A wise sage once explained to me that the reason we humans are the way we are is because we have our noses pressed up against the wall, and so we can only see what’s right in front of us and have no idea what’s on the rest of the wall. If we step back from the wall, she said, then we can see the bigger picture of what God is doing in the world. “Light shining in the darkness” you might say. Unfortunately, the more we see, the more complicated the world gets – the more messy things get. The light doesn’t bring clarity or understanding. Maybe that is why John 1 says, “A light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.” But such is life and I’m sure many of us wouldn’t have it any other way.
As I spend time with God’s people here in Trenton, I am constantly learning and absorbing what I see and hear. I can safely say, however, that I have found not one easy answer or one quick fix to any of the issues with which people are struggling.
Take for example begging or panhandling. In my last blog entry, I talked about Jack and some of the issues that he faces as he seeks to find his way in this world, which at this moment includes panhandling. It seems like there should be an easy answer to this for Christians. In both the Gospel of Luke and Matthew, Jesus says, “Give to everyone who begs from you” (Luke 6:30a). Isn’t this a simple command? If someone begs, Jesus says we should give to them, no questions asked. Unfortunately, it’s so not that easy!
One thing that complicates this is the fact that not all panhandling is created equal. Some panhandling takes Jack’s form: standing on the side of the road holding a sign,patiently waiting for the Spirit to move the hearts of the passers-by. Other panhandling is like what happens often at the Trenton Transit Center: person after person coming up to you (or me) asking for a dollar, or some food, or help to pay for a bus ticket, or any number of other requests. Many of the requests are filled with emotion (maybe practiced, maybe genuine). I don’t always have the change on me, but when I do I try to respond with what I can. A couple of days ago a gentleman asked me for help and all I had was 50 cents or a five-dollar bill. Since I don’t give out fives, I gave him the 50 cents. He seemed grateful. As I walked in the door to the train station, by the McDonald’s, a woman approached me and asked for some food. I agreed and as we were walking into the fast food joint, she asked me if I could also spare a couple bucks for a bus ticket. I told her I could give her a dollar (once I broke the five). I put her food on my debit card and asked if I could get five ones. She leaned over to me and said, “I could really use the five.” I told her I could only afford a dollar, which may or may not be true, but its what I told her. I gave her the dollar and we walked out. On our way out, the guy I had given the 50 cents saw me and said, “You gave to her, but not to me?” Needless to say I was a little annoyed, but in my shame I brought him a dollar and asked his name. “Give to everyone who begs from you.” Uff da. I went home after that very distraught. I asked myself, “Why don’t they just go panhandle on the side on the road or sit on the wall with a sign, waiting for the Spirit to act just like Jack and others like him do?” Something you don’t know (and I didn’t learn until this morning from Jack and another guy Keith), is that panhandling on the side of the road is not for the faint of heart. These two men told me stories of having hot coffee and beer bottles thrown at them, of being spit at, yelled at, shamed and degraded. They’ve been propositioned and even teased. Keith told me the story of how one driver held a twenty dollar bill out the window and when he got up to the car, the driver pulled it back in and said, “Go find a job, loser.” My heart was breaking as they were sharing these stories with me. I thought a lot about the verse that follows Jesus command to give to all who beg: “Do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31). Why do humans do such things to other humans? How can we? What is it in our hearts that allow such behavior toward another being created in God’s image? Having heard those stories, I understand a little more why some choose to take a more active form of panhandling: even though the might be ignored, at least they can be treated like human beings.