When I arrive for work at the Chrysler Building, a group of panhandlers is standing across the street outside St. Agnes Church, waiting for handouts from people leaving morning Mass. One fellow is in a wheelchair, another has a cane and another has his Starbucks Venti-sized cup held out so you can toss in some coins, or, even better, a dollar bill.
By midday, the morning shift is gone and there’s a new group at the doorway, which includes a woman in walker, a man with a sign that says he can’t work because of a disability and a fellow who just smiles at everyone and greets them with, “Hi, buddy, have a nice day. Can you spare some change?”
Panhandlers, or, to use the more biblical term, “beggars,” provoke a lot of anger in modern America. A few times when I was waiting for the morning train, I gave a buck to a guy who had a sign that said he was an out-of-work veteran — and my fellow commuters tore into me. They said I was a fool. They insisted the so-called hard-luck vet probably had a bigger house than I do and was driving a BMW, while I have to get by in a Toyota with 100,000 miles on the odometer.
They scoffed and said I had committed a grave offense: “encouraging scam artists.” It was a lot of abuse for the alleged crime of handing someone a dollar bill. (Just to set the record straight, I’m no paragon of charitable giving.)
Maybe the guy wasn’t down on his luck, but you can’t conduct a needs test every time someone asks for a handout. I’m also convinced our society has a serious moral blindness if begging provokes reasonably well-off people to anger.
A friend who teaches at a Catholic high school recently took his class to the inner city to do volunteer work, and the response of some students to the disadvantaged people they met was unsettling: They should get jobs. They should stop spending their money on drugs. They’ve been on welfare for generations.
Pope Francis has been vocal about the importance of charity. During one audience at St. Peter’s, he said, “When going down the street, we cross a person in need or a poor man comes knocking at the door of our house ... in these instances what is my reaction? Do I turn away? Do I move on? Or do I stop to talk and take an interest? If you do this, there will always be someone who says, ‘This one is crazy, talking to a poor person.’”
Christ was pretty explicit about giving. One thing he never said to beggars was, “You’re a fraud. You have no business asking these hard-working people for money.” (And he didn’t obsess over whether they had a flat-screen TV and a six-pack of Heineken in the refrigerator.)
However, Christ did say, “Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back.”
All around the city, you’ll meet people in need, lying on the sidewalks in sleeping bags, wandering the streets with no shoes and rummaging through recycling bins and trash cans. People who are down on their luck.
In New York, it has become such an epidemic that exasperated city officials have suggested a solution: If you stop giving to them, they’ll go away. Last year, one of the tabloids fueled the debate by writing a story about a panhandler who, with his dog, made $200 an hour and went home to a rent-controlled apartment.
We live in a world where there’s clearly an inequitable distribution of wealth, as Pope Francis often says. Very often, those of us who have enough want more and think that we’ve been unfairly denied when we don’t get it. Even if you factor in the need to save for retirement and pay for college educations, many of us still have sufficient resources to live good lives and give charitably.
What I’ve noticed is that greedy people — in every income bracket — are never satisfied with what they have. Studies on philanthropy often show that the per capita rate of giving is generally the lowest in states where the per capita income is the highest. Part of the problem is that we’re too busy comparing ourselves with people who have more than us. If we compared ourselves to people who have less than us, we might be more compassionate — and charitable.
This much we can be sure of: God is love and God is all about giving with a cheerful heart. And always remember that he’ll reward us for what we give to others, far beyond our wildest dreams.
Joe Pisani of Orange is a writer whose work has appeared in Catholic publications nationwide. He and his wife Sandy have four daughters.