How do you respond to panhandlers?
It’s an uncomfortable question.
On the one hand I know that this is simply a way of life for some who just don’t want to work, and that raises a lot of questions.
Do we as Christians have charitable obligations to them?
Aren’t they created in the image of God?
As Christians, we believe they are, but is helping them akin to the concept of enabling a person dependent on drugs? Where do you draw the line?
But what about if the panhandler is disabled? That brings it to another level. There I think we can pull up our big boy pants and dig a bit into the problems the person faces and try to get them connected to something in your community that is more of a permanent solution.
But what if someone doesn’t fit in the lazy or the physically disabled category?
Let me tell you about Martin. Martin is a 60-year-old homeless man I have befriended.
Martin fits neither of these two categories, he has psychiatric issues.
Martin is an African-American, and at over six feet tall he can seem sort of threatening. He can also be the most persistent panhandler that you’ve ever met. (He actually followed me into my office one day.) He receives a small check from the government of about $600.00 a month. He is supposed to be on medication, but he constantly loses his identification and can’t get his prescriptions filled, and then his behavior sort of cycles downward. He has been arrested more times than I can say. He spends 90 days at a time in the county jail, all for criminal trespass.
Martin became such a nuisance to me—because that is the worst I can say about him—that I began to check on him. I found out who his family was and called them. They are middle class folks with solid values, and they say Martin has always been this way. I talked to the local police, and they say Martin is so aggressive in his panhandling that they have had to step in on many occasions. But, again, he is at worst a nuisance, not dangerous.
I decided that if I was going to have any kind of relationship with Martin, and I wanted to because he is made in the image of Gad, and he genuinely seems to be both needy and a bit helpless, then I was going to have to set some boundaries. So now, on the first of the month I give Martin some money, not a lot, but not a tiny amount either. He expects that now. When he finds me at other times I remind him of our agreement, and he says, “OK, Mr. Doug, I’ll see you at the first of the month.”
I wish I could say that Martin has become a Christian, found work, and is healthy, but I can’t. But I do have a relationship now, at least I hope I do, and Martin and I talk about life and family and things we’re both familiar with. People make fun of my agreement with Martin, and it may not be perfect. But I am determined that in this one relationship in my life, with this one panhandler, I am going to try to treat him as if he were made in the image of God.
The most beautiful and most esteemed thing in God’s creation is man. Everyone, male and female, sinner or saint, is made in God’s image. What this means is that we are to act towards every person as if they had inestimable value, because they do.
This is, in my opinion, one of the most powerful truths of the Christian life. It gives substance and a rationale to how we are to treat all people. We are called to love people that we would naturally have no reason to love.
The situation isn’t perfect, but I’m not running away either. And, oh, I now pray for Martin every day. I think I’m making a little progress.