Tale of a Christmas Goose

David - December 19, 2008

A woman approached me at a service station last night. She was looking for money, claiming it was for gas. She pointed to an old Ford Explorer, saying she was stranded and her kids were waiting in there for her to take them home. I’ve heard this pitch a dozen previous times at gas stations– with slight variations– over the years. “I just need a couple dollars to get home.” She looked through me, not at me. Her schtick was rehearsed, practiced, tired, void of any humility or any emotion. “I’m a Christian,” she said. “I pray to God you can help me.” Now I was pissed. “Stop it,” I said. “Don’t disrespect God to me.” “I mean it!” she protested. “Look,” I said as I took out some bills, “the routine’s old. Try something else.” She gave me a rehearsed look of dejection. “Merry Christmas!” she spat at me as she went off with my lunch money (NOT in the direction of the station cashier to get gas, I might add).

This kind of encounter never ends well for me. If I responded cheerfully and forked over the dough without hesitation, I’d still feel like a mark and a bad steward of my money. If I denied her the money, I’d feel like an ass. As it turned out, I knew I was getting took, but because I couldn’t swear to it on a stack of Bibles, I reluctantly handed over the money on the off-chance some little kids might get home safely or, at least, get some hot McDonald’s. But since I exacerbated the situation by protesting as I did, I felt no reward was to be found. I let myself be used and surgically removed any charity from the incident myself. And I hate that she said “Merry Christmas” to me!

To what extent do we share? Do we give everyone with their hand out the benefit of the doubt and let the Lord sort it all out later? Are we to be more responsible for the allotment with which He entrusts us?

These questions will forever plague me.

33 Comments »

  1. Here’s an idea: Next time offer to walk over to the car and physically add a few bucks’ worth of gas into it yourself. That way you know where the money is going. If they turn you down, you know for sure you’ve been had and you can walk away. My mother used to do that kind of thing–offer to buy whatever it is people were asking money to supposedly buy. She always came away guilt free.

    Comment by Annette — December 19, 2008 @ 1:19 pm

  2. One time I had just finished a great lunch at The Garden (a restaurant on Temple Square) and I had half of a sandwich left. We passed a woman on the corner nearby holding a sign and asking for money. I mumbled “ah, crap” (because the sandwich was really good!) and gave it to her. The look of joy on her face as she took the box from me was totally worth it (and besides, what’s 3 bucks worth, right?). I’ve found that like Annette’s mom, when you give the goods, rather than the money, everyone comes away from it a bit happier (unless the beggar really wanted the money for something more addictive than food).

    Another time, we were at a rest stop along the I-15 in Montana (on our way to Canada). I think I was in college? Anyway, some guys approached my dad for some money and said they’d pay him back; they even took his address. My dad was mad that they would lie so blatently to him, but he gave them the money and even gave them our address (!). Then, about 10 miles later, our tire blew out while we were going 75 mph. My dad was able to control the vehicle and get it to the side, but there was so much damage! (long story short, we had to go get car parts in Butte and it delayed our trip by almost 4 hours) But right after this happened, those guys we gave the money to came upon us, pulled over and helped my dad put the spare on the car. I think my dad felt better about the money thing after that. Reciprocation tends to do that to a person, eh?

    Comment by cheryl — December 19, 2008 @ 1:49 pm

  3. P.S. My dad never did get the money back.

    Comment by cheryl — December 19, 2008 @ 1:50 pm

  4. Cheryl, what’s more addictive than food? I find I can’t go more than a day without jonesing for a fix.

    David, I worry about this kind of thing a lot and I take seriously this chapter of Mosiah, which pretty much leaves us with no out when approached by someone begging for money. Given that, I generally give money when approached, but I confess that I try to avoid situations where I know I will be approached.

    It’s not easy to know what to do, because if you always give, sometimes you feel like a sap, and if you never give, you always feel like a heel. I think Annette’s counsel is wise, but I don’t always have the time for that. I would definitely avoid giving people a lecture or making cynical comments, though. That’s not going to end well whether you give or not.

    It’s like when the cop pulls you over and lectures you by the side of the road. You don’t want to hear it and you generally don’t listen. All you want to know is whether he’s going to give you a ticket or not.

    Comment by MCQ — December 19, 2008 @ 2:16 pm

  5. Drugs. Alcohol. Sex. Although, I tend to be addicted to making people feel intectually lower than myself by using sarcastic remarks.
    Wait! That’s not me. Who is that?
    :)

    Comment by cheryl — December 19, 2008 @ 2:36 pm

  6. MCQ – Yeah, that Mosiah passage pretty much cuts off all other arguments. That’s why I usually end up giving, sap or not.

