Awkward questions posed by a beggar in church

By Rev Alan Carr, St Giles Church Seldom a day goes by around here when someone doesn’t ask for money. Most follow the soft route to your wallet through narratives of illness, bereavement, bad luck, bad upbringing or bad vibes. Others come straight out with it, sometimes asking euphemistically for what’s called ‘change,’ whilst the bolder, more desperate ones just say, ‘Gis us ten quid.’ I don’t blame anyone for inventing or embroidering any personal story they can, or even making the whole thing up.

In the street you can slip past, but caught in the aisle, with the altar of Almighty God glittering in the background, is an altogether different and more troubling place. And this was the background to a two-day encounter recently.

Coming into the Church he looked at first like one of the many tourist visitors we often get – jeans and a t-shirt, backpack slung over the shoulder, hair this side of wild, looking around and taking in the place.  ‘Is it time for prayer?’ ‘Yes.’ Then he says, ‘Would you like me to pray with you?’ How could I refuse? Yet I hesitated long enough to discourage him. ‘I’m waiting for someone else to come,’ I said, which was true, though in fact they never turned up. There was a pause while I fussed over the books and he, looking directly at me, said, ‘Do you help the poor in this Church?’ I had barely begun to stammer through some kind of unsatisfactory reply when I realized that there was a sub-text to this question, ‘Will you help me?’ and another sub-text, ‘Will you give me some money.’ The answer to the last question was ‘No,’ and to the second question, ‘I would like to, but have no idea how,’ but it was the first question that really struck home.

I thought I’d got off lightly until the same person appeared the next night at the same time in a repeat scene of the night before, except this time his question was even more pointed: ‘Will you help the poor tonight?’ He could tell by my face what my answer was, and I could tell by his face what he thought of me and us. I’ve not seen him again. The mind reels with poignant, ancient texts like ‘And who is my neighbour?’ and, ‘If you give to one of the least of these,’ and, ‘the poor you have always with you.’ All of us – even the most hard-hearted – must grapple with our conscience over our friends in the streets. Underneath all our reasoning, the level of human need is acute, and seems to be growing yet again month-by-month. At some point in our lives, we must be generous, which is why I am only too happy to share this question with you.

1 Comment on Awkward questions posed by a beggar in church

  1. I think you perceive a problem because you have been hoodwinked by a manipulative beggar into conflating two issues that are in fact unrelated. Separating these two issues allows the problem to be analysed more easily.

    The issues are, on one hand, poverty, and on the other, religious belief. The first is fact; the second isn’t, and when introduced into logical discussion simply confuses everything. The beggar cleverly plays on your religious faith to make you feel you ought to help him with a hand-out and that if you don’t, you are somehow betraying your beliefs. This is pernicious hokum. You can be religious and still think and act rationally and doing so is likely in the long run to benefit destitute people like the beggar far more than acting off-the-cuff in a muddled way.

    The real question is: what is the best way to help beggars? Is it by giving them a hand-out, which at best will provide a momentary relief, or is it by co-operative action with organizations set up to help them? I think that is the question you need to ponder.

    If you decide to give money, fine, do so. If you decide to give to organizations, fine, do so and tell the beggar that that’s what you do. In neither case do you need to feel guilty or worry that you are not doing what is “expected” of you, either by the beggar or by some judge in the sky.

    (Yes, I am an atheist, but you already guessed that.)

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