That’s what our pastor said several Sundays ago, just as an aside to the main point of his sermon. A few minutes later, he told us how God “sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” Then he told us that we need to be more like God.
And all I could think was... "But God, they're just going to use that rain to buy drugs!"
Now, this isn't about what my pastor said: he’s a great pastor, and to reduce his views on the homeless to these couple sentences would be extremely unfair. But this isn't the first time I've heard this from various people in the Church; rather, it comes as merely one more of a long chain of Christian thoughts on the homeless. They’re going to use it to buy drugs, they’re going to use it to buy alcohol, they could get a job so easily, they’re just lazy… they’re not worth your time, and they’re certainly not worth your money.
Has no one told God? Does he not know, has he not heard, that giving good things to the wicked is merely enabling their self-destructive behavior? He sends life-giving rain to the unrighteous… but they’re just going to use it to buy drugs.
I'm not here to dispute the statistics. My pastor used a specific number—95%—and even though that seems ludicrously inflated, I'm not going to try and disprove it. After all, I've heard it before, and I’m sure lots of people have. Let's say that it's true, just for the sake of argument. Let's say that every time you give $5 to a man on a street-corner, or to a couple pushing their cart, or to a woman standing outside the local grocery store, that's going straight to alcohol or some other self-destructive behavior.
And this is why we aren't supposed to give them money. But have we considered that maybe, just maybe, they’re just tired? Maybe they're tired of living in an ostensibly Christian nation that can't stand to look at them, that purposely avoids their gaze when stuck at a red light, that walks the long way around so they won't have to speak to a homeless person. Actions speak louder than words, especially when we can't bring ourselves to speak any words to the homeless, except for a hurried, mumbled, "No, sorry…” And our actions often tell them that they are less than human. Maybe they’re tired of being less than human, of just being “the homeless.” And maybe the only way to make the day a little less unbearable is to be a little less sober.
Obviously, this doesn't excuse self-destructive behavior, but it also means that we absolutely cannot allow that to keep us from offering help. Rather, it means that we must be more spirited and more purposeful in our interactions with them. It means that we have to show them that we know they are more than the homeless.
Because speaking of them as "the homeless" at all can be a cop-out. I've met a lot of people on the street-corners of Fresno, but I've never met "the homeless." I met William and his wife Lory at Dominoes, and rather than settle for five bucks and a promise of prayer, they asked me to pray right then and there; I knelt down and prayed as their dogs licked my face. I met Abel at Little Caesars, asking if he could wash my car, and after I'd given to him he told me that God would pay me back many times over. I met Christopher on my way to Costco, and he asked me to buy him Raisin Bran, his favorite cereal. I met Alex on my way to youth group, and he showed me his scars, apologized for being scruffy, and told me that nobody could judge us except our Creator. I met Robin outside of a Save-Mart, and when I didn't have any cash, I asked her what she wanted from the store. She asked me to get cat-food, tuna, and mayonnaise, because she already had bread for sandwiches.
They, like us, are individual, unique, beloved images of the invisible God. Not "the homeless" or "the poor." Not some faceless, nameless mass that we can explain away with statistics, that we can try and sentence in absentia as drunkards and addicts and wickedly lazy parasites. People. People with names, people with stories, people that had jobs but lost them, people who are disabled, or confused, or lost... people that are known and precious to God.
Those are the people standing on street-corners, and no amount of statistics can capture them. Yes, some of them will probably use money for self-destructive behaviors. But the thing about gifts is that they always come with a choice, and they can always be misused. Take life, for example: I misuse mine on an almost daily basis. The Gospel itself is a gift that has been misused ever since we were given it. Grace, hope, intelligence, athleticism, money... all of these are gifts from God, which are often misused on earth. Can you imagine if God subscribed to the theory that we shouldn't give when our gifts might be misused?
That's probably why in all of the Gospels we never have an account of Jesus turning someone away. Try as hard as we might, we will never find the Bible story of the blind man who was refused sight because he'd only use it to lust, or the crippled man who remained crippled because he'd only use his limbs for stealing. Jesus never turned someone away who came to him for help: the healing of the ten lepers comes to mind, when only one out of the ten bothered to return to Jesus and thank him. Did Jesus revoke the healing on the other nine? Did Jesus make a vow to only heal those who were “worthy” from that point on? Of course not!
Giving to someone—whether it's supernatural healing in a village near Samaria, or a five dollar bill or even just a few minutes of your time on a street-corner in Fresno—means a lot of things. It means giving them the choice; it means giving them the opportunity to be righteous. It means being like God, and giving to those who may misuse your gifts. But most of all, it means treating that person who happens to be wearing raggedy clothes, who happens to be standing on the street-corner, as the individual, unique, immensely valuable image of God that he or she is.