    Annette – Yes, the thought to pump for her did cross my mind. But in the end, it would consume time I didn’t have to spare and, frankly, it looked like there was another adult in that SUV and I was uncomfortable going over there.

    Cheryl – Oh, I think rationalization is more addictive than food, drugs, alcohol and sex.

    Comment by David T. — December 19, 2008 @ 2:55 pm

  7. I wrote my thoughts about this a few years ago here it’s something I still struggle with. But my inclination now is to do what Annette suggests.

    Comment by Rusty — December 19, 2008 @ 5:40 pm

  8. i just give, if i have it. it’s good for ME to do it and whatever the other person does with my offering is between them and god. i just worry about MY part.

    Comment by makakona — December 19, 2008 @ 6:32 pm

  9. Makakona,
    I suspect that’s a reasonable way to approach it if you don’t encounter the situation very often. But what do you do when you run into the same 6-8 people every single day (as I do)? It becomes less simple, a little less easy to “just give” and not question what they’re doing with it.

    Comment by Rusty — December 19, 2008 @ 6:41 pm

  10. Cheryl, I’m sure I don’t know who you’re talking about but remember that the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem, so if it is you, you should probably just ‘fess up.

    Makakona, that is exactly the right attitude, but Rusty is right: in some locations there is no way you can afford to give every single time you are approached. I think in that situation, you give what you can then tell the others you are tapped out. If you are being honest, I think the Lord will support you in that.

    Comment by MCQ — December 19, 2008 @ 8:18 pm

  11. I don’t give money to anyone who asks, as I don’t carry cash, which is what I tell them. I give a lot more than my wife thinks we should to Fast Offerings and the Perpetual Education Fund each month (it’s two to three times what we gave each year when raising our nine kids), so, I don’t feel guilty about not giving money to individuals because I already am helping, consistently each month. If they asked me to put some gas in their car, that wouldn’t bother me, but I’m not going to give them cash.

    I worked for the Utah State Welfare Office for almost 30 years and am quite cynical about giving cash to people, which is partly why I give as much as I do to FO and PEF, as it only goes to those in need.

    In 1991, when the Tab Choir was in Moscow, Elder Dallin Oaks was on our bus when beggars were hitting us for money. He told us not to give to the beggars as they were professionals–some beggars in India even maimed their babies for sympathy–and we weren’t to encourage that life style.

    Comment by Dan Knudsen — December 19, 2008 @ 9:33 pm

  12. Donate to your local food shelter. Or to the local battered women’s safe-house. They could use the money.

    If the spirit tells you to do something though, you might as well do it and not sweat about it afterward. It’s not like it’s your money anyway. God lets the rain fall on the just and the unjust, and the idea of some sneering con man getting five bucks from me really doesn’t trouble me much.

    Comment by Seth R. — December 19, 2008 @ 9:41 pm

  13. Five bucks to three people five times a week gets expensive.

    Comment by Rusty — December 19, 2008 @ 11:14 pm

  14. Old Joe Smith said it’s better to give to 10 charlatans than to turn away 1 truly needy soul.

    However, I certainly do understand that when you KNOW they’re a charlatan or come to you every day, things get a bit more messy. Fortunately I’ve never been in that situation.

    Comment by Bret — December 20, 2008 @ 12:35 am

  15. Two contrasting stories.

    I loved on my mission getting begged for money. Of course in L.A. we never carried cash around with us (they issued us a debit card) and they’d usually get angry with us. Ialways found it hilarious that people were honestly trying to bum money off clergy.

    My favorite experience was giving to a man with a sign standing outside wal mart. I’ll never forget his eyes and the incredibly deep gratitude there. Something I’ll keep with me forever and it only cost me five bucks:)

    Comment by Bret — December 20, 2008 @ 12:38 am

  16. Yeah, I gave my gas pump grifter $5, too, but didn’t get the incredibly deep gratitide. At a certain point the career panhandlers lose the gratitude and adopt expectation. It’s as if they’re saying, “OK, you know I don’t really need the gas to get my kids home, and I know you know, so let’s just make this easy for both of us. Hand over the bread and I won’t push too many of your guilt buttons.”

    I HAVE been blessed to encounter the truly needy and truly grateful. I HAVE given food to people who’ve asked for coin (and anls othose who walked away when they saw they were getting a Big Mac instead of a buck for some hootch). I think we’ve all come across the different types.

