Contact Info Subscribe Links


August-September 2016


Relentless Parenting


Online Edition

Download PDF

iPad and E-Reader




History Resources



Facebook Twitter Google Pinterest Email


Acts of Grace

By Brenda Evans


She was young, maybe 20, and in ragged jeans. Unlaced hiking boots flopped back above her ankles like enormous moth wings. She wore a drab-green jacket and backpack at a busy corner where I had to turn right. Her sign read: “Traveling. Out of money. Please help, even if it’s a smile.”

I braked slightly to read the words then accelerated. I didn’t smile. Perhaps if I had, I would have stopped and fished out the only bill in my wallet, a $10, as I recall, or a scattering of coins. But I would have been embarrassed to empty just a few pennies and dimes into this traveling woman’s hand, if indeed she was traveling.

I’m provisional here because I feel provisional whenever I see a beggar. At some point in my life, I penciled an axiom into my brain: Don’t stop for beggars. But living by that, and even admitting that it’s written there, doesn’t mean I’m comfortable with it.

What to do with people asking for money is a dilemma for me. As I see it, generally I have two choices: stop and give or move on. The 20-something girl with the winged hiking boots gave me a third: smile. Maybe I didn’t smile because it would have been fake, even a mockery. Or maybe I wasn’t swayed by her sign, didn’t believe she was really out of money, didn’t believe she was in need. Or maybe I assumed, in the two seconds I had to make a decision, that if I only gave her a smile, she would reply with an impolite finger gesture. The truth is, my heart and my brain always collide over what to do with people who ask for money on sidewalks and street corners.

I remember the first beggar I ever saw. He sat on a low rolling board and propelled himself with his hands along Church Street in downtown Nashville because he had no legs. He was whiskered and old, his eyes startlingly blue. My mother and I stopped. I still can hear the clink-clink of her coins falling into his tin cup.

We were headed to Harvey’s department store. I was eight and excited about Harvey’s escalators, their talking mynah bird, the carnival mirrors that made me into a roly-poly porker or a pencil-thin freak, and their restaurant where we ordered hot apple pie topped with fat slabs of sharp cheddar cheese.

“Where does he live?” I asked Mother. Mother didn’t speak for several steps.

“He probably doesn’t have a home, Brenda,” she said at last. The beggar’s blue eyes, his body with no legs, Mother’s words, and the metallic ring of her coins against his cup brought me, for the first time, to some rudimentary understanding of the word desperate. And I’ve never forgotten it.


I tell myself that if I could know when a person is genuinely desperate, as I believed the legless beggar was 65 years ago, I would erase that don’t-stop-for-beggars axiom from my brain. I like clarity. That’s one reason I like the Old Testament edicts to Israelite farmers and vineyard owners. Don’t harvest the corner grain. Don’t send grape gatherers over the vines twice. Leave some, God commanded, for the poor, the widow, the “illegal aliens” to gather. Those who can must work, and God’s people must help those who can’t. The New Testament teaches that same ethic. But there’s the rub: is the man or woman on my street corner a “beggar indeed,” that is, a beggar by necessity or a beggar by choice? I don’t know.

When my husband Bill was in pastoral ministry, we often lived in a parsonage next door to our church. I regularly made sandwiches and drinks for people who rang at our door. People living out of rust-bucket cars, whole families “just passing through.” Some wanted food; others wanted money. I never knew whether they were truly desperate, but I always offered food. Usually, they took it. Food from my kitchen is never hard for me. It’s clear that I should do it.

Once, for two weeks during a New Hampshire winter, we took a paroled convict into our apartment, fed him at our table, and gave him a bed over our garage. My husband and I thought we should do it, and I still think we should have, although one day while we were away for several hours, he left with Bill’s small coin collection and a jar of change our Sunday School children had collected for missionaries. We never saw him again, but for two weeks “the stranger at our gate” was warm and fed at our house.

When I know a woman is hungry, I will give her food and a cup of cold water. But on street corners and in medians, I can’t quickly measure desperation or discern whether her begging is beyond her control or of her own making. It’s too quick…an immediate thumbs up or thumbs down based on brief moments of visual data.

