For much of my life, when someone who lives on the street asks me for money, I have faced a moral quandary. On one hand, I am fortunate enough to have the funds to provide the spare change being sought. On the other hand, I have concerns that my spare change will be used for drugs or alcohol, and not for the bus ride or food which the person claims she needs.
Over the past few months, I have developed a new response for these requests for my spare change. Since these requests are usually made in a populated area with retail stores and restaurants nearby, I respond by telling the person that if he is hungry, I will gladly buy him a meal in a nearby restaurant or store. Unfortunately, my skepticism about the use of such funds has often been verified when the person asking for my money refuses my offer to buy him a meal.
However, yesterday, when I stopped to fill up my car with gas, a young man approached me for money for food. I informed him that I needed to finish filling up my car with gas, but if he was hungry and willing to wait until my car’s gas tank was full, I would buy him a meal in the gas station’s convenience store. He patiently waited for me outside the store and when I was done filling my gas tank, I asked him if he wanted to pick out a sandwich and a drink, and he agreed to do so.
Interestingly, when I went in the store with him, both the cashier and the manager asked me if I needed help, but did not ask him. However, they kept a careful eye on him, as I suspected they were concerned he might be a shoplifter, until I informed them that I was going to buy him a sandwich and a drink. Both seemed pleased at my effort. Once I paid for the sandwich and drink, he gladly enjoyed his meal and hopefully for a brief time, was no longer hungry.
In my Jewish upbringing, I was raised with both the concepts of tzedek (justice) and tzedakah (charity), which in Hebrew come from the same root word. My nearly 3 decades as a civil rights attorney have been in the constant pursuit of justice. A recent article discusses the biblical roots of these words and concepts. As the author states:
Tzedek (justice) and tzedakah (charity) are clearly linked, and not only linguistically. At its essence, tzedakah is not about handouts to the poor compelled by pity or obligation; at its core, tzedek is not about deciding disputes in court. Both are about righting the wrongs that are all too pervasive in our world.
Sometimes systems change is personal. Yesterday I found success in providing charity with justice. I hope to find many more such successes as I continue to offer a meal to those who tell me they are hungry.
For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.