    But here already we’ve heard a story from Joseph Smith who says give to 10 charlatans so as not to miss the truly needy, and then we have Dallin Oaks instructing not to give to the professional panhandlers. On the one hand Smith (and Mosiah whom he translated) are some pretty darn credible sources. On the other, Oaks (no slouch himself) lives in today’s society– and his school of thought’s supported by my stake leadership who have us, instead, point beggars to the local food pantry (obviously the food pantry doesn’t help put gas in the car).

    Once again, I guess it all goes back to Annette’s comment. If I really want to prove my gesture as a meaningful one, go pump the gas myself, go buy the food myself. It’ll weed out the frauds from the genuine articles and the very act will compound our own feelings of gratitude. Engage myself to my brother’s plight rather than pay him to go away.

    Doesn’t mean I have to like it.

    Comment by David T. — December 20, 2008 @ 9:26 am

  17. David,

    I agree entirely except your very last statement, I’m afraid. According to our old pal, King Benjamin, we DO have to give with a loving heart or else it’s as if we retained the gift.

    Dangit.

    That has often made giving for me so much harder. Without that I could give all the time knowing I’ll be blessed even if I curse the person I’m giving to, but alas, it is not to be.

    Anyway, I think you’re entirely in the right to do as you said and follow Annette’s and your stake president’s advice. Good luck and God bless you for the effort!:)

    Comment by Bret — December 20, 2008 @ 4:00 pm

  18. 1. Program a food pantry’s number (and address if you can) into your cell phone, or memorize it. Add in a Homeless shelter, women’s shelter, and whatever other emergency services there are for the homeless and poor (Salvation Army, and places that take in the homeless on sub-zero nights). 2 or 3 resources should be enough.

    Let’s face it, minor children with real needs (along with their mothers) don’t have to be homeless or hungry in any city in America. The only excuse is ignorance, such as someone who finds themselves in a new place, and just doesn’t know where to turn.

    If someone really was honestly needy, don’t you think they’d ask for help in getting in contact with a homeless/women’s shelter, or a food pantry?

    2. Give the person 50 cents to call the food pantry, or give them $1.50 in quarters to call the 3 places.

    3. I usually keep a couple dollars worth of quarters in the ash tray of my car.

    4. I usually give the person $1, no matter how much they ask for, and then offer them one of the church DVD’s that I buy for $1.18 to $1.50. I consider the $1 cash contribution as part of the opportunity cost to place gospel material. I often eat a $7 or so meal at a cheap restaurant, (at least $3.50 more than what I would spend eating at home) just for the opportunity to give out a Book of Mormon. So from a R.O.I. standpoint, giving a stranger $1 for an opportunity to give them a gospel-related DVD comes out. (Most professional beggars do have someplace to live, and do own or have access to TV’s and DVD players.)

    5. I even tell the person they can sell the DVD to someone if they want, just don’t throw it away. That way another person gets exposed to it.

    6. If you want to let someone use your cell phone, YOU dial the number, not them. And don’t let them erase the number afterwards. I learned that the hard way. It wasn’t a toll-call, but when she erased the number, it made me think she was setting me up for something.

    Bottom line: truely needy people in the US won’t ask you for money and only money. They’ll accept the actual gasoline or the sandwich/snack, or they’ll ask you where they can go to get help from an agency.

    Comment by Bookslinger — December 21, 2008 @ 6:38 pm

  19. Another response is to give them 50 for a phone call, and suggest they call one of their friends to come help them. Of course, the professional ones will have a ready come-back.

    Comment by Bookslinger — December 21, 2008 @ 6:52 pm

  20. I never give cash. I have offered to buy the person food, as in “Come inside and I’ll buy you whatever you want”, and I have NEVER been taken up on it. The person will often give a look of disgust and walk away. Once when a man was standing outside a grocery story with a sign that said “will work for food”, I brought out food for him that was ready to eat. He looked bewildered but thanked me. As I was getting in my car I looked over and saw him throwing the entire gift of food in the trash. I think it’s false to think that by declining to give money to beggars you are coming under the condemnation Mosiah is talking about. It has already been pointed out that every community has shelters and food banks. Donate to them. That’s where people who want food will go to get it.

    Comment by E — December 21, 2008 @ 7:45 pm

  21. I recommend listening to the first 8 episodes of http://www.povertyunlocked.com . You’ll gain some confidence in how to handle poverty the way the Bible says to.

    Comment by Tim — December 21, 2008 @ 11:20 pm

  22. I have done the “I’ll buy you what you need” thing when I had the resources. But that still has an ingredient of judging the person you’re giving to. That’s against the King Benjamin thoughts David referred to.

    But, like Rusty, every time I go out, I am faced with the same winos begging for money. One guy doesn’t even lie to people; he tells them squarely he needs X amount to buy a bottle to medicate his hangover. To him I say “I won’t help you dig yourself deeper in the hole you’re in”.

