One month ago: I gave a man who said he was homeless enough money to buy a meal and rent a room for the night. I promised to help him find a job, gave him my phone number, and asked him to call me at 5:00 PM. Next I arranged for him to get a job with a friend. He never called.
Last Sunday: On the way home from church, a man sat on a crate at a street corner close to where we live. We made eye contact. His piercing eyes made it past my normal defenses. I felt like he was looking into (judging?) my soul. I didn't offer any help.
Frankly, I haven't had much luck helping people outside of organized ministries to the poor. This bad luck spans several decades.
Frankly, like most of us, I'm a bit of a sucker for a sad story – even if it's not true. Don't get me wrong. I'm not stupid. Once a man stumbled across an intersection near my house on Christmas Eve with a sign that said, "Why lie? I need beer." I get it.
But I've also learned that if I require poor people to satisfy my "normal" standards, I'll help no one.
So what should I do? I'm not going to become cynical. I'm not going to be bitter because a small number of people have tricked me out of a tiny amount of money. So what, then?
I decided to google, "What do people standing at street corners really need." I found a TV news team's investigative series of seven people standing on street corners asking for money. Six were phonies.
But one wasn't. And therein lies the problem. I don't have the skill to figure who is the one in seven. So I can ignore him or her because of the other six, or get conned by the six in order to make sure I help the one. In either case, the odds are terrible.
So what to do about those beggars on street corners?
The Message paraphrases Psalm 41:1, "Dignify those who are down on their luck; you'll feel good – that's what God does."
How can I "dignify those who are down on their luck?"
Whatever I decide to do, I realize I am bound to err. But if I'm going to err, I want to err on the side of mercy.
So here's my idea. It's an experiment – not a life commitment. I'm going to buy a case of water bottles and offer one to those beggars who stand at street corners. I hope it will be a gesture that offers them a slice of dignity. We'll see.
Let me know what you've done, or are doing, that actually works. (No theoretical suggestions please).