I don't think I've been called "ma'am" so many times in my entire life since coming to the Philippines. A polite people, everyone from the door-opener at 7-Eleven to the grimy street child maintains a sincere politeness inherent in many Asian cultures. As I leave 7-Eleven with a bottle of water, the guard at the door says: "Thank you, ma'am". As I walk down the street, urchins and older people alike hold out their palms and speak softly yet plaintively: "Please ma'am?"
Ahhhh… the age old dilemma: to give or not to give?
The rule of thumb as a foreigner, whatever color your skin might be, is to never flash cash. If you are moved to give money, that's fine but be prepared to be literally surrounded almost instantaneously by those desperate for a peso or two (or a lei… a dollar… an alm). Visitors are often encouraged to bring food like granola bars or packages cookies instead.
To be honest, locals don't like visitors handing out food or money in this manner as it really doesn't do much (at best), and can increase poverty/depedency (at worst). However locals in developing nations are now used to richer people coming, being shocked by the ways of life in developing nations, and feeling the need to "do something! Anything!". It's really more about us and making ourselves feeling better than being in relationship long term or doing something long term. It's about us being broken over a dirty street child with an outstretched hand.
How can anyone say "No" to that?
It's a tension not easily resolved, and perhaps for good reasons, it shouldn't be. The Bible is chock-full of examples and kingdom characteristics of never forgetting the poor, giving to the poor, taking care of the poor, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and visiting the captive.
Yet… is handing out a lousy cookie actually kingdom work? Will I remember the child?… or the poverty?
I still maintain that many ways of life in developing nations are in no way "poverty". Only the North American mindset that sees anything less than a home in the suberbs, 2 cars, RRSPs, insurance plans, educational opportunities, a stable job and a slush fund as poverty has created this false image of what it means to be poor.
Yeah… so what if the family cannot afford hot water and heat their water on a cooking fire or a stove? They live in the tropics and hot showers would be a silly investment!
Yeah… so what if the house walls are made of mud and cinder blocks? The materials hold in heat when the weather is cold and reflects heat when the weather is hot!
I don't want to romanticize poverty. It is alive and well around the world, but I want to make sure we are clear on the difference between poverty and simple living. Those who say that any street person in Canada is richer than any person in a developing nation is only showing that they truly don't understand poverty, and cannot see the larger pictures at play.
Back to the dilemma at hand:
… distributing food/money to beggars/panhandlers/street kids, etc., etc., etc.
I would say there is no right or wrong answer. In some cultures/countries, there really is a beggar class and the only way the people of that class survive is by the charity of others. Could the church be doing more in this area? Let's chew on that for a bit…
In other cultures, offering food/cash is no more than an enablement towards continued impoverished living. Yet here I would suggest again: could the church be doing more? More than clucking our tongues in judgment over "those useless drunks", or saying such things as "they're only going to use the money for…". Let's be honest here: it's not the money we're really concerned about. It's us.
We don't like the thought of being used.
I know I don't.
If the person on the receiving end of our charity doesn't use our hard-earned dollars for God's transformative work, then we shouldn't bother! For pity's sake, they don't deserve it!
As I recall, Jesus was pretty clear about the attitude in giving as well as what to give. It didn't matter if the person before Jesus was a poor person without a cloak or a high-ranking Roman official with 20 cloaks, if the person demanded 1 of His 2 cloaks, He would give it away without reservation or conditions. Was He being used? Uh-huh… but Jesus' radical kingdom living went past the immediate situation and, in humility, demanded that we receive that "being used" condition to show love.
This is TOTALLY counter-cultural even to the church mindset!
As I said… this tension is not easily resolved. There is no right or wrong answer. As a student of community development, I would suggest that if there is a better way to improve relationship and life and humanity of another aside from daily giving pennies or cookies, check it out. This is where creative imagination and hard work and relationship building meet!
If, on the other hand, the Spirit is whispering you release your grip on that dollar bill and let it go… do so. It's His money anyway. Not yours.
Just see the person you are giving to. Don't forget his/her face. Don't forget the humanity you'll find there and the image of Christ.
If you focus only on making yourself feel better for having a rich lifestyle and bearing witness to poverty… not matter which method you choose, you'll never make a difference. You'll still only be thinking of yourself.