    I wish there was an easy answer to this. Not a problem for me, because nowadays I normally have nothing on me and I don’t have credit cards, either. I probably spend less money than most of the beggars…

    Comment by Velska — December 22, 2008 @ 2:03 am

  23. Oh, by the way, one time a guy rang our doorbell and asked if we could give him some bread (we knew the guy and he knew who we were). No problem there!

    Comment by Velska — December 22, 2008 @ 2:12 am

  24. David – your post obviously raises recollections of guilt with all of us who are regularly confronted by such people. Years ago when I lived in SLC, one of the principal’s of our firm was an inactive Mormon. He was a returned missionary but got his feelings hurt somewhere along the way. But he was a good man and practiced Chritianity everyday of his life. Our office was on the fringes of downtown SLC near the blood donor’s center. Every Wednesday homeless men who most likely had alcohol problems lined up at the donor’s center to give plasma for which they were paid $25. For the rest of the day they would hang out near our office and pan handle. Tim, the inactive principal, would typically go outside the office to talk to one or more of the men (it was usually just men). Instead of just giving them money, he would take them down the street to Van Koman’s deli and buy them a sandwich then he would give them $5 before saying goodbye and returning to the office.

    I remembered that lesson recently when I was coming to work one morning. A panhandler said he needed money for food. I passed him by but soon came upon a McDonalds. I went inside and purchased a breakfast sandwich and then took to the panhandler down the street. I felt better for not being taken, or at least not feeling like I was being taken, knowing the money I spent was for food (although not very healthy food) instead of booze, drugs or cigarettes.

    On my way to the subway these days I am routinely confronted by the same panhandlers. Most of them don’t even bother to ask for money, they just stand and hold out a paper cup. One person just sits on the street reading holding the cup while I pass by without looking up. I keep my money in my pocket and feel just fine about it.

    Comment by lamonte — December 22, 2008 @ 6:46 am

  25. I work evenings downtown in a not-so-major metropolitan area, and there are frequently panhandlers around despite some city efforts to curtail the activity. My solution: Carry granola bars. If the pandhandlers are truly hungry (and some are), they’ll appreciate one. And if not? Let’s just say I don’t get panhandled a second time.

    Comment by Eric — December 22, 2008 @ 12:05 pm

  26. Like Eric, I’ve carried snacks with me just for the daily beggars. One of them refused me saying – “I don’t eat sugar”. lol!

    Comment by CJ Douglass — December 24, 2008 @ 8:44 am

  27. CJ: Diabetes is a common disease. But it can also be a cover story.

    If you smell alcohol on someone, “eating licorice” is also a cover story. Often times you can smell the alcohol coming out of the pores of someone’s skin if they are a heavy drinker.

    Comment by Bookslinger — December 25, 2008 @ 11:24 pm

  28. When I was bishop, I got a call at home late one cold Michigan winter night. The caller told me he and his fiancee were heading to his parents home for Christmas. Could I please give them money for gas and food?

    I didn’t want to drag a councillor or clerk out in the cold to sign a check, so I asked them to meet me at a gas station. When I got there I introduced myself and asked them to pull the car up to a pump. I then filled the car with gas… less than $2. The car was already full. They were caught in their fraud and embarassed. Rather than call them to task I asked if they wanted to step into the gas station and get sandwiches since they had not eaten. They said they were in a hurry and wanted to get on their way.

    I recommend giving in kind when possible. But then again I do, when possible, give to panhandlers (but I don’t often carry cash). While on a business trip (after the previous experience), I was approached by a panhandler. All I had was a 20, which I gave him. My collegue told me that the guy was just going to buy drugs or booze. I then discussed King Benjamin’s sermon viv-a-vis bums. I later heard that my collegue used that encounter as an example of how Mormons are real Christians.

    Comment by Floyd the Wonderdog — December 26, 2008 @ 5:57 am

  29. We try to keep McDonalds coupons in the car to hand out. That way we can just give them food without having to look for a place to buy it.

    Comment by Sally — December 26, 2008 @ 7:29 pm

  30. Everyone’s situation is different … and I hope each of us will listen to the (actual) promptings of the Spirit on this. But here’s my two cents:

    I live in Salt Lake City. Downtown, actually. Within 1000 feet of my home, there are four homeless service providers … twice as many, if you expand the radius to a quarter mile. In that same area, we have two half-way houses for recent residents of our penal institutions and others who can only afford to pay by the day. My ward encompasses all of these institutions, and I know folks who use them. Chronically homeless, the mentally ill, the down-on-their-luck. The whole gamut. I was lucky enough to be involved with our bishopric, who work with these folks regularly. And I learned that at Welfare Square, there are a bevy of bishops specifically tasked with helping these folks — and they are well trained, and well provisioned.

