The other day I was walking into the convenience store next to my apartment building. There was a man sitting on the bench outside shaking. He looked at me and asked if I would buy him an orange juice. I get approached by panhandlers multiple times every day. I typically look away or say, “I’m sorry I don’t have any cash.” Sometimes I do have a dollar so I will give, more often than not, I do not give. His question to me that morning was both casual and earnest. He asked as if I was his longtime friend with an ease that implied of course I would be willing to help a brother out, like I might ask an old friend after golfing to spot me the two bucks for a Gatorade. Yet there was an earnestness about it too, a kind of humble pleading, made more sympathetic by his uncontrollable shaking. It touched me then, as does reflecting on it now. There was no way I was not going to buy him an orange juice. I’m embarrassed to say that’s all I did for him. I gave him the orange juice and said, “Have a great day.” I don’t think he has had many great days. I’m not certain what more I could have or should have done, but in the week since it happened, it has caused me to reflect.
I believe it is incumbent upon all of us, regardless of faith or political affiliation, to work together to help the poor. Taking care of the poor is our spiritual and civic duty. All of the major world religions teach the need to care for the poor and most non-religious people keep it as a moral creed. We are our brother’s keeper. No doubt part of the solution will be our continued commitment to capitalism and free markets, these have been the greatest emancipators of the poor in the history of mankind. They have and do liberate the world’s poor in ways never imagined. However, left unchecked by democratic reforms, capitalism and free markets become oppressive overlords that “grind the face of the poor” Isaiah 3:15, and “devour the widow and orphan,” Malachi 3:15. No one wants to return to the days of kids in coal mines or the Triangle Shirtwaist fire.
Our wealth inequality here and abroad should be a cause of concern and alarm. Here in the United States, the wealthiest nation in the history of the world, there is not one state where minimum wage is enough to rent a two bedroom apartment!
How we care for the poor is complex. It will require families, communities and churches to work in concert. It will, and should be, a matter of constant dialogue and debate. If this proverb is true, “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it takes care of the least among them,” and I believe it is, we will all need to do more than blame the poor, ignore them, or hand out an orange juice to appease our guilt.