My recent article on Why Pope Francis is wrong about begging was re-posted on the popular Christian blog Psephizo and a number of church leaders commented on the challenge that this issue poses for them.
It again reminded me of how churches, vicarages and manses are at the front line of this issue because of how often people call on their doors asking for money.
I grew up in a vicarage and homeless people (or ‘tramps’ as we called them) used to come to our door to ask for help. My mum would make sandwiches but I remember one caller being very unhappy with this. Later we found the bag of sandwiches thrown in the hedge just outside the house. The sight of that discarded food stayed with me: a visible sign of the complexity involved in helping people.
The brilliantly researched BBC comedy Rev featured this issue almost every episode, with the crack addict Mick continually coming to the vicarage door with improbable stories:
What is the best way to respond?
The national Christian homelessness network, Housing Justice, have produced a common-sense guide to Helping Homeless Callers who come to your door. It is very clear that people should not give money and offers some good practical tips, such as agreeing a policy and having information available.
I firmly believe that we should help people in need and be as human and kind as possible. But Christians need to stop being doormats. As referred to in the Rev clip, Christians are often seen as ‘soft-touches’ and this does little good – either for ourselves or for the person begging.
Rejecting the guilt transfer
One important thing to remember is to not accept the guilt transfer that people begging often try with a potential donor. This frequently happens by presenting a scenario designed to make you feel solely responsible for a positive outcome e.g. ‘If you don’t give me the money then I will not be able to see my sick child.’ Recognising and rejecting the attempts to maximise your guilt helps you see what is really happening.
Whether a sick child actually exists or not, it is not your fault that the person does not have the money to see them. The brutal reality is that the missing of an important appointment, or even a night sleeping rough, may have to be the consequence of previous decisions that this person has made about which you may know very little.
Good theology in action
Christian responses to people in need should not merely be pragmatic but be rooted in good theology. The first chapter of John’s gospel says: ‘The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth’ (John 1:14).
John chose these two words to sum up the qualities of Jesus: grace and truth.
When helping people in need, we need to balance our desire to show grace with acknowledging the importance of truth. I think this is relevant to all pastoral situations but especially when it comes to the issues which surround homeless people.
Grace detached from truth
Churches are doing incredible work across the country with vulnerable people. But one legitimate critique of churches is that too much of the activity focuses on giving free meals and free accommodation which asks little of the person being helped. It can run counter to other agencies’ emphasis on encouraging and empowering them to face reality and take responsibility. Churches can be in danger of offering a grace which is detached from truth.
We need to recognise that over the long term, transformative work with homeless people will always involve holding together these kinds of tensions:
None of this is easy in practice and it cannot be done by one person, or even just one agency. Joint work and coordination between different organisations is essential for good outcomes – and churches have a vital role to play.
But I firmly believe that balancing grace and truth gives us a strong basis for how we should respond to homeless and vulnerable people. Being a doormat or a soft-touch is tempting and can seem a generous way out of the dilemma. But it doesn’t really help people.