this world. We are his hands. We are his heart. We shouldn’t worry so much about the details, but rather we should remember that it is our job to show love, wherever we go, and to whoever we meet. It’s up to them to decide what to do with it, but it’s our job to show love.