“To Give or Not to Give?” Bob Lupton

Yesterday, I posted How Rich are You and I?.  At the time, I didn’t know that this would be a series on spending and giving.  This question always comes up!  My friend and ministry partner, Charles Fitzgerald (who spent 33 years on the streets doing everything under the sun) and I were having that discussion just last night while running ministry errands and meeting his new neighbors in Highland Park.  Do you or do you not give money to the “homeless” or rather…panhandlers on street corners?  Now that I have read this, I can say that although I understand all 3 points of view, Charles and I agree with Ron Sider’s approach presented below.  What about you?  Do you choose to give, or not to give?

To Give or Not to Give?

February 2011

by Bob Lupton, February 2011

Should Christians always give money to street people who ask for it? That’s what Christianity Today recently asked three veteran ministry leaders known for their commitment to the poor.

Yes, freely!” answers Gary Hoag, known as the Generosity Monk whose passionate mission is to encourage Christian generosity.  To him it is very clear in scripture:  “Freely you have received; freely give.”  It is not our place to judge others, to evaluate them as worthy or unworthy of our assistance.  God is the judge, not us.  What they do with our aid is between them and God.  We are to love and give unconditionally.  Gary’s theology of generosity is summed up in his quote from contemplative priest Brennan Manning:  “God’s call for each of us to live a life of unlimited generosity is rooted in his limitless love and care for us.”  Through our free and generous giving “the postmodern world will see Jesus in our generosity.”

Andy Bales, CEO of Union Rescue Mission in Los Angeles, sees it quite differently.  “Giving cash to someone in need is the least helpful and most temporary solution and should only be a last resort,” he says.  His years of experience with street people has taught him that most panhandlers are not really homeless at all.  Most are scammers who may collect $300 a day from kind-hearted passers-by and at the end of the day walk a block or two to their cars and drive home.  When someone approaches Andy for money for food or a place to stay, he gives them his card and invites them to his mission where they can get not only food and shelter but other support as well.  Very seldom does he give money, and then only when there are no other alternatives.  Like Hoag, he too has scripture to back his position.  His biblical example is the lame man who asked Peter and John for some money.  They offered no money but rather something better – healing!  “People experiencing homelessness and poverty need a community,” Andy says.  “People need permanent help in becoming strong.  They need a connection with Jesus Christ and a faith community.”

Absolutely not! So says Ron Sider, president of Evangelicals for Social Action and author of best selling Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger.  A quick donation is cheap love.  There is simply no way to tell whether a story is legitimate, or if a person will spend the money on drugs or alcohol.  Supporting immorality, laziness or destructive behavior is simply irresponsible and clearly not a loving act.  Scripture demands that we stand on the side of the poor but it certainly does not tell us to give irresponsibly.  Rather than give money, Sider suggests taking the homeless person to lunch and listening to his story.  “People almost always need love even more than money,” he says.  Generous giving should be directed toward effective, holistic programs equipped to deal with the deeper socio-economic issues, ministries that share the love of Christ and “truly empower, liberate and transform.”

Three respected Christian leaders, all committed to helping the poor, all relying on the scriptures to guide them, each with distinctly different convictions on how to rightly serve – opposing convictions.  They take their stand at opposite ends of the charity continuum, from “always give money” to “never give money.”  Who’s right?   Whose counsel do we listen to?

Andy Bales certainly has the most direct experience with the homeless, living and serving among them for decades.  His “last resort” giving position is shaped by years of personal involvement, watching con games on the street, seeing first-hand the long, up-and-down battles of those trying to break free from addictions.  Pragmatic experience has taught him that healing is far more likely in a supportive community environment than struggling alone on the street.  Of course he believes it is better to steer street people toward a program like he runs.  He has committed his life to it.

Gary the Generosity Monk, on the other hand, views scripture (and the world) from the ivory tower of religious academia.  Not that he’s removed from humanity – he’s certainly not.  He’s very engaged with the Christian community, particularly as it relates to generosity.  But he doesn’t live among the broken.  In one sense, his reading of scripture is purer, uncontaminated by the troubling realities of life on the street.  His “yes, freely” theology of giving is fashioned around a compelling body of scriptures such as “Give to anyone who asks” and “Freely you have received; freely give” and “If you have two coats, give one.”  And his examples of the extravagant giving of historic heroes of the faith are inspiring.  His message is clearly directed toward an affluent church that needs for its own salvation to be freed from its bondage to material things.  Giving freely is a prime way to break the strangle-hold of materialism.  But is his “unconditional giving” doctrine informed by the real-life down-stream impacts of unexamined charity?

