Bleary-eyed, unsteady on his feet, reeking of alcohol and rancid body odour, the dishevelled beggar accosted me near a street-side food kiosk. With one finger pointing to his open mouth, the other hand patting his sunken abdomen, he was saying, "I am starving, give me food, I am too weak to speak." Suspecting that it wasn't food he was really after, I nevertheless offered him some of my food. With immediate disgust he rejected my "generosity" and scowled at me, thrusting his hand toward me, for it was money he really wanted.
"Never trust a beggar," I muttered under my breath, knowing that it was a cruel and heartless thing for me to say and probably not even politically correct. Yet how many times do any of us avert our eyes from the sight of a beggar sitting on the sidewalk or pleading from car to car between the stoplights? And how many times do any of us simply avoid their outstretched hands and their requests? How often do we dismiss the beggar because we know the truth, that what we give will only be used for drink or drugs or smokes? Most beggars' stories can't be trusted and I, for one, do not appreciate being manipulated or contributing in any way to their irresponsibility.
Of course, I have met a few legitimate beggars who simply are so down on their luck that they have no alternative but to throw themselves on the mercy of people who can't say no, who actually feel good about themselves for tossing a few coins their way. Perhaps I am like that because I do feel good about saying yes to beggars by tossing them my token coins. On some occasions, I will even stop to look them in the eye and listen to their story, while deep within my cynical mind I actually don't believe a word they are saying. "Get a job; get up off your butt, get real, be honest," I'm thinking to myself, "you're a loser and a user!"
Somehow, I feel I am being complicit in the charade of dishonesty, whether I knowingly respond to the beggar's false appeal or respond in order to feel good about myself for doing so, or when I pause to hear her tale of woe even though I am just acting like I care and believe what she is telling me. It is a small but difficult issue and the question I have been pondering is -- should I give to a beggar even when I am very sure that the money will go for alcohol and not for food, or that the money isn't really for her sick daughter? Wouldn't I have more integrity by just saying no?
Recently, a good friend told me the story of a man who gave a large sum of money to a charitable organization in response to an appeal. After some time passed, it was discovered that his donation had been used for very different purposes than what he had intended. "Knowing that your donation was abused, do you have any regrets about what you did -- would you take your donation back if you could?" asked my friend. "No," he replied, "what I gave, I gave to God -- not to the organization. What people do with it is not my problem; it is on their conscience before God."
It is not just street people who are begging, it is also organizations who beg on behalf of others. As one of such "beggars," I feel immense responsibility to respect donors and the purpose of their contributions, for they are giving to God and I have a holy stewardship. As a donor, be it to an individual or an institutional beggar, I am trying to learn the lesson of giving to God -- not to the beggar. Does that mean I don't respect the beggar? On the contrary, I think I respect the beggar all the more by not imposing my cynicism, and distrust and second-guessing their motivation.
Perhaps there is a parallel to what Jesus meant in saying, "When I was hungry you gave me food ... when I was in prison you visited me." In giving to the beggar or visiting the prisoner, you and I entrust ourselves and what we give to God. I am coming to believe that Jesus comes to me in the disguise of beggars I don't trust.
Jesus is my God,
Jesus is my Spouse,
Jesus is my Life,
Jesus is my only Love,
Jesus is my All in All;
Jesus is my Everything.
The dying, the cripple, the mental,
the unwanted, the unloved--
they are Jesus in disguise.
(Mother Theresa of Calcutta)