Everyday he stands in front of the Double Red Rose, one of three small grocers in town. His head is too big for his body, and his legs are twisted and misshapen. He limps slowly as he approaches those who enter the store. He speaks quietly — I’m not sure if he’s timid or embarrassed, shy or afraid. He’s never asked me for money, but every time I see him he whispers his request for food. One of the clerks at Double Red Rose tells me he’s homeless and usually sleeps in front of the shop. I ask if many people help him; the answer is “not many.” The ladies next door are cooking in the dirt over charcoal in front of their “restaurant.” They tell me the boy’s dad has never been around, and his mom passed away some time ago. They also report that he smokes pot when he has an extra hundred shillings (about eight cents), and they point to where he buys it. His name is Steve. He can’t be a year over 14, and he’s just one of the beggars I see and know in Geita.
When I lived in downtown Nashville, I was often asked for money. My roommates and I devised a set of “guidelines.” In short, we were not, under any circumstance, to give money — but food, or a ride, or even a bus ticket was okay. We were never to drive anyone anywhere alone. I often found myself explaining that I couldn’t give money, but would be happy to buy a meal. Some complained that I didn’t trust them. Others changed — in the middle of our conversation — the reason for their request from “I’m hungry” to “I need to buy diapers for my family.” I’d offer to buy the diapers, as they walked away grumbling. There were some who seemed grateful for the offer of a meal, and I’d agree to meet them in ten minutes with food. When I’d return, having bought a combo meal from McDonalds, they’d be nowhere in sight. But there were always a few who waited patiently for my return, or accompanied us to a restaurant — and were no longer hungry… for that one day.
I’ve read that some of the guys with signs on interstate exit ramps make over $300 a day, “working” less than eight hours.
I’ve been approached by the same guy in the same gas station, telling the same sad story, two weeks after he yelled at me for offering food in place of money.
I’ve had kids in China cling to my leg with one hand while holding their plastic bowl for coins in the other. And I knew their pimp was watching the performance from only a few meters away. I also knew the children wouldn’t receive any money I gave. I offered food, and they refused to eat, maybe knowing they’d be beaten if they did?
More people ask me for money in Tanzania than anywhere else I’ve been. There is Steve, but he is only one of many. My electrician asks me for extra money; so does the guy doing my masonry work. My friends ask me for loans that I know will never be repaid. The bicycle taxi guys ask for sodas, as do the vendors who sell sodas. Teenagers come by the house with petitions, trying to raise enough money for their school fees. The only English many children know is, “Give me my money.” Even my landlord, on a day he was frustrated with my decisions concerning the house, asked me for 20,000 shillings for his trouble, so that he and some friends could go out to dinner.
And Jesus says, “Give to everyone who asks you.”
I have struggled a lot with giving and generosity. And I still struggle. Christie and I have agreed if we ever cease to struggle with this issue, we will promptly remove ourselves from the mission field. But we have limited funds to share with others. And we know many don’t actually need the help for which they’re asking. They would use our money to buy alcohol or pot. Most will ask us for money again the next day, whether we give today or not. Sometimes a beggar will walk past a dozen Tanzanians, asking them for nothing — in order to ask us for money. And some things we’re asked for are not within our power, ability, or pocketbooks to give — such as passage to the U.S., a full year’s worth of school fees, or our truck.
But Jesus says, “Give to everyone who asks you.”
I don’t have all the answers to these problems. But, as shallow as my feet are planted in the soil of my decisions, and as uncomfortable as it makes me, I’ve attempted to determine a place to stand concerning these issues. Over the next week or so, I intend to “publish” my conclusions, though I view them more as starting blocks than finish lines. I will post many of my thoughts in the form of 3-column Bible studies, because I believe the process through which I’ve come is at least as meaningful as the decisions it has prompted.
If you care to join me in these studies, the first passage will be Psalm 112.