Some people believe that Catholics live guilt-free lives because of the ability to confess their sins to a priest and be forgiven by God. This is not true. I don’t identify as Catholic anymore, but even if I went to confession and reported that I didn’t give a dollar to a person who begged for one, I would nevertheless feel guilty.
All the way home from the grocery store, I chastised myself to the point of nearly turning around and making amends for my behavior. My first transgression was in not allowing the young man who bagged my groceries to accompany me out to my car.
“I can handle it,” I said accurately and with no malice. But besides proving to myself that I was strong enough to lift groceries into the trunk, I didn’t want to have to find a dollar. As I was packing the car, a homeless youth approached me and begged, “May I please have a dollar?” Smiling but shaking my head “no,” I justified my quick decision with the thought that he could earn that dollar by packing groceries like the young man in the supermarket.
Initially, I justified my miserliness by reminding myself how hard it is to pull out my new money clip, pull back the sides, extract the credit cards and cash, and finger through the bills to find a dollar. Besides, the dollar to the homeless youth would probably be spent on alcohol or drugs, I reasoned, as I so often do when impatiently waiting for a traffic light to change so that I don’t have to say “no” to the person with the paper cup heading toward my window.
If I give a dollar to a person who is begging, I say to myself, aren’t I encouraging begging as a way of life? If the word gets out that every driver gives a dollar to every person begging, won’t the intersections become jammed with panhandlers and aren’t you enabling a person to avoid taking responsibility for his or her life.
Blah. Blah. Blah. Clearly there are times when you should not give money to a person. Many of us have had the experience of being the “personal ATM machine” to people who see us as a soft touch, and there are people out there who you know are scamming you, such as those who e-mail you from Liberia or Nigeria promising to send you four million dollars if you just deposit $10,000 in their bank account. But most people I see on the street who ask for help need the help and a buck here or there isn’t going to hurt my cash flow.
A dollar from me might have reminded the young man working as a bagger at Publix is better than finding a less honorable way to make money for school. And I wish I had given a dollar to the young homeless man who asked for one in the parking lot. It would have taken me a minute to find the dollar, but my life is not ruled by the clock. Now I carry loose one dollar bills in my pocket so that it’s easier to find one in those situations.
Had I given away a couple of dollars, not out of guilt but because I liked the feeling of doing so, I would have had a much nicer ride home from the store, with my mind on the beauty of the road, and not on how I had failed to help another person in need.
Some people might wonder how I could spend time worrying about two dollars for two people who have other sources of income when hundreds of thousands of Haitians are without food, water, shelter, medicine, and hope for a better life. But the thoughts that ran through my mind when confronted with men and women in need locally are the same that some people are having about donating money to help the destitute in Haiti.
I have heard people say, “Well, I don’t want to give to the Red Cross because they can’t be trusted to send the money to Haiti. They took money sent for the victims of Hurricane Katrina and put it in their operating budget.” Others have grumbled, “I’m not going to give to Catholic Charities. I won’t give the Catholic Church a dime.”
Blah. Blah. Blah. There are always reasons not to give money to those in need. Yes, if the Catholic Church sold all of the priceless art it has squirreled away, it could possibly feed and clothe everyone in the world, but that’s not going to happen. And yes, it’s just as important to take care of the people in our own backyard as it is those living in another country. And yes, there will always be disasters and we can’t save everyone. But we can choose to make a difference and not spend the rest of our lives wondering why we didn’t try.
One of my favorite stories related to this issue is that of the child who is walking the beach carefully picking up and throwing starfish that have washed ashore during a storm back into the sea. “You’re wasting your time,” said an adult beachcomber. “Look ahead. There are hundreds of starfish dying on the beach. What you’re doing isn’t going to make a difference.”
The child smiled, picked up and threw another starfish back into the water and replied, “It did to that one.”
Next time I go to the grocery store, I’m going to let the bagger help me to my car. And next time a homeless person asks for my help, I’m going to give him- or her- a dollar. In the big picture, it may not make a big difference to me, but it will- to them.