Sunday, September 30, 2007

Are We Not All Beggars?

It's Saturday morning. I'm walking down the street toward the Global Market, where I will meet my friend Jim for our weekly writer's confab. As I walk, I am praying this prayer: Please, Father, make my life my prayer to you. Make me an instrument of your peace and love.

I raise my eyes up from the sidewalk ahead of me, and I see two black men walking toward me, about a block away. They seem to be absorbed in a conversation with each other.

Eventually, we meet. One of them says, "Hey, can you help us out with a little something, so we can get something to eat?"

I sigh. I reach into my back pocket, and I say what I am thinking: "My religion teaches me that whenever someone asks me for help, I must do what I can to help." I pull two dollars out of my wallet and hand them to him.

His companion says, "Can you help me too?" I smiled, as I handed him two dollars too.

"What is your religion?" says the first.

"I'm a Mormon. A Latter-day Saint."

"Oh, yeah, the Mormons!" says the second, "I know where that Church is. Down on 40th and Nicollet."

"That's right," I say.

"What is that? I don't know what that is," says the first. "What's a Mormon? What do Mormons believe?"

"Tell him," said the second, "Go ahead, explain it."

I take a deep breath. How do I summarize the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in a few simple sentences? "We believe in Christ," I started. "We follow the teachings of the prophet Joseph Smith, who had a vision of God the Father and Jesus Christ, and who restored the Church of Jesus Christ as it was in ancient times."

"Beautiful!" says the second, "Simple! That's what I believe too!"

The first one is looking at me with a very sad expression on his face. He says he wants to pray. So the three of us hold hands, and he starts to pray. He's praying for people who are handicapped, people who are homeless, people who struggle with mental illness, and so on. Eventually, his companion starts to get a bit edgy, and says, "OK, enough praying. People are gonna think we're crazy, three men out here holdin' hands." We end our prayer in the name of Jesus Christ.

Before I leave, they both say, "God bless you!"

"God bless you," I reply, "May his Spirit be with you today."

"God bless you! Thank you!"

As I walk away, I'm slightly nervous. We live in a dicey neighborhood, where crime is a big problem. Our neighbors are hyper vigilant, and I realize that if any of them have seen me handing cash to transients, they will be mad at me. Maybe my neighbors are right. Maybe my actions will encourage other, less harmless transients to come to our neighborhood.

And I wonder about the men I've just "helped." I didn't smell any alcohol on them, they seemed sober, they had their wits about them. I believe they were telling the truth when they said they needed a bite to eat. I still wondered if my donation was going to go right into the pockets of the liquor store owners two blocks away. Maybe I should have given them the address to the nearest foodshelf.

I remember when I was on my mission, I was on a split once with my zone leader, and he told me a story -- perhaps someone can tell me if it's apocryphal! As the story went, someone was walking down the street with Ezra Taft Benson, when they were approached by a street person. The street person asked for money, and without hesitating Elder Benson took some money out of his wallet and gave it to the man. The person accompanying the apostle commented that the man was probably lying, and probably intended to buy a drink with the money. And Elder Benson's response was that he had no control over what the man did with the money, but at least he had done his duty by showing charity. But the clincher, for me, was his comment: "I would rather give to ninety-nine who are undeserving, than turn one away who truly needs that money."

Even if the story is completely false (I would be grateful if someone could verify it one way or the other), it has stayed with me all these years because I think it communicates the same fundamental truth as King Benjamin's sermon on beggars. The kind of charity we show when we give to anyone who asks, no matter how deserving we deem them to be, is not unlike the charity God shows toward us by blessing us even when we are unworthy. That's me. That's exactly what I am. Unworthy, and still blessed.

That's why I believe my religion teaches me:

Ye will not suffer that the beggar putteth up his petition to you in vain, and turn him out to perish. Perhaps thou shalt say: The man has brought upon himself his misery; therefore I will stay my hand, and will not give unto him of my food, nor impart unto him of my substance that he may not suffer, for his punishments are just— But I say unto you, O man, whosoever doeth this the same hath great cause to repent; and except he repenteth of that which he hath done he perisheth forever, and hath no interest in the kingdom of God. For behold, are we not all beggars? (Mosiah 4:16-19)

8 comments:

Chedner said...

Amen

Original Mohomie said...

Why did I not discover your blog earlier? I guess I'm just another self-absorbed blog-spouter.

A dear friend of mine has talked of you here and there. I guess I just did my usual, impersonal thing and didn't seek out your blog. Then I followed your retraction link from Northern Lights.

I have to guess, going only from what you've written, that you're one of those rare honest seekers of truth. Thanks for sharing.

Original Mohomie said...

P.S. - I say that not because you retracted your comments, but because you were willing to retract something, and you seem to ask important questions.

...just to clarify. :-)

J G-W said...

Original Mohomie - I guess you're no more self-absorbed than I am... I've only been blogging since June, and am gradually finding my way around the other moho blogs. Thank you and welcome!

Beck said...

This reminds of of our meeting each other. After I got in the car and was pulling away, I noticed a begger came up to you in front of the hotel and you immediately got our your wallet. As I watched in the rear view mirror as I drove away: "there is a man who practices what he preaches". :)

J G-W said...

Well, luckily you saw me when I was actually practicing my religion, and not one of the other moments! :) Downtown Salt Lake is kind of overwhelming, there are so many street people.

I really do wrestle sometimes with what to do. I've heard people who work with the homeless say that handouts actually are not helpful, that it is better to point folks to public service agencies (food shelves, homeless shelters, employment assistance programs, etc.). But I also volunteer regularly at foodshelves and homeless shelters and know from personal experience that they don't have the resources to help every one! The one homeless shelter where I volunteered regularly turned dozens of people away every night. So what are those people supposed to do?

Also, there is just the basic humanitarian aspect for me... When a person is hungry, they need food, not a business card that says, Go to such and such a foodshelf over on the other side of town. Yes, these folks need mental health treatment, substance abuse treatment, job training, housing assistance, etc. But all those resources have been steadily cut over the last twenty years. Homelessness in the Twin Cities has quadrupled since the Reagan administration. That's why I also believe that humanitarian assistance needs to be coupled with political advocacy...

Garrett said...

On my mission, I used to get so annoyed at the beggars. Most just wanted liquor money. One day, a man asked me for money and I sort of lost it and angrily bought him a candy bar instead. He took it across the street, broke it in half, and gave the other half to his wife. It broke my heart, and I've never looked at anyone humble enough to ask for my help the same again.

Thanks for this post. I heard you're coming to Utah to speak this month. I'm hoping to come hear you.

J G-W said...

Garrett - Thanks, that's a great story... heart-wrenching.

Yes, I'll be speaking at the Affirmation fireside on October 14. I'm looking forward to it. If you make it, please be sure to introduce yourself to me afterwards!