I’ve been asked numerous times, “What’s a Christian response to panhandlers?”
I didn’t know the origins of the term “panhandler”. An ASU study says, “The term ‘panhandling’ derives either from the impression created by someone holding out his or her hand (as a pan’s handle sticks out from the pan) or from the image of someone using a pan to collect money (as gold miners in the American West used pans to sift for gold)”. I’ll cease from using the term in what follows. One way to honor that person is to not flatten their entire identity down into a specific action which they may occasionally do.
Michael Scott says this group splits into two subgroups (No lie. The author of the ASU study has the name Michael Scott.); there are individuals who are aggressive and others who are passive. I’ve only experienced one aggressive situation amidst dozens and dozens of encounters. These passive encounters are much more common and occur at our church buildings downtown or on the side of the road at off ramps of highways.
At the church buildings, we have a policy that no cash can be handed over. If I, feeling moved by the Spirit, feel led to give cash, I must walk across the street and make clear it is me, as an individual, not the church, who is sharing this. This is a measure of protection for our staff. It is our attempt to guard against a benign request escalating into an aggressive encounter. It lessens the likelihood that our staff would be inundated with such requests in the future.
Another other option is we give a small printout which shows all of the services available in the immediate vicinity (i.e. within walking distance). It’s hard to know who/what/where/when/how to help. These ministries/services are situated to provide the necessary care and accountability. It’s one of the reasons I love giving to churches and organizations (in this case, those caring for those in need). I can give with a clear conscience knowing that a group of people is going to do their utmost to honor Christ with every dollar.
Regarding those soliciting help on the side of the road/highway I have no one-size-fits-all approach.
- I once offered five bagels to a guy with a “hungry, helpless, desperate” sign. He turned me down. He said, “Oh. No. I’m good. I don’t like bagels.”
- I once hired a guy to help me shovel rock. His sign said he was willing to work. We shoveled rock together for two hours. He did great. I paid him for his time.
- I’ve had seasons where I keep a pack of bottled water in my car. That seems to be the most consistently received/appreciated handout other than cash.
- I’ve given cash but only sparingly.
The question I ask in such cases is, “How can I treat this person as an equal?” How can I show them the respect I would want if the circumstances were reversed? How can I show and share the love of Christ—could be prayer, or giving of some kind, or rolling down my window and greeting them. Almost always I try to make eye contact, notice them, smile at them, make sure they know they are seen. Can I do more? Yes. But I don’t want to do less than that.
I think a rule or policy (or to put in biblical terms…law) can be a helpful starting point but I do see value in keeping it a Spirit-filled decision in the moment. Why?
- Every policy or rule or law breaks down. It cannot possibly answer every situation.
- It keeps me from having to connect with this person. Instead, I connect with the policy and feel contented I did my part without ever connecting with the person. “Hand out bottled water”—check!
- It keeps me from checking in with the Spirit. What if, in that moment, the Spirit wants to direct me in ways different than that policy or law? There might be times I give when the Spirit is directing toward another option. Or there might be times when I give according to the policy and God is communicating to be more generous than the rules.
- It keeps me from engaging my heart. I find that God uses these encounters to remind me of his presence in my life. Where’s my heart in that moment?
Admittedly, there are times when I’m focused on my own world rather than that of others. I’m caught up in the day rather than caught up in God. I’m full of pride not seeing that person, in so many ways, is just like me—spiritually, emotionally, relationally, mentally, physically (if not financially).
For these reasons, I don’t have a hard and fast policy, other than maybe to check in with God’s Spirit, to see if I can be generous (as God is with me) in that time, whether with my time, prayer, money, a gift, a bottled water, or showing respect to this person for whom Christ died. And every time, it’s a subtle reminder that I too am in need today, desperate for those needs to be met in ways that only God is able.