By Nathan Bierma

Content & Context

The Books & Culture Weblog

icon1 of 3view all


Imagine a panhandler who doesn't ask for money, but comes through your subway car just wanting to say thank you. A letter writer* to the New York Times ' Metropolitan Diary last week was interrupted by such a person. "Thank you, ladies and gentlemen!" he began, and then announced that the donations he solicited on the subway had enabled him to treat a visual impairment and thus get a job. "So I want to thank you! I thank all of you!" Then he promptly proceeded to the next car to say the same thing. The letter writer said he probably hadn't given the man money before; "but I certainly would like to have done so."

That's the thing about panhandling; it can surprise you, and defy simple assumptions and personal policies.

After I wrote about this issue in October, some readers responded with their own thoughts and policies. Frank Dudley of Harlingen, Texas, wrote that when he was a missionary in an African town where panhandling was an urgent issue, Dudley's wife asked a native African how she handled it as a Christian. "She said she judged need by the number of missing limbs!" Dudley recalls. "The more limbs they were missing, the greater the chance that she would help them." 

A couple of readers wrote in to make a point about the proverb, "Teach a man to fish, and he eats for a lifetime." They pointed out that a letter writer to the Chicago Tribune was mistaken in saying this was from the Bible. "Jesus didn't put any conditions on his Grace," wrote David Bruce of Canberra, Australia. (This site attributes the quote to the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu.)

Soon after the blog was posted, I was invited to lead a discussion at LaSalle Street Church in downtown Chicago, where I attend, and where this is a very real dilemma.

"The first casualty of panhandling is the truth," one member began the discussion by saying, noting that at gas stations, scammers use the same story over and over about running out of gas. He later noted—perhaps with the teach-to-fish proverb in mind—that when a parent provides a 6-year-old with food and shelter, it is considered caring; when the parent provides food and shelter to a 26-year-old, it's often looked down upon as preventing a person from taking charge of themselves.

Another person pointed out that the only person panhandling may really help is the giver, by assuaging her guilt while failing to change the receiver's situation. "I realized I wasn't giving for their benefit," she said.

But another suggested we see panhandling as "the 20th century equivalent of gleaning," as described in the book of Ruth—the gathering of the grain that was left by the harvesters.

I asked Mike Post, executive director of LaSalle's Breaking Bread ministry to the homeless, if he would endorse the policy of handing out business cards with Breaking Bread's address in lieu of giving money. "I need a few more grants first," he quipped, but said that he has sometimes used this policy himself. But part of me thinks that gesture is too impersonal and business-like.

Since, to most of us in the room, imagining ourselves as panhandlers was only a hypothetical, the discussion really hit home when two men who were homeless raised their hands to speak. One said he only accepts handouts in exchange for doing small jobs, but that he's usually disregarded before he can make such an offer.

Another man, who had come to LaSalle through the Breaking Bread ministry, said that although "even a panhandler can't tell when he's being conned," he personally knew the desperation of having to ask for money to get a meal or a place to stay the night. He also knew what it was like to be passed on the street over and over by people—including churchgoers—who refused to look him in the eye.

"All I can ask is this," he said. "Let your prayers and your heart be your guide. You won't know the truth. But it's your heart that opens you up." I asked him if it was good to greet a solicitor you don't plan to give to, even if that meant raising the person's hopes. He said yes, absolutely. Everyone in that situation of need suffers from a deficit of dignity.

He added that people would sometimes apologize to him for not giving money. "Don't be sorry," he said. "It's yours." (On the other hand, the sermon that morning on stewardship—see "The Burden of Affluence" here—pointed out that we tend to think of our money as "mine," when we should see it first and foremost as God's.) But some people, he could personally attest, really did just need a few bucks for lunch.

Later that same day, I ran into one of the homeless men on the street who had spoken in the discussion. For the first time in a while, I forked over some money and sent him to a nearby deli. I figured that if someone comes to a church discussion on panhandling, their story is sound. If only it were always that clear-cut.

icon1 of 3view all

Most ReadMost Shared

Seminary/Grad SchoolsCollege Guide