Caution: I'm about to write about something that I'm very opinionated about.
I guess it's all about the pope this season, but did you see this article, "Give Without Worry"? When people ask him, "Well, what if the panhandler spends the money I give him on alcohol?" the pope's answer is "If a glass of wine is the only happiness he has in life, that’s O.K. Instead, ask yourself, what do you do on the sly? What ‘happiness’ do you seek in secret?” Then he *&#!ing goes further and says the way of giving is as important as the gift. You should not simply drop a bill into a cup and walk away. You must stop, look the person in the eyes, and touch his or her hands.
Can I get an amen?!
My daughter Loretta has been my teacher in this department. She absolutely cannot abide the idea that we would turn a blind eye to anyone asking for help. (This photo is her on the trail to school a few days ago. Come on.) So, for the last 5 years, we have given to almost everyone who asks unless we literally could not figure out something. We carry $5 Starbucks gift cards and granola bars in the car for folks hanging out on on-ramps. I carry dollar bills for people spare-changing on the street. Recently I offered to buy a man a meal and he said, "Ma'am, can I be honest with you? My sign says 'Anything helps,' but I really want money." So I went to a cash machine and got him money.
Did he buy pot with it? Maybe. Did he spent it on a hotel room when he can go to the Lighthouse Mission and sleep there for free? Maybe. Did he buy fancy dog food when he could stand in line at the food bank and get some generic stuff? Maybe. But what business is it of mine?! I love it when the pope says, "What do YOU DO on the sly?" Busted. Buy a $75 sweater when I absolutely do not need it. Waste food. Pay every month for Hulu, Comcast, Netflix, Amazon so we can have unlimited choice in our leisure time. That homeless man doesn't demand accountability from me about how I spend my money.
When I give a down-and-outer a $1 bill, her life is definitely not transformed. The transformation happens in ME, when I look her in the eye, when I square up with my own privilege, when I really think about what kind of life i want to model for my children.
Peter Gomes, in his immensely helpful "How to Keep a Good Lent" (download the PDF here), says, "Contrary to popular perception, Lent is not private and personal. From ancient times it has had a communal, public, even civic dimension wherein the faithful are encouraged to good works and deeds of public charity and private philanthropy. Lest you become too private and self-absorbed in Lent, you should find a way in which you might give time to some or work or kindness which is not only for yourself." I love his "SHOULD" in there. He's not apologizing for it! And in case you need more convincing, there are stacks of research that say doing things for others is one of the only things that make us reliably happy.
The way I've come to see it, the spare-changing folks downtown are giving us an opportunity to be generous. We don't have to go to Africa or send shoeboxes to Guatemala (though it's wonderful if you do). Just because these folks technically have a shelter where they can lay their head or just because they might receive a disability check or go to the needle exchange doesn't make them less "deserving" of our generosity or of being treated like the precious humans they are.
So go ahead. Give without worry, and enjoy it!