Ron Sider understands poverty from a systems perspective.  He pores over statistics, scrutinizes legislative motivation and decision-making, holds up a biblical standard of justice by which to evaluate public policy and practice.  He is a prophet to a nation that has subsidized poverty, eroded a work ethic through dependency-producing entitlements and decimated the family structure of the poor – all in the name of doing good.  He knows better than most theologians the vast number of scriptures that deal with God’s concern for the poor.  And theresponsibility of God’s people to care for the widows and orphans and strangers.  His plea, like the prophet Amos, is to “let justice roll down like a river.”  The quick donation, whether for expediency, sentimentality or guilt-relieving, is cheap love that is neither merciful nor just.  Prophets are not pragmatists.  They speak in absolutes.  Understandably, to Sider, irresponsible giving is just plain wrong!

Always.  Sometimes.  Never.  Who’s got it right?  I guess it all depends on the level of the platform you are viewing the poor from – ground-level practicality or elevated theological theory.  Your altitude will determine your attitude.

9 Comments on ““To Give or Not to Give?” Bob Lupton”

  1. One of the best summaries I’ve seen of the question.

    When I walked home from the grocery store, I’d often give some bananas to the lady sitting (and begging) by the Korean embassy.

    At a traffic light in a busy intersection, an amputee with missing teeth and swollen fingers gets my toll change when I see him.

    But the drugged out woman who’s always flashing her body parts at every driver in the same intersection doesn’t.

    The street kids who are always asking for money don’t get it, neither does the woman always walking around with asking help with a prescription.

    Have I been conned? On several occasions.

    Have I been able to help? Sometimes.

    Do I wish I could do more? Sometimes.

    I think I go for the middle answer – discernment check, take time to hear their story, and find other ways to minister besides just money.


  2. I hear ya! We have sent a clear message on our street, in our community, that we don’t hand out cash. Yes..a sandwich, a meal, a drink, etc, but no cash. We also rarely give out bus passes now, because we learned that they are only sold in exchange for cash.

    If people need something, we typically get it at the store when we are picking up some of our items (it sometimes feels like we go daily!!!) And…they never return to get their ’emergency item’….diapers, formula, etc. Which only goes to show how creative people can get. And…that we need to hold on to our receipts to return it!!!

    If we handed out cash…there would be a steady stream at our door 24/7/365. But, we do stop to listen, to pray, to offer a helping hand when we can.

    Outside the community, we have stopped and sat with the hungry while they ate…just to listen to their story and let them know they are seen.

    That goes a LONG way…

  3. Bill B says:

    Good read, Marti. And thanks for the referral to the GlobalRichList website, which I will certainly weave into our RADICAL book study tomorrow afternoon.

    I’m still digesting the lessons of When Helping Hurts, a good book on this broad topic. Until then, my default is to do as Ron Sider suggests, and seldom like the monk. Burned SO many times within and without the church family by doing it any other way. We once gave a very serviceable car to a family in need at church, and within weeks, the car was impounded as evidence from a crime scene because it was where he decided to beat the snot out of her in a drunken rage. By the time the dust settled, fines paid, time served, rehab re-entered, the car was of no value to anyone. Closed windows, open beer bottles & sunlight took care of that at the city police lot. We really truly believed we were helping, but in the end it just all felt “wrong,” and it was difficult not to be offended by what had happened.

    -Bill B

    • Bill – I know that kind of feeling for sure. We must continue to follow the Spirit’s leading. I try to remind myself of how God must feel when we use and abuse His love and free gifts He offers us. Doesn’t usually work! I’m so glad that He doesn’t walk away from us when we jack up…but continues to work with us through the Holy Spirit. Keep the faith, my friend! Hugs to you and Miriam!

  4. pat says:

    Marti, at one of our chapel services at the college, we invited 5 homeless men and women to speak to the students, and this question came up. Each one said: Don’t!! They all stated that there are plenty of resources in Portland, that no one needs to go hungry. They also said that rarely is the money that’s given spent as intended by the donor. We had another speaker whose practice is, when asked for money, to take the person to a meal at the closest restaurant…whether its MacD’s or Ruth’s Chris! By doing so, he’s feeding both the body and the soul.

    • So true! I hear the same thing from my friends Charles and Rush who spent decades on the street. Looking forward to seeing and hearing from Bob Lupton, John Perkins and others when Louis and I go for our certification in Community Development at CCDA in April. I think one of your school folks is now a board member with CCDA, right?

  5. I had a guy ask me for some bus money to his destination because his Mom had died.

    Story felt funny.

    But I gave him $5 for the $3.50 bus fare. I know the fare, I’ve taken that bus.

    He was not satisfied – he said the fare was $20. .. .

    Knowing him to now be a liar, I called him on it, but he kept asking for $20. I refused and went on my way.

    BTW, When Helping Hurts is on my list for this week.

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