First Larne Presbyterian Church

First Larne Presbyterian Church

On Panhandling, School Meals and Smart Charity

On Panhandling, School Meals, and Smart Charity

The teen winds her way up the snaking carriages on the London tube, strategically placing slips of paper next to unsuspecting passengers. Not wanting to shift and draw attention, I strained to read the upside-down all-caps.

Seemingly, she was poor and hungry, throwing herself on the mercy of strangers to get through another day. ‘GOD BLESS FOR YOUR HELP’ it solicited.

What does it mean to be a whole-life disciple, passing by pandemic poverty? Admittedly, I’m torn.

This was panhandling, outlawed by authorities. She had energy to walk the carriages, so couldn’t she expend value-adding labour without hassling commuters? Didn’t Paul say, ‘no work, no eat’ (2 Thessalonians 3:10)?

Besides, many warn that cash without accountability can ‘kill with kindness’, reinforcing the poverty-cycle. Jesus commanded ‘giving to all who ask’ (Luke 6:30-31), but surely he didn’t mean funding a possible addiction, thereby harming a fellow image-bearer?

Still, I squirmed at the inner collision of scepticism toward anyone asking for my cash, with a conscience that asked if she truly was a neighbour in need.

What if she was one of over four million UK kids – 17% of all children – facing food poverty? Was she, too, left with a grumbling stomach, despite Marcus Rashford’s best strike at securing free school meals in the holiday break? Politics aside, I too wonder: ‘can we not all agree that no child should be going to bed hungry?’

Whether it comes through government, council, business or individual donations, almost all judge a healthy feed to be a solid investment. It’s perhaps the most responsible £30 million debt to carry, for ‘mercy to the needy is a loan to God, and God pays back those loans in full’ (Proverbs 19:17).

How easy, though, to reduce this girl on the train to an inconvenient statistic, a problem that ‘they’ must solve, rather than a person God calls me to love.

In the moment, I failed even to acknowledge her presence. Later, I pursued regular giving to a community doing life with those in need, holistically extending a hand-up rather than a hand-out. Even so, I still pocket coins ready to follow the Spirit’s leading. To look my neighbour in the eyes, and – when prompted – buy her a meal and hear her story. To simply be kind while she passes by, occasionally dropping a quid in the hat.

Whatever your response, following Jesus is costly, and rarely calculating. Smart charity or not, upside-down love – not self-protection – must mark my way. Agreed?


Dave Benson

Director, Centre for Culture & Discipleship