Ministry of Margaret Nelson
Uganda, Africa

February 29, 2004

To give or not to give?

In Uganda, especially in the capitol city of Kampala, it is very common to be accosted by people asking for money. They might be genuinely needy people, or they might be professionals, and you can't tell the difference. Sometimes they are street children. Sometimes it's needy ministries. It's not always easy to know what to do, or how to respond to them. This past week I had several thought-provoking requests for money.

  1. A thin, sickly woman came up behind and alongside me as I walked down a Kampala street, holding out her hands and wheedling. A man walking the opposite direction chased her away from me. I felt grateful and didn't have a chance to thank the man.
  2. I received a request for purchasing a needed provision for a local, known ministry, which I often support, that would somewhat stress my personal finances, and yet would be a good investment, saving the ministry money over the next month.
  3. After church on Sunday, one of our refugees came up to me as I was getting ready to drive off. These dear people are penniless, and mostly live by provision from churches and charities. He pulled a cellular phone out of his pocket and told me someone had blessed him with it. However, he did not have the money to buy air time; could I help him out?
  4. The same day, I parked downtown on a street opposite a bank. I like to park there because it's close to a bank with security guards. I like to think that if a thief bothered my truck, the guards would probably run him off. When I went to leave, one of the guards approached me, as if he were a beggar, saying in a high pitched voice, "Mommy, I have no money and I'm hungry, can you help me?" The man obviously had a job and a paycheck, so I didn't feel very sorry for him! So I said no. The voice became even more whiney, "Well, then what am I to do?" I smiled at him and replied, "I guess you'll have to wait for your next paycheck, just like I do," and I drove off.

I remember a street person in my home town of Everett, Washington, and always had to laugh at his forthrightness. He would stand near a liquor store with his sign that read, "Why lie? I need a beer!" But the majority of such people are not so honest, whether in Everett or Kampala. Sad looking women will borrow someone else's baby in order to appear more pathetic. Deformities are displayed. One man used to sit on the sidewalk and take off his prosthesis to show his leg, amputated below the knee. In a land where the average person never gets a prosthetic device, and with his knee joint still intact, I could only conclude the man was just lazy. One woman cried as she told me why she wanted me to take her 2 small children and raise them, but she had on fine clothing and an expensive hair style. The street children beg for money for food, and then you find them stoned unconscious on the sidewalks.

Out in front of a restaurant where I frequently eat is a man named Joseph, who might have had polio or cerebral palsy. His legs are withered and frozen in a bent position, and he travels around either on his hands and seat, or on his hands and knees. Joseph always wears a hat and a smile, and he doesn't beg. He just moves around, and sometimes I'll see him at a table, eating food someone has bought him. He apparently has a special relationship with this restaurant, because all other beggars get run off.

I always talk with Joseph, largely because he never puts me on the defensive by begging. I've seen pictures of his wife and kids, with him sitting at their feet. I know that people giving him money is how he supports his family. Last year he was raising money to buy a sewing machine for his wife, so she could make money as a tailor. There are times when I give to Joseph.

I live by faith and my income varies month by month. I am very conscious of my own sustenance coming directly from God, through those He uses to support me and my work. So I give careful thought to how I use that money, to use it wisely. One interesting thing I've noticed is how God sometimes prevents me from being a "savior" to people. Yes, they may have deep financial needs, but should they be looking to God instead of to me? I know God can use me to meet some needs, but on the other hand, dependency is a major deterrent to both personal and national growth. So sometimes I get the most requests for money when I don't have any to be giving. God knows I would give it at the wrong time and place, when He is working on a better plan.

So how can I know when to give and when not to give? It's easy to pay my tithe, and to give church offerings, because that's very clear in the scriptures, and no one is pressuring me to give on the spur of the moment with a sad story that assaults my sight and emotions. I try to keep a generous heart and not allow it to become hardened by the monstrous needs around me. I try to build relationship with the ones I share with. So what about the 4 people I mentioned above?

  1. I was genuinely thankful the man chased the beggar woman away from me. She was probably sick with AIDS, as so many here are, and genuinely desperate. But she had approached me suddenly and from behind, so I couldn't get a clear look at her, was walking too close to me, and would not take no for an answer. I get uneasy when people approach me that way because there are so many purse snatchers and thieves in Kampala…
  2. The ministry need I've had time to think about. Does God want me to sacrifice personally to share at this time? I am leaning towards not getting involved in this project, even though it looks good, because I've noticed that the more I've given to it, the more that neighborhood support for it has fallen off. Am I upsetting the balance of what God is doing in the community? My desire is always that local ministries operate by faith in God, looking to Him, not to me. It's an area where great sensitivity is needed.
  3. A telephone is a great convenience, but it's not a necessary one. I myself have at times lived without a phone because I could not afford the cost of one. Maybe the person giving the refugee the phone should have been a bit more considerate and provided him with some air time too. I had no problem saying no.
  4. The bank security guard I also had no problem saying no to. As I drove away, I wondered if I'd been a bit rough on him. Was I hard hearted? He likely is poorly paid. But he is paid, and yet his attitude was that of a beggar. So I felt it best to be truthful with him.

So another prayer request you could add to your list could be that God will always keep my heart sensitive, generous, and wise. One missionary friend tells me that there have been times she has walked past a beggar on the street, and had to turn around and walk 2 blocks back to give to that beggar. Whether or not the person actually needed the money was immaterial. God convicted her that her heart was needing to give.

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Margaret Nelson