In light of the increasingly serious homeless situation in Hong Kong and even here in the US, I want to take a little break from blogging about my book and talk about my own dealings with the homeless. I borrowed the above picture from a friend’s Facebook wall. I wish I knew the original creator because it does ask a profound religious question beyond doing some good for a fellow human being.
Back in Hong Kong, I used to teach a course at the densest square mile on earth (aka Mong Kok area) on a weeknight in a city-center area. When I go to this urban center to teach my course, I always come out of the subway exit where the same crippled gentleman would prostrate himself with his bowl begging for money. The picture always breaks my heart.
As a rule, I try to have proper change ready to give to this man. Some days, I was a little short on change (people do not ride the subway with change in HK; they use the Octopus card). Some other days, I had bills that are way too large. On those days, I just didn’t feel like giving to the poor. After all, I had to feed my family! Now, as a Christian with the heart for the poor, I felt a bit guilty on those days that I failed to give. Soon, I would try my best to have the right change whenever I went to that busy city center so that I could give. This however creates another problem. How much is enough to help the poor person?
I know what people are thinking. Some are saying, “Maybe this person is on drugs.” Perhaps. Others say, “Well, why not give him a large sum instead of a set of spare change?” I admit that I have no answer. Does my family also deserve my hard-earned cash? Why can’t this person go to a homeless shelter? The questions are endless. I admit I still struggle over the amount to give.
Now that I earn a lot less because of my freelancing work (instead of my former institutional salary), I have a lot more excuses. Finance can be really tight sometimes, but surely, I still live a lot better than the majority world. I have come to the conclusion that we simply can’t solve the poverty problem, and we can’t ever get the amount right. However, this does not mean we just give up.
What I’ve learned with the subway giving in HK is that preparedness and intention are both important. Sometimes, Christians mistake the teachings of Matthew 6.1-4 to be equal to having no plan to give alms. Just because we do not necessarily make a public showing of alms-giving, it doesn’t mean we do not prepare. In fact, being unprepared is the biggest excuse I can give myself, “I don’t have the exact change. The amount I have is too large. I have no cash.” The excuses can be a mile long. I find myself identifying more with the poor when I actually have them on my mind when I get ready to head out to work with the right amount. I find myself trying to make sure I have enough to give. To me, this is what it means to identify with the poor. We have to have them in mind before we can contribute to the solution rather than ignoring the problem.
Problems are manifold! I’ve also heard the appalling story that some beggars in HK are from mainland China where they were deliberately amputated since childhood (many were kidnapped) by the underworld to beg for money. In other words, these are beggar gangs controlled by the Chinese mafia. The money goes back to the mafia baddies. I totally understand that. However, would withholding the alms be a better option? Is such cynicism even part of the Judeo-Christian wisdom tradition (e.g. Proverbs)? Would I know which one is in real need and which one is not? No! That is the catch. I’d rather err on the side of generosity than cruelty. I believe the biblical spirit also errs on the side of generosity. I don’t want to judge the person in need. Who knows what his life story is? Who am I to judge that story? God has given me something that I can use to bless others. That is what I know.
What am I saying? Certainly, generosity is not without tension, but intention is more important than the tension. I know of a group of young people in Hong Kong that intentionally gather together to help the poor in the best way they can. I’m friends with many of them. They too have careers and jobs; they too are busy, but they gather with intention and preparedness on many occasions to give money and spend time with the poor in the name of the gospel. I think both intention and preparedness are more important than tension and judgmental speculation. Sow as you go! Live generously! Be kind! More importantly, be prepared. Who knows how God would bless someone because of what we’ve done?