I thought this subject was worth a write-up. In Bothell, most of our friends are all approximately in the similar income range and in general no one feels extremely wealthy. In China, it’s difficult not to notice that you’re in the top 1% of the income bracket. (If you make more than $48k, you’re in the top 1%)
Perhaps it is because of this obviousness of the wealth distribution, that this topic has been lingering in my mind.
In general, I rarely give handouts to those that are asking for it. I am aware of the Sermon on the Mount Matthew 5:42 – Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away.
I have to admit that turning down a solicitation is not comfortable for me. But, there’s something that prevents me from giving freely. In the States, I thought it was because I was afraid of being suckered or tricked. Whenever I’ve been in a situation where someone aggressively asked for money, usually someone around me will say that they will just use it to buy alcohol, smokes, drugs, etc. Or that they look completely capable of working and that he should be working rather than begging us for our hard earned money. I’ve never been completely satisfied with those types of justifications, but as I’ve said, I rarely make it a practice to give to those that ask. I think my justification has been that there’s food banks and shelters that take care of the poor, and a donation to these institutions is money better spent. Tenille and I do make it a practice to set aside a percentage of our income so that we can be very deliberate about our charitable giving. Sometimes, organizations like the Seattle Gospel Mission make it on our list… sometimes they don’t. But, this controlled, deliberate giving does not always relieve me of the guilt I feel after I’ve turned away someone that asks me for charity.
Here in China, most people are probably poorer than those that we would consider “in poverty” in the U.S. I don’t think they necessarily see themselves as poor. You see them on their bikes, setting up shop on a corner and cooking up sausages or steaming corn for the subway rush. You see thousands and thousands of migrant workers that have come from the rural villages to work as waitresses, cleaning ladies, guards, factory workers, etc. There are so many enterprising people here, trying their best to make ends meet. I’ve started a small project to try and take pictures of all the entrepreneurial folks I see. At first I was a bit shy about getting in someone’s face and taking their picture. But, I’m slowly starting to get over my shyness. People on the subway certainly are not shy about taking pictures of our babies with their cell phone cameras. So, I figure culturally, it’s not too creepy.
Amidst all these people hustling and bustling, now and then, we’ll run into the truly poor. These are women carrying their infants wrapped up in blankets and begging for money in the freezing cold. An old lady with her forehead on the sidewalk and her hand outstretched for change. A lame man with a sign around his neck dragging himself with his hands through the subway begging for change. Children, maybe between 5 and 10 years old, with dirty faces and dirty, torn clothes pressing their face and hands against the taxi window begging for money.
They are not going to buy drugs. They are clearly not capable of working. Very likely, they will take the money I would give them and buy something to eat. Maybe for themselves. Maybe for their children. I’ve turned some away and it has really bothered me. Because I truly have no excuse. And one day, I sat and thought to myself if I knew for a fact that the money I was giving was going to feed the person I was giving it to, would I give it? My initial reaction was that I can’t possibly help everyone. But, everyone hasn’t asked. In my entire time in China, I’ve probably been asked less than 10 times. And I’m counting the times where they haven’t really asked me directly, but I saw that they were clearly in need. My hot lunch costs me about 8 Yuan in the Microsoft Basement. Giving enough money for a hot meal to everyone that has asked so far would probably be less than $15. And if I project that out to a year, that’s maybe $60. And even if I did give that much at every opportunity, and I was asked what percentage of my income I spent in the last year providing for the hungry that has asked me directly, my answer would be to my shame.
It’s coming to my realization, that it’s not really about the person asking, or their intent with the charity. There’s something in me that needs to be fixed. People pay thousands of dollars so that they’re no longer fat. What do I need to pay so that my heart is no longer hardened against the poor?