If I Don’t Give To Beggars How Will My Charity Get Tested…

… I’ll admit it; I like facebook. Probably a bit too much. I contend it’s not all bad. People request prayers, post nun pictures, and share inspiring quotes (yes, even trite cliches). You just have to take it for what it is and remember to stay out of comment battles and no one gets hurt.

So anyway, Elizabeth Scalia was sharing quotes about the Church and posted this;

One of the good things about a Catholic church is that it isn’t respectable; you can find anyone in it, from duchesses to whores, from tramps to kings. – Rumer Godden, In This House of Brede

Gregory Popcak replied with another quote, one of my favorites regarding the universal nature of the Church;

“Here comes everybody.” – James Joyce

Which reminded me of the first time I started attending mass as a non-Catholic in Nashville, TN. Some amazing things were experienced in that church, one being the welcomed attitude towards the city’s homeless. I had never in my life walked into a church with such a bizarre mix of congregants. The only other experience that comes close was attending mass in Rome where penitents crawled on their knees from end of the church to the next while a group of pilgrims prayed the rosary in Spanish over a man in the wheelchair at the back of the church.

In my old Pentecostal church in Birmingham, Al, someone homeless and scruffy would have been chased out with a broom as a loitering vagrant. In the Catholic Church no one batted an eye or asked them to leave.

Which brings me to gentrified Charlotte, NC. A Southern city full of charm with it’s fair share of the homeless, who can often be found pan-handling in church parking lots. I never even gave their presence a pause. Some one needs money. I have some extra money in my wallet. What’s there to think about? You give.

Imagine my surprise one week when I saw in the bulletin an announcement discouraging us from giving them money. We were instead to direct them to the parish office who will then direct them to the Society of St. Vincent DePaul. When did acts of charity become so bureaucratic? Never mind that on a typical Sunday the parish offices are closed. Whatever their immediate needs are would just have to wait.

Um, no. Look, I appreciate the sentiment of the local Catholic community. I completely understand that some people prefer to give to organizations directly then to the homeless at the corner because they fear that money will be used on drugs and booze.

But here’s the God’s honest thing about that; sometimes giving a few dollars to the beggar in the church parking lot is the only chance I’ll get all week to do something decent for another human being. Don’t take that away from me and don’t condescend the homeless by making them jump through hoops to get a handout.

Bartholomeus van Bassen, The parable of the rich man and Lazarus

What they do with the money you give isn’t really your business anyway. In the end, you’ll be judged by your actions alone, whether you chose to help or not. And as terrible as I am, I need for God to see me slipping that homeless guy a $5.

About Katrina Fernandez

Mackerel Snapping Papist

  • tj.nelson

    I totally agree. Totally. Agree.

  • Barbara Fryman

    Do I think that there are great outreach programs that should be in operation? YES! But I also think looking someone in the eye when you give reminds us that these are human beings, not “others”.

  • Lydia

    Yes. I am 100% with you.

    • Lydia

      That’s the other Lydia. :-) The above comment under HIlary White’s comment was Lydia M.–i.e., me. That’s why there appears to be a contradiction.

  • Michael O’Keefe

    I think I’m going to start buying gift cards for food and bus passes again. One time I saw a vagrant selling a bus pass I’d given him an hour before. It made me smile. A gift is a gift! :-)

    • Maggie Goff


    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/thecrescat Katrina Fernandez

      Why a gift card? Because you don’t trust them with cash?

      • That Was Then

        Plenty of agencies recommend this. They can buy gum or whatever with the gift card. It’s like cash, except you can’t buy illicit drugs with it.

        • Hilary White

          A priest I know in TO carries around the restaurant and grocery store ticket things that are given to the food bank. He uses them to start conversations with street people, and they have learned that he is someone who can not only help them materially, but spiritually as well. He also carries a pack of smokes around for the same purpose. Some of the restaurants and grocery and other types of stores donate these “meal tickets” to the food bank, and in some cases charitable agencies purchase them and give them away either to the food bank or to individuals. They’re basically a gift certificate redeemable for a good meal or groceries, but can’t be traded for cash.I think the Salvation Army and St. Vincent de Paul thrift stores do something similar for stuff like clothes and household goods. Ask at the parish office for whatever similar type of system is in use in your area.

