Where do beggars go at night?
Last Sunday there occurred a ‘first’ for me in ministry. A beggar came into the church and after having sat through the whole service began to ask each person present for money. At the coffee hour.
This kind of thing sets up all kinds of conflicts in me. The first thing I thought of was to say ‘We have no money. Go away.’ This is because clergy are so often asked for money by people who have wonderful stories, but all of them are the same. People will always say ‘We will pay you back’. And they don’t.
But this kind of worry comes to me partly because I do not know the ‘back story’ of the people who are doing this kind of thing. In Australia, for example, we were regularly warned about hoards of Englishmen coming over to there selling cheap ties!
So they accost people on the street and we can say ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ as we wish. The same is true of Buskers or those ‘Statue’ people. They do their thing and we are free to give or not. This is a clearer transaction. But I don’t know what beggars lives are after the ‘begging’ transaction is done! Is it legitimate for me to say ‘Go away and sell ‘The Big Issue’ Lots of homeless people do this to make a living, and to build up their self esteem, precisely because of the degrading effects of begging. But who actually begs? Is there an organised tribe of beggars, like Fagin’s boys, who live permanently in the caravan park near Villeneuve and have quite good self esteem in fact and support one another? I would like to know this. Maybe the next time this happens, I will follow the person to see where they go and what their life is really about. Perhaps that would help me to understand what is going on with them
The other part of the conflict is that God’s generosity and my sense of justice collide! I always ask myself ‘What if this person were Jesus who is coming to me asking for money?’ Or if I were Jesus, there is the old question ‘What would Jesus do?’
So my initial reaction is to say ‘I wish you would stop bothering me. But like the householder in Luke’s Gospel, if kindness does not make me give, then asking ‘Is this person Jesus’ might make me give.
But there is that other story in the Bible too, of the beggar at the Gate Beautiful. Peter and John say to him ‘silver and gold have we none, but that which we do have we give to you…in the name of Jesus, get up and walk!’ Now we do have silver and gold, but there are times I have said to people who have come begging at the door ‘Why do you come here spinning a tale of woe which I know is not true, asking for money, when if you were a Christian and a member of this congregation, you would be supported physically prayed for spiritually as of right, because you are a member here!
This goes to the question of the’ back story’ of people who come asking for money. Would they take up this offer?
The other thing that the events of last Sunday pint up is that as a congregation we are not prepared for such eventualities. In other parishes where I have worked there has been a fund of say 30CHF per month which is used for such purposes. When the fund is gone, the help is gone. This was often a resolution for me. This is not yet part of my administration. Often too there were arrangements made with grocery stores to buy vouchers that could be offered for food. This would go some way to preventing the money being spent on alcohol or tobacco. We could also do this. I think this is a good solution, because it allows us to be generous, but within the limits of our resources.
But the new thing for me was that the begging person came in to ‘our space’ and broke some kind of rule. The rule that he seemed to me to break was ‘We ought to be able to go about our business after Church without being accosted and asked for money, in a place where we can’t ‘get away’. I felt a bit like this at the Opera in Milan and at the Eifel tower in Paris. There, there were lots of people selling flowers. I did not want to buy a rose, but they were very insistent and would not go away. I was not in ‘rose buying’ mode but ‘going to the opera’ mode. I resent being forced to say ‘no’ to insistent people when I am not in ‘rose buying’ mode. In a shop, I can look at the goods and say ‘I am just looking, thankyou’, but on Sunday we were trapped. I don’t think that this is fair. I aid so to the person who was begging.
Is this action ‘trespass’? I don’t know. Do we ‘forgive those who trespass against us?’
In some ways too I would like to change the circumstances of people so that no one is reduced to begging. There is social security that we all provide through our taxes. Why does this person beg instead of going onto social services? Are they illegal immigrants? If so, what has happened to them such that they are reduced to begging?
My suspicion, and what makes me resentful is that this person is part of a ‘gang’ of people who are not really in need, but find the trade off between a degrading occupation and the money to be made begging is worth it. That I resent.
So I don’t know how far I have come in this reflection. I do know that at the next Chaplaincy Council I will put on the agenda something about providing for people who ask for money.
I am severely tempted to follow the next beggar to find out what kind of a life they lead. That would break their ‘rules’: I beg and see your life, you give and don’t see mine! There is a doctoral thesis in uncovering the contours of this life.
I still think it is unfair that we as a congregation do not have time to ‘be ourselves’ without being asked for money or without being asked to consider other issues. But I get a sense of the dismay with which people viewed Jesus when he broke the rules, and the woman came into the house where he was having dinner and began to wash his feet with her tears! Was not Simon right to say ‘What is this woman coming into my dinner party!’ But she ‘loved much’, and was not begging.
So there you go. In the end, I have to be thankful for the intrusion on Sunday: Difference leads to reflection!