March 9, 2008

Being rich

One of the defining facts of life here is that I have more money than the vast majority of people I encounter on a daily basis. Even by my standards, my $500 monthly stipend is the most I’ve ever earned in my life, though that says more about my career choices to date than the amount I earn. People see my white skin and seem to assume that I’m made of money. At least that’s the conclusion I draw from the fact that virtually everyone seems to ask me for money.

This is not a new experience for me but what is new is how frequent the requests are and how I’m supposed to be the one to save the day. When a panhandler in Chicago asked me for money, I could always say no and reason some rich businessman had more money to help out than I did. But here the line is pretty clear, I’ve got money and they definitely don’t. They need it but so do I. But do I need as much as I have? And do they really need the money?

Some requests are easy to deal with. When I am walking around Itipini, stumbling men will invariably ask for “just two rand, boss, I’m hungry” while standing just outside a shebeen, or bar. It’s nice when life presents us with such morally clear choices – I say no and keep walking. On the flip side, Mkuseli, our after-school program director, asked me for money so his wife could go to college to study to become a social worker. Even though this is a lot more than two rand, I was happy to do so because I know his wife and she is a talented and hard-working woman. While the family has the resources to pay for their needs, something like this was out of reach unless they got some significant assistance. Very occasionally, women in Itipini will ask me to help them buy some groceries for a special occasion and I’m generally happy to help because I know the women and trust them to do what they say they will.

It’s the vast grey area in between that causes so much consternation. The young men who help with my groceries or watch my car will often ask for more money than what I tip them because they’re “so hungry.” I’ve already paid them what I think is right but what harm does a little more do to my wallet? And they did work for it after all. There’s all kinds of street children – intensely dirty, wearing ripped clothes, sadly forlorn – who are always asking for money “for bread, boss, I’m hungry.” I hate to see children look so pathetic and I’m sure they’re hungry but will the money go to bread? Or does it go for another high?

Lots of communities urge you to give money to charitable organizations instead of supporting begging; in the abstract I’m inclined to agree this a good idea. But I give my entire workday to a charitable organization that is in part dedicated to alleviating hunger and it hasn’t helped me feel any better about ignoring a request for money. The children in particular here can be immensely persistent in their begging and it is extraordinarily difficult to say no to a child who trails after you, saying, “boss! boss? hey boss, bread, boss, I’m hungry, boss?” and then just stands next to your window and stares at you as you get in your car. No charity is ever going to help every street child and there’s no way to avoid them all the time.

The other thing about the wealth differential is that it adds a new level to a conversation. I now expect most serious conversations to include some sort of request for money, though it is often carefully veiled. Even Mkuseli, when he first approached me, began by talking about how his wife couldn’t find a job and wanted to go to school but didn’t have the money and “if only we had the money…”. It wasn’t that hard to put the dots together. When a street peddler offers to sell me something and I turn him down, that doesn’t end the transaction. He’ll just say, “please then just give me some rand, I’m hungry.” Even though it looks like he has a job, he’s not all that far removed from begging. When someone wants to talk to me, I now assume that it is not because they want to know how I am or what I did last night but because they want my help and money. This makes conversations incredibly exhausting because I’m always listening and waiting for the request that is sure to come and gauging whether or not to say yes and how I’ll say no if I have to.

These split-second situational ethics are challenging but need to be resolved. Some people come up with blanket rules – “I’ll never support begging” – but that doesn’t seem quite fair because each situation is different and, if these people considered the issue honestly, they’d realize that they make exceptions all the time. I often end up thinking, “Gee, it’s a shame this person is reduced to begging and there should really be a better support system in place so they don’t have to do this but there isn’t, though I am here to help create one so maybe I’d better save my money for that.” It’s a complicated rationalization, all made while I keep walking past the beggar, that generally ends with me not giving any money but feeling good that I’ve considered the “bigger picture” here. The trouble is when you’re begging, your “picture” is no bigger than the hole in your stomach.

It is also tremendously easy to blame those who ask for their own state. Some young men using our gym in Itipini a while back asked me for money and my initial reaction was to yell, “if you have time to work out, don’t you have time to work?” before realizing there might not be work to be had and working out might just be a way to kill time. I try to avoid this trap because it doesn’t help anyone but I find myself using it as a mental justification for saying no every now and again: “well, if only he’d stayed in school and worked hard, he wouldn’t be in this situation.” Yes, but what if he made a few bad decisions along the way? Should we punish him for the rest of his life for them? And isn’t renewal and re-birth a central idea of my faith? I’m here to help with that renewal and setting him back on a right path but the benefits of that path are in the far distance and the hunger is now.

In the Baptismal Covenant we pledge to respect the “dignity of every human being” and it’s worth remembering (though difficult) that even the dirty beggars who make our stomachs turn have a dignity as well. But sometimes people just won’t take no for answer and the only way to show them you’re not going to give them money is to ignore them. Indeed, if I start talking to someone, they’ll take that as a good sign and beg more persistently. It feels awful – and completely not in keeping with the Baptismal Covenant – to ignore “the least of these.”

This is clearly an important concern of missionaries around the world and my fellow missionaries and friends have been writing about it – Matt in Grahamstown, who only wrote about it in an e-mail (I thought about just stealing his thoughts and posting them as my own they’re so good), Sarah, also in Grahamstown, and Harry in Jerusalem.

(Here’s an interesting coda: yesterday, after this post was written, I was at the beach, having a picnic, and a young man offered to watch my car, to which I happily agreed. At the end of the day, he came asking for money and I gave him the leftover food from our picnic, two egg salad sandwiches. He looked heartbroken and said, “please, boss, just five rand for…” and trailed off. Usually, this line would finish with “for bread” but he was holding bread in his hand. He realized what had happened and started looking flustered and said, “at least one rand for…” but couldn’t finish the sentence. I said what I had given him was worth more than 5 rand – that’s true – and he’d better start eating, which he did, with a somewhat glum look on his face, as I drove away.)