I have always found the poor difficult. Today I visited Fort Worth, TX and had to refuse two homeless people who approached me. Admittedly I refused the first one because I thought he looked a bit off kilter. After confessing at the cathedral I refused yet another from behind the wheel of my accidentally pretentious car. What do we do with the poor?
Logically I know that the poor of modern America are a different matter from the poor of 1st century Jerusalem. Those poor lived in an intractable socio-economic system worsened by compounding taxes and Roman domination. The poor of Boston and Brooklyn are less often families burdened by debt collectors and more people with mental problems or addictions. Surely this does not discount our duties as Catholics and servants of Christ to do something for these children of God, but giving them alms solves nothing. What will an alcoholic do with $5? Buy a shot-sized bottle of Smirnoff?
A few years ago I took on the policy of not giving the poor money. Judgmental as I sound, I do not trust the average beggar with $1 or $5. I will buy them food, whether they ask for it or not. Never groceries that can be traded, just one warm and hearty meal. Is this enough? Is this helping one's brother? Something I think it comes up short: me determining what someone else needs or is fit to have. Do I have another choice?
As I drove away from that third poor man I felt a sharp cut in my heart, wounding my soul a bit as I rationalized my three refusals. Yes, they logically make sense. Yes, many of us intend to do the right thing. Does this part of Our Lord's charge simply not fit into the modern American economic situation? The Pope clearly wants us to do something to engage the poor, but how? As one blogger said—and the press buried him for it—"The poor are messy." I knew a priest who would give beggars food or a small quantity of cash, but only if they said a prayer for him to his face.