Who is My Brother?
"But if anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth." -- 1 John 3:17
Traveling these past few years has opened our eyes to the layers of culture, history and diversity that makes up the tapestry of this country. This unique opportunity has allowed us to step outside of the safe "bubble" we had unknowingly created for ourselves. And what a delightful surprise it has been. America has been very kind to us. We have found that about 99.9% of the people with which we have interacted, whether fellow RVers, or baristas, or auto mechanics, or carnies, or hikers, have been friendly and caring. This country is overflowing with kindhearted people. And to the best of our knowledge, we haven't yet run into an axe murderer, or serial killer, or chemistry teacher turned ruthless meth dealer. It is a captivating, vivacious, colorful country and so very different than the one portrayed on our news stations.
But there is another commonality that we didn't expect and that is the number of people who approach us asking for money. At almost every stop, in almost every city large or small, we are confronted with this issue. We recognize that some of these people are too lazy to work, some have severe mental or personal issues, and some are truly needy. (The musician's sign below reads: "Weed Is Expensive". I appreciated his honesty!)
Our obligation to help others does not end just because we are traveling. We try to cultivate a mindset of blessing others the way we have been blessed. We would love to give to everyone who asks from us but the dilemma is our funds are limited. So how do we separate the needy from the greedy? Money can help the former but not the latter. This is something Lorraine and I have given a considerable amount of thought and discussion, trying to reconcile the competing voices in our heads and our hearts. While we still tithe to our charities of choice, we also want to be a good and wise stewards of the day-to-day dollars in our pockets.
Let me first share a story that happened early on in our journey. One hot afternoon, Lorraine and I stopped by McDonald's and bought two small drinks. As we pulled away from the drive-thru window, we passed a poorly dressed man holding a sign reading, "Need Money For Food". We've seen many people holding similar signs so he went barely noticed. We pulled around into a shady parking spot to enjoy our drinks. As it turns out, we parked facing the back of the man asking for "food money". As we sipped our drinks, something very revealing unfolded. We watched as a customer pull up to the drive-thru window and was handed a large bag of McDonald's goodies. The employee then handed him a smaller bag of food, a drink, and a parfait. We had a pretty good idea who the smaller order was for. The driver pulled up to the beggar and handed him the smaller bag of food, the drink, and the parfait. The generous driver then drove off .
As soon as the driver was out of sight, the beggar took the bag of food, the drink and the parfait and threw it into a nearby trash can. How many times today has he done this? we wondered. How much food and resources has he wasted? After another ten minutes or so, we watched the panhandler climb into his car (a fairly nice one, I might add) and drive away. Seeing this happen in real time, was a bit shocking to us.
This is why we try to be judicious in our giving and have developed SIX RULES concerning to whom we give our pocket-dollar.
RULE ONE: If you're asking us for money with a cigarette dangling from your lips.. that will be a HARD NO! If you can afford cigarettes, you can afford food. I would also add to this caveat, if your breath reeks of alcohol, we will probably say no.
RULE TWO: At a time when companies are begging for employees, if you look young and healthy enough to work then you probably should be. If you can stand outside in the sun for 4 or 5 hours asking for money, then you can sell roses along a roadside, or stock store shelves, or stand behind a cash register (I know there might be issues with residency requirements, but in many areas Social Services can provide you with a "home address"). Not that this is a hard and fast rule, but it is taken into consideration. If you can be doing something other than just sitting, and you don't you should probably be doing it, like the Dancing Grandfather below (we gave him a dollar):
RULE THREE: If you're demanding, or rude, or belligerent, then "No money for you!"
RULE FOUR: I should not have to pay for your lack of planning. If you're holding a sign reading something along the lines of "Need money to get home". That's probably your issue not ours.
RULE FIVE: You must be pleasant and non-threatening. Not that we approach every panhandler we come across, but when we do they must be willing to interact at some minimal level. This doesn't guarantee that we'll donate to their cause, but by increasing our understanding of their issue, we can (internally) better determine the need.
Let me highlight this point with a story. One time we encountered a man on the sidewalk with a sign asking for money. He caught my eye because he wasn't shabbily dressed. Also, he did not call out to us or pursue us. After making brief eye contact, he simply nodded to me and I nodded back. So I lingered a bit and decided to ask him about his situation. He was very open with us. He had spent some time in prison which was making it difficult to find a job and he was still trying to get on his feet. His story had lots of details and his eyes seemed to reflect the pain of prison confinement. He sincerely seemed more interested in talking than in getting a handout. We felt very comfortable giving this man a cash donation.
RULE SIX: WORKING DOES NOT DISQUALIFY YOU FROM ASSISTANCE!
I had a mini-revelation a while back that has brought some accord between the clashing voices in my head and my heart. And that was realizing that there are people, in all layers of our society, are in need of a "leg up". Not just the beggar on the street, but also the working mother who just served me coffee, or the landscaper that might have just cut my lawn, or the Home Depot employee that cut my lumber, or the child selling lemonade at a roadside stand. Generally, they are working because they have financial needs. Therefore, the dollars in our pockets shouldn't just go to the people holding up signs, but also to the people handing me a bill. It is not unusual for a waiter or waitress with a good story and a good attitude to receive far above the 20% tipping requirement. While we view the 20% tip as almost obligatory, giving above and beyond is another way we can be a blessing to others.
So in a nutshell, this is the philosophy we have developed while on the road. We receive a great deal of pleasure from helping others, but we try to give strategically. After all, every dollar we give to a worthless cause takes a dollar away from a worthy one.