    This is all to say that I’m intimately familiar with the plight of the less fortunate — at least those that frequent downtown Salt Lake City.

    And so it is with firm conviction that I ask you to stay out of my neighborhood if you’re in the charitable mood. Take your well-meaning, ill-directed money elsewhere. You’re encouraging a lifestyle that preys on the weakest of our citizens just as surely as gambling in Vegas encourages the filth and wasted lives of that place.

    It’s a harsh thing to say. And I apologize for its harshness. But I’m not kidding. My neighborhood government works hard to ensure that folks of all stripes are welcomed downtown … we work hard to keep low-level crime at bay, and to make living, working, and walking downtown safe and enjoyable. The people asking you for money are, at best, bored (I know these people personally, they’re in my Elders Quorum meetings). At worst, they are con artists and thieves (I know these folks too … and some of them make more money panhandling than you do at your 9-5). Ask any of the professionals that serve the homeless and destitute population, and they’ll say the same thing. They’ll beg you not to feed the monster.

    If you really want to make a difference, might I offer the following:

    1) Give a generous fast offering

    2) Give generously to the United Way

    3) Empty your closets of clothing and your basements of dreck … and donate it to Deseret Industries and/or the St Vincent de Paul Society. It’s doing no one any good in storage. And the people at those places deserve donations that still have some life in them.

    4) When a shelter or other service catering to the mentally ill, destitute, or otherwise disenfranchised petitions to move into YOUR neighborhood, welcome them with open arms.

    5) Slow your life down far enough to allow for genuine acts of service (that don’t undermine agency or the fabric of a neighborhood).

    And to those that quote Mosiah 4: there are better ways to serve the poor than handing them a fiver. Much better ways.

    Comment by Silus Grok — December 28, 2008 @ 8:35 pm

  31. Oh … and I forgot:

    6) When encountering a street person, treat them as you would any other person. Which, for an urban area, is to say: with dignity, deference, and a healthy amount of reserve (about 1/3 of the homeless are mentally ill). Acknowledge their existence, but avoid eye contact; say “please” and “thank you” as custom dictates; open the door for them; offer the elderly or women among them your seat on public transit; be mindful of them crossing the street (they walk slower than most — many are clinically depressed, and few of them have anywhere to go); and, finally, be ready to call the cops if they are being victimized by others — 911 in case of emergency, 799-3000 for non-emergency calls — violence is a huge part of their existence, and many live in fear (real and imagined) of their very lives.

    Comment by Silus Grok — December 28, 2008 @ 8:43 pm

  32. Saturday the 27th, I got hit up by a pan-handler, just as I opened the door to my car, in the parking lot in front of a business. That should have clued me in right there. They plan that “oops, sorry, I didn’t mean to surprise you” as a way of catching you off guard, and it helps them take control the situation.

    He was holding an open and empty anti-freeze container, and said he needed some money to buy gas to get across town.

    I tried to take control back by saying “Where’s your car?”

    He pointed to a car in the same general parking area, but a few businesses over.

    I told him I didn’t give out money, but I’d buy him some gas, and I offered him a ride to the nearest gas station.

    He didn’t want to go with me (another clue) but said he’d wait here for me.

    I had a gas can in my trunk, so I went and filled it with a gallon of gas.

    I didn’t have much change with me, so I used my credit card at the pump. Not having enough cash for my own needs, also prevented me from my usual schtick of handing the person a $1 bill and a church DVD.

    When I got back, he was nowhere to be found. I waited a couple more minutes, and he still didn’t know.

    I asked at a couple stores in front of where “his” car was parked, and found out it was owned by one of the business owners, whom I had met before. The business-owner’s wife actually told me it was her husband’s car.

    I suppose I should have just given him a DVD, and suggested he try to sell it to the next person.

    Comment by Bookslinger — December 30, 2008 @ 3:54 pm

  33. I’m wondering if our modern dilemma of being hit up by professional beggars is just plain different than what King Benjamin was talking about.

    King Benjamin addresses the issue of whether the beggars “deserve” to be in the situation they are in. But if I remember correctly, he doesn’t even address the possibility that the beggar is just plain lieing about their situation.

    Maybe this con-artist-as-beggar is a more modern thing, and in ancient times, in smaller cities, there was no such animal, or was extremely rare.

    Comment by Bookslinger — December 30, 2008 @ 4:03 pm

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