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The London Institute for Contemporary Christianity

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On Panhandling, School Meals, and Smart Charity

The teen winds her way up the snaking carriages on the London tube, strategically placing slips of paper next to unsuspecting passengers. Not wanting to shift and draw attention, I strained to read the upside-down all-caps.

Seemingly, she was poor and hungry, throwing herself on the mercy of strangers to get through another day. ‘GOD BLESS FOR YOUR HELP’ it solicited.

What does it mean to be a whole-life disciple, passing by pandemic poverty? Admittedly, I’m torn.

This was panhandling, outlawed by authorities. She had energy to walk the carriages, so couldn’t she expend value-adding labour without hassling commuters? Didn’t Paul say, ‘no work, no eat’ (2 Thessalonians 3:10)?

Besides, many warn that cash without accountability can ‘kill with kindness’, reinforcing the poverty-cycle. Jesus commanded ‘giving to all who ask’ (Luke 6:30-31), but surely he didn’t mean funding a possible addiction, thereby harming a fellow image-bearer?

Still, I squirmed at the inner collision of scepticism toward anyone asking for my cash, with a conscience that asked if she truly was a neighbour in need.

What if she was one of over four million UK kids – 17% of all children – facing food poverty? Was she, too, left with a grumbling stomach, despite Marcus Rashford’s best strike at securing free school meals in the holiday break? Politics aside, I too wonder: ‘can we not all agree that no child should be going to bed hungry?’

Whether it comes through government, council, business or individual donations, almost all judge a healthy feed to be a solid investment. It’s perhaps the most responsible £30 million debt to carry, for ‘mercy to the needy is a loan to God, and God pays back those loans in full’ (Proverbs 19:17).

How easy, though, to reduce this girl on the train to an inconvenient statistic, a problem that ‘they’ must solve, rather than a person God calls me to love.

In the moment, I failed even to acknowledge her presence. Later, I pursued regular giving to a community doing life with those in need, holistically extending a hand-up rather than a hand-out. Even so, I still pocket coins ready to follow the Spirit’s leading. To look my neighbour in the eyes, and – when prompted – buy her a meal and hear her story. To simply be kind while she passes by, occasionally dropping a quid in the hat.

Whatever your response, following Jesus is costly, and rarely calculating. Smart charity or not, upside-down love – not self-protection – must mark my way. Agreed?

Dave Benson
Director, Centre for Culture & Discipleship


  1. AGREED. In the moment, we are called to be kind to an equal. There for the grace of God goes me, and you.

    By Ruth  -  30 Oct 2020
  2. I tend now to carry with me instant pots of pasta or rice which only need boiling water as I feel uncomfortable giving cash as it may fuel addiction

    By Nichola Glasse  -  30 Oct 2020
    • Wonderfully practical response Nichola, thanks for sharing

      By Dave Benson  -  30 Oct 2020
  3. “To look my neighbour in the eyes, and – when prompted – buy her a meal and hear her story. To simply be kind while she passes by…”
    Can’t argue with that Dave. I love your description of this person as my neighbour passing by – the fact that she has a story I know nothing about. How much do we make huge assumptions about why people do what they do?

    Am moved! Thank you.

    By Tim S  -  30 Oct 2020
    • Thanks Tim. Today was a rare commuting day into central London. Asking God for extra attentive eyes to truly see people as he does. For me, slowing down to notice, and making space in my schedule (not gleaning to the edge of my time and energy) is the greatest challenge. Keen to better practice patience. Blessings as you live this out today on your frontline.

      By Dave Benson  -  30 Oct 2020
  4. Agreed. I was challenged a few years ago by someone who commented how hard it must be for people like this, that no-one ever looks them in the eye. Since then, I try to look someone in the eye and talk to them, even just a few words, and help as seems wise in the circumstances. The reaction when one does this is amazing and enough encourgement to keep doing it.

