by William Ardill
Responding appropriately to requests for money, especially from desperately poor beggars on the streets, is one of a missionary’s most difficult problems.
- As you leave the airport, they come running. They often grab you or offer an outstretched, limp hand and a pleading look. You feel compelled to give something, and yet, with so many, you don’t want to cause a riot.
- A few days after you arrive, you are confronted with a stranger at dinnertime asking if he could discuss an important matter. You ask him to come in and sit down. After all the introductions, you discover that he is asking for a loan for $500 to build a house.
- A month into your ministry, a young Christian coworker asks for help with his daughter’s school fees, which are only about $50 for the semester.
- Your housekeeper is late to work one morning, and you hear from a neighbor that she has taken her child to the hospital. He has malaria and needs $20 for the medicine. Can you help?
Responding appropriately to requests for money, especially from desperately poor beggars on the streets, is one of a missionary’s most difficult problems. Ignorant of the culture, we hand out money, only to discover that the amount we gave was enormous, or the person had asked the neighbors and received from them as well, or the whole thing was a scam. Faced with our own relative wealth, our decisions are often based on guilt. Of course, we need to remember that no matter how much we give, some people will always be poor. How then can we respond as individuals to the needy around us?
Below are some guidelines based on the cultural differences between the West and the developing world, and some practical suggestions.
We have discovered that many Africans are not ashamed to ask for anything. What seems to us a preposterous request is not considered out of order or unreasonable. By asking for the whole moon, they hope they’ll get a little piece of it. They don’t expect you to give them all they ask for, just something. So don’t be caught off guard by wild requests. You can partially satisfy their need and still feel good about helping.
Saying “No.” Remember that it is harder for you to say “No” than it is for them to hear “No.” We feel guilty saying “No” to a legitimate need, but they have usually already asked others and have heard “No” several times. Your “No” is not as hard for them to hear as you think it is.
Dependent on God. We missionaries have all been in the asking role. We have had to ask our friends and churches to support us to get to the mission field. This has shown us that we are ultimately dependent on God to meet our needs. He has promised to meet our needs, and we trust him as our providing Father. Don’t hesitate to tell the needy, “We depend on God to meet our needs. He is the one who has provided for us. If God really wants you to have this thing, he will provide for you.” Avoid being seen as the Great Provider for everyone’s needs, even when that role makes you feel wonderful. Teach dependence on God, not on missionaries.
Prepare to be hurt. Remember the story of the 10 lepers. Some will be grateful, while others will not only fail to return, they will use the money for something else. Some will disappoint you terribly. Some will abuse your friendship and take advantage of you. Our reactions swing like a pendulum from “never helping anyone again” to compassionately reaching out.
Wisdom required. In our area, the beggars must bring their “take” to the Chief of the Beggars, who apportions to each family. Child beggars may not get much at all. Understand that your gifts may not even help the one you see on the street corner. We also have offered vocational training to the disabled. Most, however, don’t want to work because they make more money begging. Giving to them on the street actually encourages this perspective about work.
Know the rules. Every culture has its rules about the wealthy and giving. In some places, if you are rich, you are expected to be generous. If you don’t hand out money, you appear stingy and may be misunderstood. So learn the expectations of the culture and work at not appearing uncaring or stingy. There are some practical ways to show your compassion without giving away your life savings the first week. Use every opportunity to teach biblical principles of stewardship and responsible budgeting.
Many who come to us for loans have never heard of a budget and have never tried to save. They either can’t resist the temptation to use the money or don’t trust anyone else to keep it for them. The pressures from family when they know you have money are enormous. Teach stewardship and offer to keep the money for them or help them set up a bank account.
Budget your generosity. Set aside or budget an amount each year for this. If you have a windfall from an oil deal or an inheritance, you can always adjust your budgeted amount upward. You can be as detailed as you want, but I suggest leaving most of the budget undesignated so you can respond as needs arise. When the money is gone, you can honestly tell people that your gift money has been expended. When loan recipients repay the money, more funds will be available. This demonstrates the principles of budgeting and stewardship. It also helps you control your giving. Remember that the poor will always be with us.
