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Sunday, April 17, 2016

On Beggars

Brandon and I have always tried to be generous with beggars.  Everyone living in poor countries has to come up with their own personal code about beggars, because they're something that you will deal with whether you want to or not.  It's easy to think that you are a kind and generous person until a beggar comes up to you, asking for money.  Suddenly you realize how much someone invading your personal space and demanding that, by virtue of having wealth you should give it away, is intensely irritating.  Then as you brush them off you feel the immediate backwash of guilt from dismissing another human over fifty cents.

Repeat a couple hundred times and eventually your conscience develops a callus.  But it's never quite thick enough.

So, Brandon and I give to beggars.  It's probably not a fiscally wise policy and it may not even be a wise policy in general, if you believe the stories of stollen drugged-out babies carried around to open the pockets of willing people.  But we've decided to assuage our own consciences, rationalizing the giving by quoting scripture and figuring we'd never go broke by giving money to beggars.  And at least some of them have to be legitimate.

But then they learned where we live.

And so we've helped them.  One man needed a loan for a project.  Another wanted a job.  A third came by every few weeks for a little infusion.  The beggar ladies always got bread an a handful of somoni.  It's not hard to help when everyone here is so poor.  Sure, they might not manage the money well, but that was up to them, not us.  

Then one of the men ended up in jail this morning because of things that happened on our property.  And suddenly the money and the dependency and helping and not helping all got mixed up and the questions got more pressing.

The whole situation – the situation with multiple people constantly asking for money – has been an interesting study of where king Benjamin’s sermon hits reality.  It’s really quite easy to give to a passing beggar on the street, but it’s something else entirely to give, give, and give again to people who come and ring your doorbell several times a week demanding that you give them money because their wife is sick or their daughters deserve toys for their birthday or they’re going to Russia for work or they’re trying to pay first month’s rent on a house.  You never know what is lies and what is truth and what is truth stretched into a better lie to get a little more money out of the situation. 

My inclination and Brandon’s too it to tell everyone to take a hike and leave us the heck alone.  Friends in the embassy community don’t give on principle, quoting security concerns (and after this morning, that makes more sense) as a shield to hide behind the fact that really these people are irritating and their demands are so offensive.  Why does my having more mean that you deserve to have any of it?

But then King Benjamin reminds us that we are all beggars and the beggar should not put up his petition in vain.  And don’t forget about Lazarus and the rich man.  So then telling everyone who rings my doorbell to take a hike isn’t so simple.  Is it right to create a situation where these people count on you to get them out of every little situation that comes up?  Is it right to tell them that you can’t help because you think that surely that many children can’t get sick in so short a time?  What if the last ten times are a lie and this one really is a truth?  What if they’re taking your money and spending it on getting drunk and beating their wife because they’re in such a desperate situation?  What if this money will bring food to the four hungry children at home?  I don’t know what it’s like to be hungry.  I don’t know what it’s like to not know where your next meal is going to come from.  I’ve never worried a single day in my life about money. 

I don’t know if there is a good answer.  I don’t know what we’ll do about this going forward.  I don't know what is good for these people ringing my doorbell and I don't know what is bad for them.  And it's frustrating not to know.  

And even more frustrating is knowing that I will never know.


Bridget said...

I hope what happened wasn't too serious. This is a hard issue to deal with, for all the reasons you mentioned.

The Mormon Monk said...

I found the book _Strangers Drowning_ offered a number of helpful anecdotes and perspectives that clarified my own perspective on these issues. And, of course, Elder Renlund's talk from this past conference!