    By Susanna Hinton  -  30 Oct 2020
    • Thanks Susanna, such a simple action yet so meaningful. I can’t imagine how much more ‘isolated’ those who are on the streets or asking for help feel in lockdown with social isolation. One person told me they literally couldn’t remember the last time they had a hug or kind touch. Mental health struggles are almost universal for those begging.

      By Dave Benson  -  30 Oct 2020
  5. This is a really difficult one for me. So many times people come to the church door and ask for a handout and of course, since I want the church to be seen in a good light I have always given generously. Until the requests became far too frequent. I have since found that many who say they need money for electricity, gas, and the like instead spend the money on alcohol, cigarettes, etc. I’ve since decided I’ll only give through organizations directly helping the poor. I know some who need my help will drop through the cracks, but what can I do?

    By Tade Agbesanwa  -  30 Oct 2020
    • Tade, thank you for sharing so vulnerably; I can hear your heart of love, and tension in conscience wanting to be a good steward … much as I experienced that day on the train.

      Yes, I think the best principle is giving through frontline groups in relationship with those on the streets, and then making space to pray and follow the Spirit’s leading in everyday encounters. Whatever, though, moves these encounters from transactional to relational is key, giving and receiving love.

      I had the privilege today of spending half an hour in London sharing lunch with a 53 year old gentleman, Andy, who has been on the streets for 3 years. He said that only once a month would he have a real conversation with “a member of the general public”. Generally he’s ignored, avoided or treated as a problem. He said that money or not, just being acknowledged and kindly treated was so important to him, to feel human and not ostracised (his word, not mine.)

      Perhaps recommending the best services to connect with, offering tangible non-monetary help like socks, and asking if they have time for a warm cup of soup and a chat to hear how they’re going and get to know them a bit better, is the most loving gift you can share?

      After a great conversation, Andy was thankful for me praying a twenty second blessing over him, and invited me to stop by his ‘place’ anytime 🙂

      God bless as you discern, guilt free, what response aligns with your call in this ‘unprecedented’ time.

      By Dave Benson  -  30 Oct 2020
  6. Such a practical yet difficult issue to consider… I come through Central station in Brisbane Australian most work days and although I don’t see panhandling on the trains I often pass by people with signs asking for money at the entrance to the station. I’ve no simple answers, I’ve done everything from ignoring them to long-term relationships and helping them to connect with local services. While there are no simple answers I appreciated this chance to thoughtfully put this everyday issue through the grid of our faith. Thanks Dave

    By Gail Smith  -  31 Oct 2020
    • Thanks for sharing, Gail. Like you shared, I wonder if part of our problem is looking for a singular (silver-bullet) ‘answer’ to the ‘problem’ of poverty that I as an individual must discern and enact? The body of Christ has many members (and organ[isation]s) at work. So, maybe it’s more about being in touch with the other parts of the body, forming a repertoire of potential responses, and then being open to the Spirit’s leading for a response to a particular person (rather than problem) as we’re going about our everyday mission? Not sure that makes it any clearer, but it sounds a lot like what you’ve done over the years.

      By Dave Benson  -  1 Nov 2020
  7. There are some disabled & elderly folk who need help. They are too infirmed or disabled to get to the shops. Lots have no access to the Web or technology. They need our help with buying what they need. They too need a friendly chat. Some go week after week without a cheerful word. I worry how many bodies will be found when all this is over where dear souls have starved to death because no one knows they need help.
    I try to keep in contact with various people by different means to make sure they are ok. If l cant help them l will contact someone who can. Sometimes they just need to know they are loved ,& thought about, but sometimes its help with other things, like nuisance calls on the middle of the night.
    Also a little surprise gift never goes amiss either.

    By Eileen Walker  -  8 Nov 2020
    • Thank you for raising the plight of this most needy group, Eileen, and suggesting simple ways to show we care in the everyday.

      By Dave Benson  -  8 Nov 2020

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