Coming in from a freezing winter night I said, “I feel so bad for that guy begging.” My Christian friends responded, “Those people aren’t homeless!” “I hope you didn’t give him money!” I felt attacked for having empathy for a panhandler.
Having worked with people who are homeless, I know that most panhandlers are genuinely poor. But even if some are not, ignoring them certainly doesn’t help them change.
From Fear to Friendship
When I moved to Chicago, well-meaning people concerned for my safety trained me to put on a “Chicago face”—a “don’t bother me” look—to discourage solicitors. I got really good at it. In fact, I felt kind of proud that panhandlers would ask others for money but wouldn’t bother me.
Every time I stood waiting to cross the street to my internship, I put on my “Chicago face” and ignored the man who was sitting in a wheelchair, shaking a McDonalds cup. Meanwhile, at church I was hearing sermons about how Jesus pursued the people society had ignored.
I realized my behavior didn’t look like that at all.
I got up the courage to look at the man and nod. Pretty soon saying “good morning” to him became the highlight of my commute. Occasionally I brought him homemade bread or an apple. One day, my friend wasn’t there and I worried about what had happened to him. The next day I told him I had missed him and was glad to see he was okay. Panhandlers are used to people wishing they weren’t there; what an opportunity instead to remind this person that he’s valuable!
From Judgment to Generosity
Instead of judging, Jesus reached out and gave generously, especially to those on the fringes.
So how do we move from judgment to generosity? First, by shifting the way we think. When you see a panhandler, try to stop worrying about why the person is begging. Instead, pray for him or her. Remember that Jesus offers rest to “all who are weary and burdened” (Matt. 11:28). Consider the moment an opportunity to share the kindness of Jesus with someone who might not know him.
Next, challenge yourself to treat such people with dignity by not ignoring them. Build your confidence by starting small: look the person in the eye and wave. Work up to offering a granola bar, bus pass, or slice of pizza. If you pass the same person regularly, learn his or her name.
From Greed to Giving
Giving helps me tune in to the needs of others and fight my own tendency toward consumerism and greed.
Recently I exited the highway to see a man holding a “homeless and hungry” sign. Rain was pouring down, and I felt God prompting me to give him my umbrella. Looking at my husband’s nice golf umbrella, I sighed. Then I rolled down the window and handed it to him. His eyes widened, as if to say, “Really? For me?” He said, “God bless you,” and popped open the umbrella.
For a while I kept thinking about that umbrella. I was annoyed that I’d given away our best umbrella. Then I began to wonder why it felt like such a sacrifice when I had several more umbrellas at home!
I’ve been practicing showing love to panhandlers for several years now. It’s still hard. It’s never easy to interact with those I’d rather ignore, or give away things I’d rather keep. But I’m convinced it’s what Jesus would do. I’m going to keep working at it.