Writer, editor, stumbler after Jesus

Getting my hands around alms

It was cold enough in Florida yesterday for me to have to wear long pants instead of shorts (tough, I know), and more importantly get to witness a small act of kindness that eased the chill and made me think again how messy mercy can be.

The Starbucks in a fashionable nearby downtown was busier than usual, as the low temperatures had pushed inside everyone who usually sits out on the street. The interior wasn’t large, with one of the comfy chairs commandeered by a slightly disheveled guy who promptly fell asleep. I don’t know any of his back-story, but I’ve seen him before in the area, asking passers-by for money.

When he stirred after a time, one of the baristas came over and had a short, whispered conversation. The server then disappeared, only to come back a few minutes later with a cup for the man, which he presented with a smile. Maybe it was one of those suspended coffees that customers can “pay forward.”

This kind of token act isn’t without its critics, of course. Some wonder whether it isn’t more about making the donor feel good, without requiring them to really extend themselves in any way, than actually making a difference. Others fear that such gestures are ultimately counterproductive, encouraging people to stay in situations they might otherwise determine to change.

Both views have some merit, but if it’s freezing at the end of the day in question, I tend to the view that if you are going to err on being over-kind or under-sensitive, too much rather than too little is the best default.

I recall someone writing about their struggles in deciding what to do when asked for money by someone in the street. He determined that he’d just give the person all the cash he had in his pocket at the time, and leave the rest to God. That thrilled me like the prospect of bungee jumping: a great, wild idea, but a bit too far out of my comfort zone as yet.

For now, if someone approaches me when I am out and about and says they are hungry, I’ll usually offer to buy them a burger, if I have time. I typically don’t give cash because there’s a chance they might use it to feed other appetites, of course. Internally, however, I go back and forth between telling myself this is just being wise, as Jesus instructs, and countering that his remarks about caring for the least of these (Matthew 25) didn’t include a means or drugs test, as far as I recall.

(As a quick aside, I’d also note that giving someone you randomly encounter money they may misuse isn’t “enabling” them, no matter how principled a decision that makes it sound; that kind of impact is reserved for people with major life issues with whom you have some sort of ongoing relationship. By helping someone in a one-off encounter, you’re maybe just being imprudent.)

Working in the center of Amsterdam for several years, as I did, it was impossible to walk down the street without getting approached at least once by someone homeless, wasted, or both. If I couldn’t stop, I’d sign one of my business cards, and tell the person to take it a certain cafe where the owner, a friend, had agreed to give a meal to anyone who brought one in, and let me settle up the next time I was in. I gave a bunch of cards out, but hardly any were redeemed.

I have a similar arrangement with a restaurant now, though my suburban life—working from home and driving most places—means I don’t have a lot of encounters that prompt its use. But since yesterday I’ve tucked a couple more business cards in my wallet, having been reminded of the sweetness of a warm act on a cold day, and that alms need hands.

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