"Will you help the poor tonight?"
Rummaging through some old papers recently I turned up an article first written for a (very good) local neighbourhood paper, Fitzrovia News, and published in the autumn of 2012. I’d completely forgotten about it, but on re-reading think it merits a re-visit; so here is what I wrote six years ago followed by what I think of it now.
Seldom a day goes by around here when someone doesn’t ask for money. Most follow the soft route to your wallet through narratives of illness, bereavement, bad luck, bad upbringing or bad vibes. Others comes straight out with it, sometimes asking euphemistically for what’s called ‘change,’ whilst the bolder, more desperate ones just say, ‘Gis us ten quid.’ I don’t blame anyone for inventing or embroidering any personal story they can, or even making the whole thing up.
In the street you can slip past but caught in the aisle, with the altar of God glittering in the background, is an altogether different and more troubling place; and this was the background to a two-day encounter recently.
Coming into the Church he looked at first like one of the many tourist visitors we often get - jeans and a T-shirt, back pack slung over the shoulder. hair this side of wild, looking around and taking in the place. ‘Is it time for prayer?’ ‘Yes.’ Then he says, ‘Would you like me to pray with you?’ How could I refuse? Yet I hesitated long enough to discourage him. ‘I’m waiting for someone else to come,’ I said, which was true, though in fact they never turned up. There was a pause while I fussed over the books and he, looking directly at me, said, ‘Do you help the poor in this Church?’ I had barely begun to stammer through some kind of unsatisfactory reply when I realised there was a sub-text to this question, which was ‘Will you help me?’ and then a sub-sub text, ‘Will you give me some money.’ The answer to the last question was ‘No,’ and to the second question, ‘I would like to , but have no idea how,’ but it was the first question that really struck home.
I thought I’d got off lightly until the same person appeared the next night at the same time and with a repeat scene of the night before, except this time his question was even more pointed: ‘Will you help the poor tonight?’ He could tell by my face what my answer was, and I could tell by his face what he thought of me and us. I’ve not seen him again. The mind reels with poignant ancient texts like, ‘And who is my neighbour?’ and ‘If you give to one of the least of these,’ and ‘The poor you have always with you.’ All of us - even the most hard-hearted - must grapple with our conscience over our friends in the streets. Underneath all our reasoning, the level of human need is acute, and seems to be growing yet again month-by-month. At some point in our lives we must be generous, which is why I am only too happy to share this question with you!’
And now  . . . I am at once reminded of an incident one morning on the tube back in August. The carriage was fairly full and along came a young man speaking to the whole carriage about his hardships and could anyone help him with some money. Unlike most of us, who react as if we have not heard or seen anything and hope he will soon go away, the tall, burly man sitting opposite tensed up and shouted out, ‘Why don’t you get a job?’ To this the young man at once stopped, turned to face him, with the beginnings of anger on his face; ‘It’s all right for you to . . . ‘ ‘Get a job!’ ‘I would if I could but . . .’ ‘Get out of here, look at you . . .’ Within seconds they had begun to square up to each other (though the young man wouldn’t have had a chance); we had not even reached the next station. Just beneath the surface lie all these frustrations which are so easily exposed. The young man shuffled off, I’m pleased to say, we all breathed a sigh of relief. Then we heard him further down the corridor: ‘Do you help the poor on this carriage?’ (No, he didn’t say that).
We still see beggars at St Giles, but fewer. Over the years I have learned that there are many ways to say, ‘No.’ Sometimes I get caught out as, recently, when a man carrying all his worldly goods came up to me, and I was certain he was going to ask for money and braced myself to say ‘No’ as nicely as I could, when all he said was, ‘Have you got a biro?’ He wanted to write down his sister’s name in our prayer book at the back of the church; and he did and went away!
But looking back these six years I realise that (apart from the derisory ten pounds now being at least twenty pounds - I have been asked for much more) the focus of attention has shifted from the challenges of the itinerant poor to those of the badly-behaved addicts (drugs, not alcohol) who roam the neighbourhood at will, unconcerned by trivial, conventional matters like breaking the law (laws are for other people), and whose manner of life is unpredictable and precarious; those who, having lost everything (including all claims on self-respect), have nothing left to lose. Sometimes they too, in passing and almost as an afterthought, ask for money, but to them the conscience finds it much easier to say, ‘Non.’
