I read an article by the Pope today that sought to change my mind on giving to the homeless. It didn’t. I’ll admit, Pope Francis has a few more followers and quite a bit more clout than me. Oh, and he has a pretty huge hat too, and a tricked-out car i’d love to ride in. But I’m afraid even all that wasn’t enough to turn me around.
The Pope’s article said we should never worry about how the money is spent that we give to the poor on the street. Now after reading it, I sort of wish I could send the Pope my thoughts.
On second hand, I actually wish I could send him a bunch of homeless people. To live in his home. A good reality-check like that might actually change his opinion. Because dealing with the sentiment of an issue is much different than dealing with the reality. And with most folks, sentiment usually wins over wisdom.
First, understand that I care about the poor and homeless enough to have worked with them. I volunteered weekly at a local homeless shelter, not the once-every-Thanksgiving gig some of my friends do to assuage their guilt. I’ve served as a jail chaplain and I’ve counseled addicts in a recovery program.
So I think I’ve earned the right to speak to the issue. And I need to speak frankly to some of you out there.
Recently, a homeless person I know personally had just lied to me about what they needed money for. It ticked me off because this person knows I’ll give them gift cards for McDonalds or places where they can get any basic necessities.
But I never give cash, quite simply because cash is used to fuel addictions.
I was ticked off because if my homeless friend had a legitimate need, they know I would have met it. I would do so even though I have a very small salary to feed my rather large family on. So if they lied, they were probably trying to get drugs or alcohol with it. That’s really the only logical conclusion.
I’m sure the Pope wrote the article out of a good heart, but unfortunately without using his head. That’s because he’s fallen for the lie that your motive is all that matters when doing good. In his world, we should just hand money out to the poor, no matter what it’s used for.
It’s just the heart that counts, right?
Well, yes, if this were only about you. But if it’s about trying to really help the homeless person, your money could actually be the nail in their coffin.
To be blunt…how would you like to know you financed the drugs that finally killed a man? That $10 doesn’t feel so heartwarming now, does it?
Most often, that’s what our soft-headed charity is doing, though the deaths occur gradually over time. Though we’d never dream of pulling a trigger to end someone’s life, we’re more than happy to do it with whatever cash is folded in our wallet.
Now, before you judge me, know that I am in complete support for giving to homeless shelters and helping organizations. That’s because they know who they are giving to and basically what’s being done with it. They vet people and give out assistance to those who are accountable for how it is used.
But that man at the off-ramp of your nearby interstate? He’s unsheltered most likely because the local homeless shelter, in order to stay a safe place, will not allow him to drink or use illicit drugs in their facility. These rules are to his benefit as well, if he is ever going to overcome his drug habit.
Also, these shelters usually give assistance to their residents in finding work, and require them to eventually find a job in order to stay there. So when I hear of people living in camps in the woods, it does make me sad. However, I realize it is a choice they have made to protect their addictions, to their own detriment.
This is where our love of symbolic gestures comes in. I’d actually love to give money to the guy on the off-ramp. You see, that would make me FEEL GOOD! I’d feel like a really good person if I did that. I’d get all warm inside, and then I’d nonchalantly mention what I did to my wife, who’d congratulate me on how caring I am.
Except that the money I gave was not for that homeless man – it was ALL FOR ME! It didn’t actually help the man at all, because that homeless shelter he refuses to live in will still actually give him meals. The money won’t be used for food or clothes – he’ll get those for free.
So every cent I gave him will go to feed the addiction that’s killing him. Brilliant.
By the way, I could also grouse about how the government ought to be doing more like everyone else does. I could lobby for more programs that will demand more tax dollars taken away from hardworking citizens. And I can do all this in the name of Jesus, claiming it’s exactly what He would want.
BUT…the funny thing is, Jesus never advocated the government confiscating money, often against the will of the people, to do charity. What the Bible demanded was that we, personally, get involved with helping people who are truly at-risk in our society:
Religion that God accepts as pure and without fault is this: caring for orphans or widows who need help, and keeping yourself free from the world’s evil influence. – James 1:27
No government programs, no handouts to able-bodied people. Instead, we personally getting our hands dirty helping the helpless. Not us doing symbolic gestures that warm our hearts but truly make no substantive difference.
I know this talk may sound “uncompassionate”, but it is exactly true compassion over sentiment. And if it makes you mad, I have one question for you:
What are you actually doing to help the poor and homeless around you? Or all you just all talk and no action?
You see, I know a dirty little secret about the folks who squawk the loudest that “someone ought to do something”…I know they are most often doing NOTHING. I know this because if they were helping the homeless or working with the poor, they’d know that it’s not the sweet little picture they have in their minds.
If they’d really been helping, then after they’d been lied to just to get booze or drugs they’d make sure their money is used only to help and not hurt their homeless friends. They’d be angered by government agencies that pretend to help the problem, but instead hide the money in an endless maze of bureaucracies. Instead of complaining, they’d actually roll up their sleeves and do the tough work.
And the evidence would be in the lingering smell of stale cigarettes and cheap booze lingering on their clothes from having just hugged a homeless man. Their car would be parked in front of the church where they are sitting in on a class with their friend, helping them learn job skills. Their closet would be searched for suits that would fit their friend when he sets off on his next interview, and his name would be used as a reference to help the friend get his first apartment.
But he’d be completely devoid of the big talk and symbolic gestures from those who don’t care to know the reality of the situation, and would never dare to get their hands dirty helping.
You see, you do all those things when you really love homeless people, not just when you see them as some generic entity. When you love them, you won’t be OK with them destroying themselves. When you love them, you don’t just throw cash at them – you actually give your time and help.
Most people will only offer that ten dollar bills at the interstate. But the ones who truly make a difference offer something much more valuable – their friendship and lives.
And when it comes to helping the poor and homeless, that’s really the only currency that matters.