The issue of whether we should give to beggars can be a complicated one. Too often our response is to walk faster and to let our eyes slide away. But the response God asks of us is different.

What do I do?!

My scrumptious chicken zinger burger with spicy sauce, lettuce and a sesame seed bun. Yep, all my attention was focused on dinner and the rest of the world had blurred out into a dull existence. Until a faint figure of a man approached me with a limp, dirty clothes, a somewhat dishevelled look and hands holding a sign which read, ‘Help me, I’m hungry, poor and alone’.

I was in Melbourne, attending a conference with the sole purpose to learn of the injustice in our world and the huge need for someone to stand up and give the voiceless a platform when I was confronted with this situation. Talk about the irony. That day, I felt stunned, frozen and embarrassed. Not knowing how to respond or what to do, I offered him my meal, which he immediately turned down. “I’ve been eating chips all week,” he said. At a loss of what to do, I thought, ‘Michael, you need to have a response to this!’ I hope this blog will help prepare you (and myself) just in case you find yourself in a similar situation.

What the Bible says about giving to the poor

Scripture tells us to give to those in need, and to be compassionate. Jesus says, “Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you,” in Matthew 5:42, and James says, “Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them ‘Go in peace, keep warm and well fed’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?” (James 2:15-16).

When donating money does more harm than good

Reading those bible verses instantly challenged me. Maybe there was more I could have done to help that man in Melbourne by giving him a few dollars. But would that have helped him in the long run?

In many developing countries around the world, begging syndicates and human trafficking are forms of modern day slavery, where men, women and children are forced into the life of organised begging. Compassion's former Field Experience Coordinator, Andrew Merry, travels frequently and has seen this firsthand.

“Sometimes they have been deliberately maimed so that they will be more effective for the criminal activity of extorting money from tourists and visitors,” he says.

Giving your money can sometimes be the least helpful option, as it is a temporary solution. And the heart-wrenching fact behind all of this, is that what we perceive as a simple act of kindness can reinforce that begging is a supported way of life, it’s justified, and there is a future for it. While our intentions are good, we can actually ending up doing harm. There is a tension between experiencing the harsh reality of poverty and having a heart to help. It’s in those moments we need to remain open to God’s word and His leading.

Personal revelation is key. Andrew Merry encourages each of us to wrestle with the issue ourselves before we find ourselves face to face with a beggar.

The importance of being prepared

If you’re visiting an area where donating cash could do more harm than good, prepare your response so you’re not taken by surprise. Most importantly, remember that a beggar is not an inconvenience, but a person who is loved by God.

“Make sure that you look the person in the eyes, reminding [yourself] that they are made in the image of God and are as worthy of love, respect and dignity as anyone else,” says Andrew.

Other advice includes:

  • Pray and ask God for your own revelation.
  • Be open and engage with the situation.
  • Be creative: carry stamps, ribbons, hair ties, pencils and other small items that you could give to children. Don’t give out lollies: these can contribute to tooth decay and a dentist visit is likely to be out of reach for children in poverty.
  • Be aware that whenever you give out anything you may attract others to you, so try and be subtle.
  • Look for older “carers” close to child beggars. This could be a sign of a begging syndicate.
  • Go to a nearby shop and buy some food and discreetly give it to them.
  • Support local ministries that already seek to help the poor. This is an important one. These organisations are on the ground and know the needs of the local community. They are well placed to meet their needs.
  • Be gentle but firm with your responses.
  • Be aware of organised crime in areas you are visiting.
  • Ultimately, keep your heart soft. Don’t resolve to hard-heartedness on this issue. Remember they are people not beggars.
  • Allow yourself to be led.

Remember, not giving money or gifts to beggars doesn’t mean turning your back on them. If I could leave you with one piece of encouragement, it would be this: Don’t close off your heart when you’re in the situation of being asked to give to beggars. “Do to others whatever you would like them to do to you” (Matthew 7:12). Keep your heart soft, and open to the Holy Spirit. Allow yourself to be challenged and moved, and, most of all, talk about it with others and seek out your own revelation.

Words by Michael Cauchi

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