Because of our church’s location, we encounter a relatively steady stream of people — many of them homeless — who come in and ask for money. Even in the year or so we’ve been here, we have met quite a few characters with a wide range of stories that span the spectrum of believability.

Yesterday, however, I met a man with the most elaborate story yet. For about forty-five minutes, John laid out his story of the difficult divorce he was enduring — that his wife of almost thirty years had been seeing another man for about a year and was in the process of draining him of all his resources: financial, emotional, etc. He said he worked in the area and had passed by our church many times but was compelled to stop by today because he was at the end of his rope and needed someone, anyone, to talk to.

My heart really went out to John. After all, who hasn’t felt let down by life before, harassed and helpless before a constant barrage of circumstances beyond our control? And, from the way he described his circumstances, things were going to get much worse before they might become any better. He said he was alone — no parents, no siblings, no kids. I listened, asked questions, tried to reassure him that God never abandons us, even if it appears that all hope is lost.

However, by the last third of our conversation it became readily apparent that he was asking for money. If we could just float him a loan for $150 he would pay us back by Friday, payday. This would cover his hotel costs for the week, you see, and he was totally good for it.

I don’t mean to come across cynically in sharing this story. In fact, my wife and I were ready to strain our meager financial resources in order to help him out. We want to be wise, however, in how we choose to help. I made a couple of phone calls and it became quite clear almost immediately that John’s story did not check out. He left for a “meeting” and, when he returned, I told him the church would not be able to help him out financially. He left quickly, but not before asking half-heartedly, “You don’t have any money, do you?”

At the risk of sounding naive or idealistic, I am still pretty shocked when a person can lie so brazenly — clearly, John knew which buttons to push and which heartstrings to pull. I suppose, since he was asking for more than just a couple of dollars to eat a meal, he needed an appropriately large story to match. I can understand a person’s struggle and desperation to make it. To quote Kanye West, “So I did, what I had to did, because I had a kid…”

I want to be part of the solution. I believe in contributing to organizations that have experience and expertise in dealing with the root causes of poverty and injustice. I wonder with the same ambivalence if that panhandler asking for a dollar will spend it on alcohol or drugs. Like others, I think I prefer to give a sandwich or buy a meal for someone who says that they are hungry. Had John’s story checked out, my wife and I were prepared to drive down to his hotel and cover his bill until Friday.

But, at the same time, I want to do more than cut a check from a distance and call it a day. As Shane Claiborne writes in The Irresistible Revolution:

Jesus is not seeking distant acts of charity. He seeks concrete acts of love: “you fed me.. you visited me in prison… you welcomed me into your home… you clothed me….” The church becomes a distribution center, a place where the poor come to get stuff and the rich come to dump stuff. Both go away satisfied (the rich feel good, the poor get clothed and fed), but no one leaves transformed.

Learning to sort through and filter out the hustling, lying and scamming is part of the territory. Choosing to enter into the mess of someone else’s life always means getting your hands dirty. I don’t want the audacity of some grifter to harden my heart to others who are in need. Even John, who thought he’d come and pull a fast one on some dumb pastor, is someone deeply in need.

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