  • echarles1

    My philosophy re: this is when in doubt, do. Now, my favorite comment re: beggars come from Karel Capek who considered begging an honest living. The beggars in his home town went around as a group begging and he was always glad to see them. I guess as a group it give them a kind of esprit de corps, though I would not want to romanticize their hard lives.

  • echarles1

    My philosophy re: this is when in doubt, do. Now, my favorite comment re: beggars comes from Karel Capek who considered begging an honest living. The beggars in his home town went around as a group begging and he was always glad to see them. I guess as a group it gives them a kind of esprit de corps, though I would not want to romanticize their hard lives.

  • macdonald@alphacomm.net

    I’m very disappointed with my local parish church. Anyone who is slightly odd or outside the box is given the cold shoulder by the church ‘do-gooders’. You know the ones I’m talking about. The women who change the altar cloths and keep a close count on how many prayer candles are lit.

    They decided that since some mud had been tracked into the sanctuary during the week, we needed a surveillance camera installed. This was after an $11,000 carillon system was installed on the roof. This is a rural church and the only person who could hear the music was the gas station across the road. What a waste of money.

    I’d had enough with the frivolous spending and decisions made by a hand-picked few so my husband and I decided to continue to give our weekly contributions to the Catholic Church, just not our local church. We now send money monthly to Catholic Relief Services, Food for the Poor and the Archdiocese for Military Services where we know it will be used for good works and not silly, useless material things. I have such a higher sense of giving knowing my contributions are going towards something good.

  • Britny Fowler

    Sometimes it is hard to trust them with cash. Trust me I’ve had many trips to NYC where I’ve had to forgo meals because I gave the last of my cash to homeless people, but I would prefer to maybe buy them food. You never know why they are homeless… it could be because they used their money on drugs. I know, not even the majority do that, but I would rather offer every homeless person I see food than have one go buy drugs and perhaps die of an overdose that I enabled. I know I’ve spoken with a few CFR’s while I was in NYC and they agree on the giving food or clothes over cash.

  • Hilary White

    It’s not bureaucracy, Cat. I was a parish secretary and helped out in the Legion of Mary and the food bank, all run by the Toronto Oratory and I know about this from the other side. In wealthy western nations, “the poor” are not really in the same position as they were in Christ’s time, or even the time of St. Vincent de Paul. We tend to think of them as people in a desperate financial position through no fault of their own. But the reality is that nearly all western countries are now welfare states where the basic material requirements of life are given by the state. This means that “the poor” are really not, or aren’t necessarily, destitute and starving. In many cases the people begging in wealthy cities are people with serious drug or psychiatric problems. These are people who really cannot handle cash in any way that will be of help to them. What they want and what they need are often very different things, and when they are asking for change, the take will rarely go towards anything that will help them in any real way. There is a way in which such people are not responsible adults, and though the state may not be willing to do what is needed, the Church has to have different, more realistic standards.

    When I was parish secretary, in the first week, the word got round that there was someone new at the parish, and everyone gave it a try. My door bell rang constantly with a stream of people asking for change and bus tickets, the two most popular. But having done work with the parish poor institutions I knew the score.

    They would often become irate when told that we do not, ever, give out either cash or bus tickets at the door, but would be happy to help set them up with anything they would require to start putting their lives onto some kind of even keel, whether it was help getting a bank account, an appointment with a job counsellor or even a shrink or doctor, legal assistance, or help with job or appartment applications, or with getting weekly visits from home care or a lift over to the food bank to get put on the St. Vincent de Paul or Legion of Mary list.. or whatever at all that they might need. In that first week, every single such offer was turned down, often angrily. The only thing wanted was cash.

    Charity is, of course, what all this religion stuff is about. But real charity and just handing change to someone asking for it in the parking lot are not necessarily the same thing, and very often the ‘bureaucratic’ system is what is needed. It takes some prudence and common sense as well as effort to really be of help to someone.

    Back when I lived in Halifax, my friends and I were involved in a parish group that would go out and befriend street people and we had this system of always giving a little money, nearly every day, to the parish secretary of St. Mary’s Basilica for the poor. The street people in Hfx were mostly heroin addicts or so out of it with mental illness that they really couldn’t be trusted to handle money in any way that would be helpful to themselves. But everyone, the givers and the receivers knew that Mrs. McHenry was wise and prudent enough to know what to do if they needed anything. She was one of the most trusted people in town. It was a good system. It helped give us the opportunity to practice charity, and we knew that the money wasn’t going to go to something that would ultimately hurt the people we wanted to help.

