The sermon had just started and I was listening intently when this 30-something black man missing half his teeth walked into the church. At St. James. the choir and organ are in back of the congregation, but at ground level instead of a loft (as St. James is basically a 1 story structure, though with a much higher ceiling than your typical suburban Roman Catholic nightclub church), so we and Fr. Crume saw the guy, while the congregation mostly didn’t. And I thought, “Whoops, here comes trouble.” Yes, that’s prejudice; he might have been there to worship (and a few dark faces would be a good thing there). But he didn’t look as if he’d come to do that, and in my experience when somebody walks in the middle of things, that’s not the intent.
Sure enough, I was right. There are three of us on the outside of the choir: Nancy in the soprani, Graham at the console, and me. So he comes to me, and sticks his hand out to shake. So I’m not going to shake his hand in church? Then, while I’m in his grip, he mumbled this long barely coherent sentence featuring the phrases “Just came up from Atlanta…haven’t eaten…money for a couple hamburgers.” I didn’t catch it all as Father was in full cry and I was trying to listen…and I was PISSED that this guy was degrading my worship experience, and just wanted to make him go away. I reached in my pocket and found a fiver (!). I gave it to him and pointed to the door. “Sir, this is not the time or the place to beg. Please leave.” and he did.
If I’d been outside the church building, I’d have argued with him. “You’re indigent, and you came from Atlanta to freaking Ohio!?” Not the time or place. Basically, I don’t understand beggars. If I were in his position, in Cleveland in May, spare-changing would be my last resort. There are edible plants, dumpsters, food banks and homeless shelters. But there’s a certain subculture where asking for money is totally acceptable and casual.
If I’d met this guy on the street, I’d just say “No”, and God can judge my discernment and charity. As far as I’m concerned, I’m doing well not to blow his head off. But when I’m in church, I feel that I have to come up with something, because otherwise I’d make the church and the religion look bad. The deal is though, if you give these guys dough because that’s what you think they think that Christians are “supposed” to do, then it just encourages them to do it more. I have to wonder whether beggars begged in church during the Middle Ages, whether in a Christian culture people actually have respect for the divine service. Plus, this was probably more about drugs than food anyway. I heard later that this same guy has been seen before.
I had meant to discuss this with Father afterwards, but he had developed some health issues in the later parts of the service, and made himself scarce. In retrospect, a better way to handle it would have been to say, “I’m listening to this sermon; you can, too. Sit down and we’ll talk about it after the service.” He might have started hitting the congregants then, but in that case, Father could have handled it if he saw fit.
I don’t expect any of my regulars will give me shit for this. And if you’re the kind of rainbow-and-unicorn-fart Christian who wants to condemn my uncharitable attitude, show me from Scripture that God approves of begging during the sermon.