Moral blackmail at St. James

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.


8 Responses to Moral blackmail at St. James

  1. James Quick says:

    I wonder if you won’t see him again. Encouragement doesn’t change their M.O. A few years
    back I was workimg on a construction project in a Miami suburb. A black man was greeting everyone outside a restaurant with the claim he was raising money to go to California. I opined that perhaps he would raise the needed money quicker by working rather then begging. Don’t think he intended to go to California unless his supplier had been busted.


  2. kishnevi says:

    I’m tempted, but the possibility of you calling me a unicorn and rainbow farting Jew is too much for my sensitivities 🙂

    show me from Scripture that God approves of begging during the sermon.

    Well, lots of clergy types beg from the congregation during their sermons….

    This situation seems to occur a lot in Orthodox synagogues, usually with Jews doing the begging. Fortunately, halacha forbids responding to others during the most important parts of the service, so the beggee can always take refuge in that, by gesturing to the open page, which just happens to be part of the Amidah even if the entire congregation is on a completely different section of the service.

    Your question of course implies that God approves of sermons.

    Your “in retrospect” is probably the best solution if he appears again–doubtless St. James has some favorite food bank/homeless shelter if it doesn’t do something on its own. But most churches have ushers/greeters near the door. Wasn’t anyone there to shake his hand when he came in (and guide him out when he displayed no motivation to join in the worship)?

    It’s possible that he was wintering in Atlanta and on his way back to home base in Ohio, but that would give his story more respect that it’s probably due. Besides, most of these types seem to prefer Florida for their winters. If normal seasonal residents are snowbirds, does this make these guys snowvultures?

  3. kishnevi says:

    BTW, I’ve never given to these guys since I was fourteen and visiting Jerusalem, and was approached on Shabbat Eve by someone claiming to collect money for dinners for the poor–and got lectured for it afterwards by one of the tour chaperones. I gave it with a little prayer to God that he would get my parents back together (this was in the middle of The Divorce). They didn’t, which I’ve always taken as an indication of what God thinks of this sort of thing.

    Do you remember the Sherlock Holmes story about the beggar who made a very middle class income from panhandling in Victorian London?

    • John Sabotta says:

      Well, but it could have been Elijah.

      • jeffreyquick says:

        Or those three Mormon angels, or or or…
        What it was was a bum.
        Now, I am kind of screwed by that “What you do to the least of these” scripture. But you don’t get to be “least of these” by trying to be less than you are. If you’re trying, yeah, I’ll help. If you’re diving to the bottom, money is not what you need to make you sink faster. And yes, you need to be in church. But not to beg.

  4. jeffreyquick says:

    No unicorn farts for you, K; you aren’t anti-gun.
    I think that God approves of His Word being explicated. Does He approve of Wagner being mentioned in sermons? I assume that your people would have a stronger opinion on that than I have. As for begging, there’s a fine line between explaining the congregation’s needs, teaching tithing, and begging. At St, James, I assume most of these matters are dealt with in vestry meetings etc. because they don’t get into the sermons.

    As for greeters, there are 15-20 congregants at the typical service, so it doesn’t always or even usually happen. There is a rent-a-cop who watches over the parking lot though.

  5. kishnevi says:

    Re: Wagner
    Cousin Lenny is reported to have said that “I hate Wagner on bended knee.” And it’s not Wagner so much as what people did with his music later on, as I am sure you know what I mean.

    Although come to think of it, I can’t remember any reference to opera or classical music in any rabbi’s sermon I’ve ever heard. Which probably says something about the Conservative rabbinate.

  6. […] My new BFF came back to church Remember this guy? […]

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