"Give beer to those who are perishing,
wine to those who are in anguish;
let them drink and forget their poverty
and remember their misery no more.
Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves,
for the rights of all who are destitute.
Speak up and judge fairly;
defend the rights of the poor and needy."
For a long time I've tried to follow Jesus' command in Luke 6:30-"Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back." I walk all over downtown frequently. Homeless people or panhandlers often approach asking for money. I used to always give money but then I read a blogpost by the Homeless Guy, Kevin Barbeaux, about how disruptive it is for the other folks when people to show up at a shelter drunk or otherwise impaired. He suggested that people not give money to panhandlers so they can't buy alcohol which causes problems for others. Usually, when I'm out with my kids, I've got a bunch of snacks with me and often, I've got surplus bus change cards, so sometimes I give those to people who ask me for something. I used to carry fast food gift certificates but I keep forgetting to buy more, so I haven't done that in a while.
But sometimes I don't have any of those things on me and all I have to give are cash. Usually, when I have the time, I'll stop and talk with the person asking and try to make a connection. I'll give them whatever I feel I can justify-sometimes just a little change because I'm broke and need my money for the next bus home and sometimes it'll be a few dollars, lunch money or the cost of a cup of chai (figuring that if I can indulge myself I should also share with someone else). I prefer to not have someone tell me some story about needing bus fare to get his family to Madison or about how his wallet was stolen or this or that but I know that many people do need a story about where their money is going before they'll give; I assume that probably half the time I give money it'll go to alcohol. And after reading Kevin's post about how disruptive alcohol is in homeless shelters, I began feeling bad about giving cash.
But then I read the article "Living with Beggars" by Anna Redsand in the July 2006 issue of Friends Journal in which she quotes the above verses in Proverbs. I don't know how it is that I never noticed those verses before. (oh, I do know how. Proverbs 31:6-9 immediately precedes the passages about "the wife of noble character" which was shoved down my throat by my mother, various sunday school teachers and a bunch of youth ministers throughout my adolescence. I'm pretty sure that, for many years, if I heard the word "proverbs" my eyes glazed over and my mind took me to my "happy place" a world away from "she is worth far more than rubies".) So, wow. The Bible is telling me to give booze to people who are in distress and impoverished so they can forget their poverty and misery. But then it follows with the command to "speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute...defend the rights of the poor and needy." What that is saying to me is that I should do what I can to alleviate suffering-whatever it takes-but I must take responsibility for that suffering when I do so. I have to take it on myself to stand up for those who can't stand up for themselves because they are in anguish. It's not enough to give money to a panhandler or to buy his lunch for him; I must also advocate for him in the larger world. Neither is it enough to do advocacy work while ignoring the day-to-day suffering of individuals. Both must be done together, which makes sense.
I'm going to have to sit with this for a while to see how it fits me and where I am and where I need to be. I'm not sure how to find the balance called for here in the my life, at this time. To me, doing advocacy is committing to something. I don't have time to join anything else or serve on any other things, but maybe there's something I else I can be doing to advocate? I will try to open my heart and mind to possibilities and pray for guidance.