What Would Jesus Do?

It takes about 10 minutes to walk from our apartment on Connecticut Ave past all the neighborhood retail stores near us. This afternoon the wind was howling at 25-30 miles per hour, ushering in a cold front that will bring temperatures down to the teens followed by what is now described as a major snow event on Sunday. The wind chill must have been in the low 30s.

I passed by eight panhandlers, squatting on the sidewalk, spread out among the various stores,—seven men and one woman, all shivering, all African Americans. Hands extended, holding  paper cups, they all looked up at me as I passed by, saying the same thing, “Could you help, got any change? Please, please, mister.”

I passed by every one of them and did not look them in the eye or reach for my wallet. To make matters even worse, I had just stopped by the liquor store and was carrying in a bag a bottle of scotch.

Panhandling is not unusual in Washington. When I used to walk to work downtown, I occasionally would count the number of people I would pass who were begging, which usually was in the double digits, occasionally in the twenties. Passing by and not making eye contact is nothing new for me, but for some reason, this time it got to me. Maybe it was the bitter cold or the fact that on this day there were so many in our neighborhood. Sometimes I have given them money, most of the time I haven’t.

As I passed the last panhandler, I had the image of me standing in front of a bearded Saint Peter at the Pearly Gate, asking me, “Ok, Mr. Howell, what did you do on that windy, cold day in Washington, when you passed eight desperate people pleading for a little change?”

So what are we bleeding hearts supposed to do anyway? How can we pass by a desperate stranger and turn a cold shoulder? But we do. I do it all the time. But to fork out money every time is crazy. That is all I would be doing, giving out money every day. Nobody does that.

“But, Saint Peter, you have got to understand,” I envisioned my reply. “There are so many of these people. Sure, I could afford a dollar here and a dollar there, but it all seems so hopeless. And besides I do all kind of volunteer work in affordable housing and supporting nonprofit organizations that help the poor. Embry and I have given a lot of money to all kinds of charities. I have tried in my own way to support structural change in our society to level the playing field. We are even church goers. Hey, I am a loyal Democrat, does that count? How much more is expected of me?”

“Just do what Jesus would have done,” he replied.

Doomed, I concluded.

Surely, Jesus would have helped every one of these poor people. But, I wondered, what would helping them mean? Just giving a quarter here and a dollar there is certainly not the answer. I could hear myself shouting at the Old Guy, “What is wrong with this world? Why is there so much poverty in a land where there is so much wealth? Why do we humans treat each other so badly? Why is there hate and greed? Why is there racism? Isn’t this the human condition? Isn’t this the world we live in? And whose fault is that? Who created this mess in the first place?”

“Enough from you, Mr. Howell. I told you once and I will say it again: Do what Jesus would have done.”

And so we humans stumble through life doing, in our view, the best we can, realizing that it is not enough, not nearly enough. But that does not mean we should stop trying. And who knows, when the Old Guy at the Pearly Gate looks at the ledger, maybe the pluses will outweigh the minuses, as we have tried feebly to make our way in this glorious but troubled world.




11 thoughts on “What Would Jesus Do?

  1. This is my department, Joe, and I’ll tell you what Jesus would do; he’d challenge us to challenge “the system”. Yes we can and do chip in to charities which themselves challenge the system. Right now, here in the UK, the challenge is to persuade folk that Boris Johnson has got to go.And his cronies with him. The sooner the better. We can all do our bit, and the bits add up – but it’s the system that needs changing. And right now the system is crooked – rich getting richer poor, poorer.

    Sorry; you’ve got me on a roll. Tomorrow’s sermon, maybe???!

    1. It is your department, Rev, and you are correct. The system must change though I also must add that this does not get us off the hook to do our part of individual acts of kindness.

  2. Good story. Joe. Real dilemma. I’ve got a book for you (and Embry). It’s called Activist by KK Ottessen. There are a lot of real heroes out there.

  3. Joe, you and Embry are the most giving, thoughtful, charitable people we know! That even you could feel rattled about this is striking. I guess there’s always more we feel we could do, even for those who already do so much.

    What I have heard experts say is it’s better to give generously to reputable charities to help those in need than to give to random individuals on the street. The reasoning being that it is more likely that the assistance will get to those who truly need it in ways that can demonstrably help.

    For example, giving to a soup kitchen or shelter will surely get nourishing food and housing to people who need it, whereas giving to a panhandler could end up being directed towards alcohol, cigarettes, or drugs. Of course that’s far from everybody, but one reason for hesitation for me personally is because it’s hard to know and assess circumstances for those we don’t know.

    One idea might be to print out sheets with addresses/maps and phone numbers of nearby food banks, kitchens, and shelters and give those to people on the street instead. That way, helping to be a connector of local resources with folks who could benefit from them, and letting the organizations you support do their good work.

  4. Oh gosh, Joe— thank you so much for expressing these thought and doubts for all of us. It’s beautiful.

    I think the emotion and question you so eloquently and humbly describe must be at the heart of who you are – must be the driving force behind your life’s ambition and work.

    Uncle Joe, I don’t personally know anyone who has done more than you and Mimy to help fellow humans in need. In my view, by all that you have done and do everyday, and of course by donating to and taking leadership positions at organisations that assist others, you ARE helping each and every one.

    We can always do more to help those less fortunate— that is the lesson that I take from this post and from admiring and being grateful for you!

  5. Joe,
    We’ve all been there, in your place, that is. What would Jesus have us do? Sell all we have and give it to the poor. That’s chapter and verse. That’s also why we Presbyterians pray for forgiveness and confess our sins in the Prayer of Confession every Sunday.
    I don’t give money to panhandlers. I did once and watched as he pocketed the money and drove off without buying the gas he had said he needed to get to his first day on a new job.
    I sometimes offer to buy them a fast food meal instead and have yet to be taken up on it, the preference being for money. I have never felt good after one of these encounters.


    1. Always appreciate your wise counsel and solid thinking. And while I remain a bit of an outlier regarding Christian orthodoxy, I do agree that confessions are in order, not only for Presbyterians, but even for us Episcopalians, albeit a hard pill to swallow for many of us.
      But I have to agree: We humans are not perfect. Never have been, never will be. And back to the Old Guy at the Pearly Gate: How come THAT is the case?

  6. Joe,
    Without doubt, you and Embry are caring and giving souls. The guilt you described was palpable. I have felt it. And I have given. But why? To assuage my own guilt? We do more good by helping charities and supporting systems that help those in need. You know this better than anyone. Yet, even you feel this guilt. So, if you can have those same feelings, than I imagine it is ok for me to have those, but not to give. Instead, I can pledge to myself to volunteer more, give more to charities, and to speak out against social injustice. That may not “feel as good” as dropping a $5 into a cup, but it is the best thing to do. Thanks for making me feel that it is ok to walk by and not give into the guilt and give.

    1. Thanks, John. You measure up on this count as well as any of us and are an inspiration to many. No need for guilt on your side though if we are paying attention, most of us can’t avoid it.

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