Most people know that there is real, hard poverty here, with people openly begging on the street, at intersections and in front of churches. Depending on where in the city you may be, you might be noticed by someone who is begging, and they might know enough English to walk up to you and say, “Hey! Give me money!”. This can be jarring. Other times it’s when you are coming out of Mcdo (McDonalds for you Americans) and there will be a small, shoeless, disheveled kid who is barely whispering, asking for money or food. This can be devastating.
Mga makililimos (beggars) are sometimes people in legitimate need. Some can't walk, they might be missing limbs, or they just might be able to physically work any longer. Others, we've been told, don't want to work, they may own farms but don't want to work them, or their parents might have "too many kids" to take care of and so they send them out on the street to beg for food or money to take back to their family.
Initially we were told to not give money to anyone begging. This is, after all, what we tell team members. If we did, we’re told, they would come to expect us to continue to give to them every single time we see them, since many makililimos hang out in the same spots.
This was hard for us, but it was especially hard on Hollie. The kids who would beg always look so sad and Hollie wants to just pick them up and take them home and take care of them.
After being here for a while we had a chance to ask our teacher about mga makililimos and the proper response that we should have when we go to the mall or to the city plaza and run into someone begging. She said that we can indeed give something, but we just need to be careful and we need to be discerning. Just like in other parts of the world (I'm assuming) a preferred method of missionaries is to give food to beggars so that money would not be given to possible drug addicts or an alcoholics and something nourishing and life giving is obtained. We were told to especially look for the kids with things hidden in their shirts who were begging. They were sniffing glue or other inhalants. They most likely they were kids who ran away from the child service homes.
So we began to notice, to look at the people holding their hands out, looking for mercy. They are not nuisances, merely noise to ignore while you wait for the light to turn to cross the street. These are people,often hurting people, made in the image of God, lovingly crafted, hand-knit in their mother's womb and loved by the Father enough to send His Son to die on the cross so that they could know hope for an eternal blessing that comes with faith in Christ. These are people who have stories, families, friends, good days and bad. To say it another way: they may not be clean and presentable, they may not be one of the fashionable Christian causes at the moment, and some of them may lie to your face and try to take advantage of you, but they are people.
They are people.
Now i want to tell a short story about one of these people, these mga makililimos. I don't know his name, but I have seen him three times now I think, and each time it is shortly after we have had a conversation about responses to beggars. The first time I saw him, I'm deeply ashamed to say, I hid from him. It was afternoon around one or so when I heard what sound like an old man singing. "Maayong hapon! Maayong hapon!" I may not remember all the words to his song, but basically he is saying "Good afternoon! Good afternoon! Would you like to bless me today? Good afternoon sir, good afternoon mam!" He would walk up to each apartment and stand outside of the gate singing, most people ignored him and stayed inside. Since we were still trying to acclimatize ourselves to Philippine weather all of our doors and windows were wide open and the girls were watching tv and singing the Doc McStuffins theme song loudly, so we couldn't just ignore him and act like we weren't home or something.
But man did I try.
Since at this time we still thought that we shouldn't give to anyone asking for money, I tried (in vain) to quiet the girls and get them to go upstairs as quickly and quietly as possible. Sophia asked me why we were doing this and asked what the man was doing, and I regurgitated what we were told. We hid upstairs until he was clear from the entire complex.
The next time I saw the makililimos was after we had been here a while longer. We had a chance to ask our teacher about begging (our lesson was on begging and actually how to relate to people we encounter begging. She told us that we should give, but we just need to be careful, we just need to be discerning to whom we gave money. I heard him singing just like before, 'Maayong utdo sir! Maayong utdo mam!' This time I went out to take a look, to see him this time.
When I walked up to the gate where he was standing I noticed that he was an older man, dirty and stiff clothes with worn flip-flops. His face was smudged with dirt but his eyes lit up when I actually looked at him, when I acknowledged him instead of treating him like a good work or a nuisance. He blessed me a few times as I gave him 10 pesos, singing happily on his way next door.
The more and more I think about this the more I wonder about the role that following what is called "host culture" plays in ministry. I firmly believe that as Christians, no matter where we live or where we are from, we are essentially "above" or “outside” the culture, not cherry-picking parts that we like or don't like of the values and mores that we find in our surroundings, but because our first citizenship is in the Kingdom of Heaven, and our values come from that kingdom and the Bible. We cannot just adopt any and all of the culture of the Philippines, but just like American (and all other human cultures) it is fallen and corrupt.
So what does the Bible say about giving? What does the Bible say about how to take care of the poor?
In the Old Testament, God gives quite a few laws with regards to taking care of the less fortunate among the Israelites. One such law is that they need to leave some of their field unharvested so that the poor can come and get what they need to survive (Deut. 24:19-22). We are told all throughout Scripture how we need to treat the poor, and how they are the receivers of God’s justice and care.
We are told that we will always have the poor among us (John 12:8) and we even have the example of churches collecting money to give to the poor (Gal. 2:10; 1 Cor. 16:1). We are told by Christ that we if someone asks for money we need to give to that person without asking or expecting anything in return. The money that is in our pockets and bank accounts are not ours, but all money, everything, belongs to God (Psalm 50:8-12). It’s not our money, it’s God’s. Since it belongs to Him, doesn’t that mean that He gets to decide how it is used? If He tells us to use what He has blessed us with to bless others and to be His hands and His feet to take care of others, then what in the world is stopping us?
The hard part for all of this is trying to be discerning. How do we make the call that this person is actually in need but that person is trying to get money out of you by pretending that they are collecting “tithes” for their church? Prayer and wisdom are the best answers that I’ve found. Praying for the poor and for your eyes to be opened so that you can see the needs that are in front of you is important. Seeing people as they really are will be crucial to being discerning. Wisdom is the actual use of discernment. Unfortunately, wisdom typically comes through trial and error, which takes time.
Giving to the poor and taking care of those who are in need is part and parcel of what it means to be a Christian. We can’t not give to the poor and call ourselves Believers. We also can’t simply make a blanket statement that all people who are begging or panhandling or whatever are simply looking for a hand-out. Even if we did do that, what are we doing? Thinking that they just need to get a job or that there sad state is solely their fault and therefore they do not deserve mercy from us? This reminds me of the dying words of Martin Luther, “We are all beggars, this is true.”
We are all beggars, waiting with open hands for mercy from God.