“Could you buy me a cup of coffee? And a donut?”
A man named Wayne stopped me outside a Starbucks in Milwaukee early one morning recently, where my family and I were visiting for the ordination of our friend Michael to the priesthood. I had just left the shop with a couple of coffees and pastries in hand, which I was bringing back to the college dorm where we were staying.
“Sure,” I said, and we walked in together.
“Thank you for doubling back,” Wayne replied.
I ordered the coffee and Wayne pointed toward the donut he wanted in the glass display case. The barista gave me a perturbed look. “You know, you don’t have to buy him anything,” he said. He had certainly met Wayne before. Surprised and embarrassed, I mumbled something back and paid.
Wayne and I shook hands, and he sat down at a table to eat and drink. I left the shop for the second time in five minutes, and started asking myself questions the moment I hit the sidewalk. Did I do the right thing? Did I do anything to stop the cycle of poverty, or did I perpetuate it by encouraging dependency? Was the barista upset because Wayne frequently takes advantage of the generosity of college students who are usually around? He hadn’t asked for money, after all, but for something tangible and inexpensive. Was he a little too practiced? What will I do if I see him again tomorrow? I felt resentment growing in me. Moments later, I walked past a city-sponsored sign posted on a store window: “Keep the change. Don’t support panhandling.”
This encounter reminded me of one of the most common questions I get asked when I give talks at parishes and schools around the diocese: What should I do when I see someone panhandling on the street? I usually outline arguments on either side. Pope Francis, however, was more direct when asked the question in an interview this past February.
“There are many arguments to justify oneself when you do not give alms. ‘But what, I give money and then he spends it on a glass of wine?’ If a glass of wine is the only happiness he has in life, that is fine,” the Holy Father said. “Instead, ask yourself what you do secretly. What ‘happiness’ do you seek in private? […] Help is always right.”
Pope Francis’ responses echoes the sentiment of Servant of God Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, who said, “The Gospel takes away our right forever to discriminate between the deserving and the undeserving poor.” If we, like Jesus, strive to see the dignity in every person, then it’s not smart to spend time trying to judge the worthiness of a particular person we meet. Of course, it is also good to support organizations that fight poverty in more systemic ways, and some situations might not feel safe enough to give. But it is never bad to be compassionate in the moment. Who knows if Wayne was “deserving” or not? Only God.
The Holy Father said more about these sorts of encounters, emphasizing the human dimension of the interaction. “Certainly, it is not a good thing just to throw a few coins at the poor. The gesture is important, helping those who ask, looking them in the eyes and touching their hands,” he said. “Tossing the money without looking in the eyes, that is not the gesture of a Christian.” This is a key point: The spirit of our response is just as important as the tangible support we offer. Do we see the person asking as a beloved Child of God? Or do we see him or her as an annoying inconvenience, or as a vehicle for helping us to feel good about ourselves for doing something nice? I went through the motions of shaking Wayne’s hand and looking him in the eye, but I was silently judging him and sizing him up the whole time.
The people I know who are most genuinely compassionate and nonjudgmental in their accompanying those living on the margins of society probably didn’t get that way overnight. Instead, it took them years of practice: hundreds of encounters, over and over again, with individuals and families who live in poverty. Jesus did the same in the Scriptures. His time spent with the poor and the hurting wasn’t haphazard or fleeting. He made his home on the peripheries. He built relationships with the suffering. Encounters, over time, became kinship.
This summer, when time commitments become a bit less overwhelming for us, maybe we can make it a priority to connect with an organization that accompanies the poor and spend some time there. There are dozens of great organizations and agencies across the diocese and beyond. Connect with your parish if you’re looking for an idea, or email me directly (email@example.com). Our compassion muscles will only strengthen if we use them.