School fees.We love to help with fees for school, Bible college, and seminary. Just remember that once you begin to help or sponsor students, in their eyes you are committing to help them until they finish whatever program they are in. So go ahead and help, but be ready for a long-term commitment.
Beggars. Don’t give publicly to street beggars. You will quickly be overwhelmed by the mob and frustrated at the aggressiveness. Instead, chat with beggars at intersections but encourage them to go to a place like your church’s urban ministry for help. If you are with a small number of beggars, give them food like bananas or oranges and be friendly.
Cash substitutes. If someone says he needs money to feed his family, give him a small bag of rice or beans. If people need money for medicine, give them the medicine if you can. Kindness comes packaged in many ways, and it isn’t always green.
Church referrals. If we cannot help or don’t know people, we refer them to their local church. The church needs to be involved and aware of members with serious needs. This takes the burden off you and provides them good counsel and ongoing support if their need continues.
Involve your spouse. Always say you must confer with your spouse before you can make a decision. This keeps you from being pressured. It buys you valuable time to think things through. Often the need is not life threatening and can wait a day or two. Spouse consultation also helps model a partnership in the area of finances that is important and biblical. Also, if a friend comes with a need, it is hard for me to be objective. My wife’s perspective is usually helpful.
Finally, spouse consultation gives you a good excuse if you really don’t want to hand over the money but don’t want to take the heat yourself. You can say in all honesty that you both have decided you can’t help at this time. While this may seem to be the coward’s approach, sometimes it lets you save face with a friend.
The role of work. Asking someone to work by helping in the yard or around the house is much better than just giving a handout. It reveals the person’s attitude and the seriousness of the need. It also demonstrates the importance of work and the value of money.
Loans. You should never loan any money you can’t afford to lose. Most loans will never be repaid. View your loan as a gift. If you don’t, you will regularly be disappointed and angry. An important corollary, however, is that we never give a second loan to someone who has already defaulted on a first. We can forgive the debt, but we needn’t feel obligated to loan this person anything else. If he or she has a future need and we want to help, it will be a gift, no strings attached. If loan recipients work for you, you have some leverage and can garnish their wages to help them repay. We give our employees first priority.
Don’t feel you have to loan people the full amount requested. Whatever you decide, set a reasonable payback period. We don’t make loans that require over a year to repay. Make sure the monthly payment is reasonable and the person can still buy food. Sometimes a person’s commitment to repay the loan is unrealistic, so the loan must be reduced or the payment schedule lengthened. Ask the person his or her income and how he or she expects to repay the loan. If the person doesn’t have a plan or isn’t willing to discuss it, hesitate. We ask people to sign a paper with the agreed repayment schedule. This seems to keep the loan terms clear and avoids future confusion about what was said in the meeting. If a person repays the loan on time, we are usually willing to give another loan, often for more.
If you decide not to give a loan, give a token gift instead to show that you are concerned but can’t help with a loan at this time. This is usually appreciated, and it decreases the possibility of being perceived as stingy or uncaring.
Finally, whether or not you give, remember to pray with people. This emphasizes both dependence on God and the importance of honesty and integrity.
A FEW FINAL THOUGHTS
We have had the privilege of helping many people over the years, both on the mission field and back home. There is great joy in giving. We have also been the recipients of many generous gifts. Yet as we counsel others with needs, we believe that if we always provide, we rob others of the joy of giving. We also rob the person of the joy of seeing God provide in unimagined ways. It is great to see God at work, and his surprises are wonderful. So, don’t rob others of the joy of giving and the joy of receiving by being the Money Messiah for every need.
A continuing sense of guilt about your relative wealth is a healthy sign that you are sensitive to the needs around you. Money can be a great friendship builder or destroyer, so enter financial arrangements prayerfully and carefully. As Jesus said, “Be wise as serpents and as harmless as doves.”
William Ardill served at the ELWA Hospital in Monrovia, Liberia, from 1986 to 1990. Since 1992 he has been a surgeon at Evangel Hospital in Jos, Nigeria. Ardill and his wife Dorothy are missionaries with SIM and have three daughters.
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