But not only has the clientele changed but so also, I realise, have I. Have I become less caring? Perhaps: though it troubles me to say it, perhaps I have.
Some of this comes from the sheer repetition of the brief drama of the beggar’s sales pitch, how they will often want to shake hands first (always a sure sign of what is to follow) and me just wondering how long it will take to get the encounter over with. When someone says they are hungry I offer to walk them to a local café and buy them a meal, but even hungry people don’t seem to want real food instead of hard currency. You will say that I should listen more and you may be right, but the moral blade can quickly become blunt when it strikes repeatedly against the stone of affliction.
Sometimes this comes from the simple, vaguely un-Christian thought, ‘Why should I?’ or, better, ‘Why me? Why ask me? Why not ask someone else, someone better off than me?’ I suppose being asked is a strange kind of recognition that here in a church the supplicant is most likely to be heard and to ‘score’ than elsewhere, given as we are prone to this weakness to help others, so that my customary ‘No’ should really be prefaced by ‘Well thank you for asking, but . . . No.’ I’m not very proud of this either and would like to be endlessly giving, like the proverbial saints of old, but even they must have had an off-day, surely. Compassion becomes a heavy load when carried on the slender frame of faith.
Sometimes it comes from a kind of helplessness - my own, not theirs - a helplessness that knows that there is absolutely nothing that I can do or could ever do to improve the lives of those who have reached rock bottom. A whole system of economics guided by well-paid economists has failed to provide; an army of business leaders and board room executives with country houses and off-shore assets has failed to provide; a galaxy of blue, red and amber politicians from the meritocracy (or it is the new aristocracy?) have failed to provide; so what chance me with my slim wallet and uneasy ethics, what chance that anything I can do will make a difference to this person standing in front of me? None, as far as I can see.
And then again, looking back these six years, I sometimes feel trapped in the underground carriage of the have’s and have not’s. I never thought of myself as one of those who ‘had,’ but apparently this has somehow come to pass. One morning I caught a young man asleep on the landing leading up to the south gallery and abruptly woke him up. He was none too pleased. ‘You’ve broken in’ I cried. ‘But it’s a church,’ he said. (In fact he applied a couple of zesty adjectives to the word ‘church,’ but we’ll let that pass). So it was that I found myself playing the part of an annoyed employer catching out a trespasser and demanding that he left the premises (though when he then asked me if I had a charger for his phone all sympathy quickly evaporated away!). The one who does not beg becomes a Pharisee; the one who is not poor becomes a spend-thrift; the one who is housed becomes a property owner, whether they like it or not.
And still the poor are with us, those ghostly remnants of the Rookeries. God knows we would have it differently. Yet I must confess to a kind of liberty that comes from acknowledging that there is nothing realistic that I can do for the man or woman who stands in front of me and asks: ‘Will you help the poor tonight?’ I ought to say ‘Yes’ but usually prefer the harsh honesty of ‘No’ though, indeed, I do sometimes give money but not so much from a desire to exercise Christian charity as to end the conversation, so that giving money becomes a kind of ‘No’ as well. ‘I will not help the poor tonight, but here’s ten quid anyway.’ What a bind we are all in. The poor can read our minds and delve into our consciences; they know us better than we know ourselves. We give ten quid because we’ve been rumbled, found out. They (there we are again: ‘they’ and ‘us’) don’t feel so very much better and nor do we.
The article six years ago was headed something like ‘Awkward questions.’ Though the years have passed and some circumstances have changed, this has remained constant. I commend and am full of admiration for those who patrol the streets of our city in the dead of night to search out the lost and fallen and seek to close the gap between ‘them’ and ‘us.’ I can only hope and pray that they will always have the resources they need. Meanwhile I will continue to stand before the visitor and hear him ask, ‘Will you help the poor tonight?’