I am sure all of you reading this have run into the situation where you are sitting comfortably in your car at a stoplight. You are singing along with the radio, thinking about what you are going to have for dinner or what you have to do at work and you are just happy being in your own little world.
And then you spot the homeless person slowly making their way up the line of vehicles. They have a sign and a cup and they will soon approach your car. You do anything you can to resist eye contact just hoping the light turns green and traffic starts to move quickly.
I never know what to do in these situations either. Sometimes I’ll smile weakly other times I try to avoid eye contact. Usually the encounter makes me uncomfortable.
The first thing that comes to mind in this situation is wondering if they are panhandlers or poor souls truly at wits end. It’s a situation I never know how to handle correctly. Should I give them money or is that just enabling them? Aren’t there social service agencies where they could go for help? Are they really homeless or are they simply con artists? We’ve all heard about people who make their living by standing on the street corner begging. Or the old lady wrapped in blankets, hunched over and almost blind who turned out to be a 20-something female in perfect health.
Are some of the people I encounter fakes? Probably. But not all of them are.
Maybe I am just unwilling to face the specter of homelessness in my own area.
What should our response be in this type of situation? Whether or not you choose to give the person money, your response should be Christ-like and compassionate. Meeting their eyes, smiling, nodding any of these gestures can be a blessing to them. Some of my friends gladly hand money out the window, others give out “care packages” (small bags filled with granola bars and water bottles), others hand out coupons to a fast food restaurant and some like me aren’t sure what to do.
There is no right or wrong answer. There is no Catechism passage with details on exactly how to react to someone approaching your car looking for a handout nor is there a verse in the Bible that states “You shall give to the person begging at the stop light.”
However, both the Catechism and the Bible have significant passages about caring for the poor. The Catechism tells us that the history of giving within the Church has always focused on care for the poor and less fortunate. In addition to the bread and wine for Eucharist, we have always had a collection of gifts. Fundamentally these gifts have been used by the Church to provide for the needs of those less fortunate than us. There has never been a stipulation on the amount to give; those who gave, did so based on their own deliberation. (Cf. CCC 1351)
And the most significant Bible verses giving us insight on how Jesus views the poor is Matthew 25:34-45: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.’
Then the righteous will answer him and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’
And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’ Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, a stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.’
Then they will answer and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs?’ He will answer them, ‘Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.’ And these will go off to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
In a mysterious way we cannot fully understand, Jesus, the Creator of all things, personally identifies Himself with the poor. When we share with the needy, we are actually sharing with Jesus Himself. If that truth is staggering, then this is terrifying: when we do not give to the needy, we leave Christ Himself hungry and thirsty.
The fact is, no one person could fill every case of poverty they see. Even Jesus and Mother Teresa couldn’t do that. But when we meet someone who appears to be in need we must open our hearts to the grace given by the Holy Spirit and respond with love and compassion.
I need to keep reminding myself that Jesus was a homeless itinerant minister. If I met him on a street corner, what would I do?