One of the most upsetting phenomena of city life today is the presence of people sitting on the street holding out a hat or a cup, either with a request for change or simply in silence.
Sometimes I hear other people lamenting their presence as a sign of the degradation of society, rather as if this reality never existed before our time.
But, as a child at the end of the great depression of the 1930s, I remember well the presence of poor men, especially outside downtown department stores, waiting for help from passers-by. Like homelessness, this is not something new. It is simply the reappearance of an ancient reality.
It is always a source of anger for me to reflect that the society as a whole bears a responsibility not only towards such people but also for the policies of the last few years which have dramatically increased the difference between the rich (especially the very rich) and the poor. I feel as if my sense of helplessness in the face of those policies helps me to share in the helplessness of the poor.
But my anger and helplessness don’t actually help anyone.
When I give money to someone on the street, I almost always receive a response, ranging from “have a good day” to “God bless you.” (That response always make me realize that those words should have been my greeting!)
But the other day someone responded with “Thank you for acknowledging me.”
Those words quite startled me.
I realized that when I don’t give money to someone begging my usual reaction is to look away or to look down, as if to share in the sentiment of so many governments who either force them out of sight or merely wish them out of sight.
So the money given has a value I had not even considered.
I was being thanked for the act of recognizing that what was on the street was a person, not an object, or worse, a “problem.”
I have always thought it important that, when Jesus spoke of three significant expectations of a serious believer, he named almsgiving first, then prayer and fasting.
But even more significant, it seems to me, is that Jesus, speaking of these things in the words of Matthew 6, does not exhort us to do these things. He simply assumes that they are part of our lives (“when you give alms”), and speaks more of how they are to be done.
In our society of complex and sophisticated communication, the giving of alms is often a matter of making “charitable donations” by complex and sophisticated methods such as credit card or deduction from a bank account.
The person sitting on the street asking for coins is not a sign of a past that we wish had not returned, much less a person we wish would go away, but a gift from God to show us that human need is personal, immediate and direct, even in this age.
And a gift that tells us that, however we may respond in any given moment, first of all, we are called to acknowledge that we are in the presence of a person, and a person with a need. Archbishop Michael Peers is primate of the Anglican Church of Canada.