When I lived for six months in the Philippines, I got used to seeing beggars on the streets. When you stopped at an intersection they would come out into the street and tap on your car window with an open hand. Many were in filthy clothes, without shoes, and were missing teeth. Some women carried a child in their arms. They were poor, very needy, and hard to ignore.
In the past few years, begging has become a familiar sight right where I live in Portland, Oregon. I see them mostly at the freeway entrances with their signs that read “Homeless. Anything helps,” “A disabled veteran,” “A homeless mother. God bless you,” “Brain injury. Need help.” I recently counted seven of these unfortunate people lined up on either side of a freeway entrance during a Friday rush hour. One street corner in Portland has become the favorite site of an elderly lady with an old fashioned hat and a parasol. She sits on a stool with her sign, “Senior needs help.”
More recently I have noticed that some of these people will smile and wave to get your attention and establish contact. When I see them on the corner I usually get in the other lane and avoid eye contact. I am embarrassed that I ignore them. As I drive away I have wondered, “How should a Christian respond?”
I have tried various approaches. At times I have bought them food. Others I know have passed out coupons good for a sandwich at a nearby fast-food establishment. My son decided to start making simple lunches to carry in the car and pass out to those asking for help. While there were some expressions of appreciation and the occasional “God bless you,” he discovered that most of those he wanted to help were more interested in receiving money. They would look in the lunch bag, remove the can of soda and return the rest.
I just returned from an errand and passed another beggar as I got off the freeway to return to campus. I looked straight ahead and avoided eye contact with the two young men standing there holding an empty gas can. Maybe their need was real and I could have helped them buy gas. But I thought that the gas can could have been a ploy to get money for drugs.
Back in my office eating my lunch, I now feel a deep concern. I’m concerned for the unfortunate people who have lost all sense of shame and are willing to stand in public asking commuters to turn over some of their hard earned money. But I am more concerned that I seem to be losing my compassion. I felt compassion for the beggars in the Philippines. I don’t feel that same compassion for a woman I regularly see with different signs telling different stories, often with a backpack as if she were traveling.
Besides feeling guilty, what can I do? I can give. Portland has a number of non-profit charities that specialize in helping the homeless and destitute people. When I send them a check I know that this money will go for food and shelter, not for drugs. I can pray. God has compassion for these unfortunate souls who are made in His image. God also sees the same people I see standing at the freeway entrances. I know He has compassion for them. I can pray that God will give me His compassion. I can be thankful. I live in a four bedroom house with well stocked cupboards and clean bathrooms. I don’t deserve this comfort. All that I enjoy reflects God’s goodness and grace. I can thank God for His blessings and be a good steward of these resources.
Is there more that I can do? Sure. But I’m looking for direction. As a Christian I want to be responsive to the Spirit’s leading as I become more aware of the needs of those around me. But most of all I want to make sure I do not become hardened and lose something so close to the heart of God as compassion.
About J. Carl Laney
J. Carl Laney teaches Biblical Literature at Western Seminary and is an instructor for Western's Israel Study Program. Carl has authored numerous books, including most recently, “Loving Your Enemy: A Biblical Alternative to Revenge” (Ministry: International Journal for Pastors, July 2011).