Beyond that, desperation is not something I have personal experience with. I remember a few times when I didn’t have two proverbial nickels to rub together, but I’ve never experienced genuine hunger or desperation. My friend Lily has. She has been without meat, without bread, without anything at all to eat. She has felt abandonment in her bones. At 11, she was an orphan who lived with her older brothers in the house where her parents had died. Her brothers were high schoolers and provided what they could for Lily, but some nights they ate at the homes of friends while Lily was home alone, hungry, and desperate. Now Lily, who is my age, watches for people who need acts of grace, even strangers. Recently, she “got taken,” she told me with a grin. “It’s probably not the first time, and it may not be the last. I’ll just do what I think I need to do. That’s all.”

I’m not as experienced with desperation as Lily is, nor as tender, nor do I want to be conned, so I look for guidelines from Jesus. I’m not sure He had “help a beggar today” on His to-do list. Still, as He went about His regular life, He rescued people. Near the temple, it was a blind beggar, and He used a poultice of saliva and clay and a bath in the Pool of Siloam. He touched unclean lepers and freed demoniacs.

He wrote a note in the sand for a prostitute about to be stoned to death. His acts of grace sprang from compassion and regular companionship with sinners and beggarly outcasts. For those He rescued, He accomplished two things: kindled or rekindled their faith and made them fit to rejoin their communities.

I am aware that my handful of coins or bills will not accomplish all that for a street corner beggar. So what can I do? Recently I searched through the longest biblical discourse on giving, 2 Corinthians 8-9, written by the Apostle Paul. In about 900 words, Paul reminded me that the four corners of giving are compassion, generosity, intentionality, and accountability. The north, south, east, and west of it.

Paul shares nothing specific there about beggars, although compassion and generosity certainly apply. The other two, intentionality and accountability, are stickier. What, in fact, is my intention when I give money to a woman with a sign on a street corner? Do I simply mean to provide her a meal or warm place for the night and otherwise be uninvolved? Do I intend to assuage my conscience as if to say, “I’m a good person who helps people like you, no questions asked. Here, take my $5 or $10”? Deliberate, intentional giving on a street corner on the spur of the moment is not easy for me to figure out.

Accountability, that fourth corner of giving, is even harder. I understand from Paul that I need to account for whose hands deliver the gift (which I can do because I’m the one who gives in this case), but also where the money lands, whose hands use it, and for what purpose. So accountability is a huge sticking point, and beggars do not make it easy. How can I give accountably to someone I don’t know, whose desperation may be specious, and whom I probably will never see again? I don’t have a rock-solid answer for that question.

The truth is, I would like myself better if I climbed farther out on the giving limb, as Lily does, so I feel that pressure. But I can’t say that feeling better about myself is what I think an act of grace is actually about. Yes, giving is partly about feeling compassionate and generous, but I say partly because I believe God-directed giving goes deeper than good feelings.

It’s also not about never getting duped. Years ago, I gave $20 to a woman at an interstate rest stop in Missouri who said she needed gas money to get to a funeral in Arkansas. It was the last $20 in my wallet, as I remember. Maybe I got taken, maybe I didn’t. At that moment, it didn’t matter. Although I have done that more than once, I don’t fully buy into the method that says: give if you feel you should and let the beggar be responsible to God for how he uses it. Many of my friends use that model. It’s usually not that simple for me. Maybe it should be.

I don’t have a hard and fast rule. Sometimes I pull accountability to the front and pass on by a beggar like I did the young woman with the winged boots. At other times, I pull compassion into first place and give. I would like all four corners—the north, south, east, and west of giving—to guide me because that’s what I see in Old Testament law, in Jesus, and in Paul’s long passage. But on a street corner, those get complicated.

I’m glad for Church Street in Nashville 65 years ago when my mother stopped for an old man with startling blue eyes, no legs, and a tin cup. Mother’s heart and head must have collided that summer day, as mine so often collide today. Should I pass on by or stop and give? With only a flash of reflection, my mother committed an act of grace. Sometimes I think I hear the metallic clink-clink of coins in a tin cup at a street corner in my town. Sometimes, I stop. Sometimes, I don’t.

About the Writer: Brenda Evans is a freelance writer who lives in Ashland, Kentucky. Learn more at finances and how you can get involved in planned giving:



©2016 ONE Magazine, National Association of Free Will Baptists