Responding to Beggars

by Rachel Pieh Jones on April 2, 2015

I’m not even going to pretend to offer rules on how to respond to beggars. I’m not even going to define ‘beggar.’ There are lots of varieties of people who ask for money or help and I don’t like calling them beggars. I prefer to call them Saada or Abdul but for simplicity, I’ll call them beggars. (The following was written after I read 9 Quick Tips for Responding to Beggars by Someone Who Knows Them by Craig Greenfield.)

beggars

There are a lot of beggars in Djibouti and with the new stoplights (that’s right, Djibouti recently got stoplights), street corner begging has increased. By street corner begging, I mean when you stop at a red light (that’s also right, in Djibouti most drivers stop at red lights) and kids swarm the car.

There are other places where people beg and there are beggars who come to our door. I want to talk about two kinds of interactions – the ones on the street corner and the ones at the front door.

I have to confess that I haven’t always responded well to street corner beggars. I used to ignore them. Stare straight ahead. Continue the conversation with the passenger. Pretend there isn’t a young girl holding a baby or a boy with a pouty look tapping his fingers against his lips for ‘thirsty.’

Then I read a story about Jesus where the first thing he did was look at the person seeking help. He looked at him. Step 1 and it cut me to the heart.

Okay, I can look at them. Ignoring someone is not honoring their personhood, it is not offering them the dignity of acknowledging that they, too, are made in the image of God. So I started looking.

And I saw the same kids on the same corners all the time. So I started engaging with them. In the first few seconds they could only repeat the ‘give me money’ request and couldn’t hear that I was asking them their name. But slowly, their faces would change. Their eyes would ignite, they would start to smile. They dropped their fingers from their lips and said, “My name is…”

“Where is your mom?” I would ask. “Is she working? Where is your dad? Why aren’t you in school?”

We would chat until the light changed and the conversation would resume the next time I stopped. The kids on my regular corners stopped asking for money. They waved, some saluted, some made running motions because we also saw each other on my early morning jogs, sometimes they joined me for a block or two.

I never give them money. I do sometimes suggest places they can go for help – the neighborhood mosque or the Catholic-sponsored charity for street kids.

The beggars who come to my house are regulars. We know each others names, I know a little bit of their home life stories. They are usually mothers with heaps of young children that I know are their own because we’ve lived here long enough to see women through several pregnancies. I also don’t give these women money but when they come by, about once a week, I raid my cupboards and fridge and hand-me-down clothes. If they have a medical prescription, I take it and fill it. If they are in labor, I drive them to the maternity hospital and pay the bill.

It isn’t easy. I lose my patience. Sometimes I’m grumbling inwardly as I stuff bags or I thrust the food at them and don’t interact in a warm way. I’m greedy and selfish and lazy. My mind fills with excuses and judgments. But I try to keep going back to Jesus, who looked at the needy. And I started looking, really looking and recognizing individuals. Sometimes that makes it harder because now I know them and I can’t fix their situation. I can’t stop drug abuse or spousal abuse, I can’t solve endemic problems, I can’t force parents to keep kids who seem so sharply intelligent in school. But…

I’m learning that the most important question to ask is not: How can I solve this problem? It is: How can I love this person well?

It starts with looking at them and from there, it is a long road of growth and challenges. Along the way, we each need to be led by our own situations, contexts, convictions, and the Spirit filling us.

How about you? How do you respond to beggars?

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About Rachel Pieh Jones

Rachel was raised in the Christian west and said, ‘you betcha’ and ate Jell-O salads, she now lives in the Muslim east, says ‘insha Allah,’ and eats samosas. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Family Fun, Running Times, and more, and she blogs for Brain Child and Babble.

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