Thinking about…

In the past two days, we have had two people call at the Palo Alto church looking for money and/or shelter. I’m not going to talk about the specifics of either of the people who came here, because they deserve their privacy. I will say that we felt compelled to call the police in one instance, and in the other instance the parish minister gave the person both money and a ride to the train station.

These two visits prompted me to think about some of the ways I evaluate people who come to churches looking for money or shelter, and I realized that I have never tried to think systematically about this subject. Nor am I ready to think systematically about this subject now. But I thought I’d share some random thoughts based on experiences over fifteen years of working in both urban and suburban churches.

  • At one church, I could track the price of one hit of heroin by the requests we used to get for specific amounts of money. When lots of people needed eleven dollars to pay for a ticket from where we were to the VA hospital in another nearby city, I knew heroin was going for eleven dollars. When lots of people needed ten dollars to pay for a taxi cab to the unemployment office in the next county, I knew the price of heroin had gone down to ten dollars.
  • When people I do not know get close to children or children’s play areas, and when they do not move away immediately when I ask them to do so, I am very likely to call the police, and it doesn’t matter how polite they may be.
  • When someone asks me for money for a motel room because they just happened to be passing through town and suddenly got stranded overnight while their car is being fixed and their credit card isn’t working until tomorrow because a hold got placed on it when they filled up their gas tank, I am likely to believe them the first time — but when they come back six months later, obviously don’t recognize me, and give me the same story all over again, I am very unlikely to give them money.
  • Sometimes people are normally polite to me, they make an effort with their appearance, and they actually attend worship service in a respectful manner. I am far more likely to offer help to those people, no matter how questionable or dodgy their story might be.
  • I’ve had many people show their scars to me. Socially I am a fairly conservative New England Yankee, and having to look at scars kind of grosses me out, and makes me want to get rid of the person without hearing their story, and without offering any support. I have learned to not look at scars when they are displayed, so that I can concentrate on listening to the person instead of throwing them out.
  • I once had someone ask me for money. He was wearing clothing that looked more expensive than anything I could afford. I didn’t give him money. He got aggressive with me. I’m still not sure if he was an upper middle class white guy who lost his job who was genuinely in need and had been reduced to begging and who was just naturally aggressive — or if he was a con man. Either way, I didn’t give him the money for a motel room for which he was asking.

I don’t know. I’m afraid I have gotten way too cynical about these things. Now whenever someone from outside the church asks me for money, I start with the assumption that it’s a con game. I don’t like that about myself.

2 thoughts on “Thinking about…

  1. Doug Davidoff

    Dear Dan Harper,

    I was moved by this post. The recession has caused me to look at people expressing needs in a different way. And yet, people lie and cheat, and resources are limited. I like your tone and your heartful introspection.

    — Doug Davidoff
    Arlington, Mass.
    (Attend First Parish UU Church of Arlington)

    Editor’s note: email address removed to foil spambots.

  2. Amy

    So many thoughts about this. I give help sometimes to people whom I don’t think are being totally honest. The man I gave a ride and money to was one of those. I didn’t get any malicious or arrogant vibe from him, but he wasn’t telling me the truth about himself, and frankly I don’t blame him.

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