    It’s not “condescending” to recognise that some people need more from us than just a quick handout of money, and that there are some people who are more knowledgeable and more responsible than the person who can think of nothing better to help himself than the last-ditch resort of begging for change (when it’s not merely a lifestyle choice… which I’m sorry to say, is not at all uncommon). This is the real world, Cat, and we have to live in it as it really is, with people as they really are.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/thecrescat Katrina Fernandez


      I am aware of the real world. I am also aware of how depressing it is not to have a single dollar in your pocket. When you literally have nothing, having a few bucks in cash and the act of being able to purchase something with it, without having to get an organization’s approval first, really does something for the spirits. It makes you feel more human not having every aspect of your life regulated by well meaning gov’t welfare agencies and social groups. To be able to buy a pack or gum, or smokes, and yes, even a beer is not something I am going to begrudge anyone.

      There’s also something to be said for that human interaction of giving to street pan-handlers, as opposed to writing a check from the comfort of your home.It’s like those people who take their trash to Goodwill and call it charity. Does that make sense?

      I get what your saying and I appreciate your insightful reply. How about we do both; give to Catholic social services and the street people?

      I honestly cannot ever see myself passing a homeless person up on the street because it does nothing for the immediate needs and it’s not right to ignore them like they are beneath even acknowledging.

      Of course in Rome, you’d go broke giving a euro to every gypsy on the corner. So I see the practicality in your wisdom.


    • Lydia

      What Hilary says here is really important and wise. What if they are going to buy heroin or crack with it? That’s serious. I think there can be a lack of the “first, do no harm” rule in the determination to give cash. It’s not buying a single beer that people are worried about. It’s continuing to poison themselves systematically in a serious way. Really harming themselves. And the analogy to children has wisdom to it as well.

      It’s important to remember, as well, that the “bureaucratic” people are real people as well and are going to have human contact with the homeless who seek their help. It’s not like you’re sending them to talk to a robot when you suggest that they talk to the modern equivalent of Mrs. McHenry rather than handing them $5 to do whatever with. The Mrs. McHenrys of the world are real human beings who will look them in the eye, speak to them as real people, and truly attempt to help them.

  • Christine Hebert

    Sometimes I give, sometimes I don’t. It really depends on the appearance of the person. We have a huge problem of organized begging in our area. The leader collects the money periodically. The beggars have better clothes and sneakers than my family. When I see these folks, I go by without giving. There are others, however, who have the appearance of people who wash up as best they can in the gas station rest room. I try to give a little to them when I see them.
    I know what it is like to not have any money and the liberating feeling have a little cash can give you.

  • Ron Turner

    Really dumb, Katrina, One of these days, you’re going to give “not enough” to a beggar and it will get ugly.

  • Suzanne
  • That Was Then

    My community offers a program for the homeless, particularly homeless families. This involves a rotation of shelter and meals in churches throughout the community, Parishioners are invited to help with set up and meals. I would rather give money to that than to pan handlers who sometimes make more per day than I do. I would rather have money go to something that makes a difference than money that just goes to support a drug habit. My kids and I help out whenever our church is hosting.

  • billykangas

    We talked about this very thing this morning at our morning prayer session at Bread for the World…

    One of our staff talked about the challenges of giving to all who ask…
    it can be a heavy load to bear. None of us can give to every person’s needs…

    At what point do you not only hand over $5 but ask why they need $5 and try to address the issues that bring about their hunger, addiction, poverty, mental illness, or whatever else has brought them to the point of begging?

    I’d love to hear your thoughts!

  • Fiddlesticks

    Reminds me of C.S. Lewis. Someone told him not to give money to a homeless guy because he would spend it on drink. He replied: ‘If I don’t give it to him, I will spend it on drink!’

    Having said that, when we were working with street children the workers told us not to give the children money because they would take it home to their parents who would spend it on drink. We bought them food instead. Their idea of ‘real food’ was ice cream – a pretty harmless treat.