Fathom Mag

Who is deserving of my spare change?

Learning how to give

Published on:
September 11, 2018
Read time:
5 min.
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If you live in New York City, it’s inevitable that you’ll run into people on the subway asking for money. I remember hearing the audible groan from the entire subway car when we heard this: “Excuse me, ladies and gentlemen, I don’t mean to disturb you.” Most people looked back down at their phones.

But the speech continued, “My name is Louis, I have a wife and son at home, we’re struggling at this moment and are asking the community for help, so if you can, thank you and God bless.”

Louis, a Latino man whom I pegged to be a few years older than me, stood in his usual posture: slightly slumped to convey humility. He wore his usual sort of outfit: slightly baggy, pristine jeans; a plain white t-shirt that came down past his jeans pockets; red and white Jordans, the ones with the patent leather stripe gleaming along the sides; and a leather-like New York Knicks cap with a comically straight visor. 

The first time I heard Louis’ speech, he had a pregnant wife at home. I gave Louis a dollar or two.

The first time I heard Louis’s speech, he had a pregnant wife at home. I gave Louis a dollar or two.

The third time I heard Louis’s speech, he had a wife and infant son at home. I didn’t give him anything, but my husband gave him a dollar or two.

The fifth time I heard Louis’s speech, he had a wife and son at home. I recited his monologue quietly along with him, like an understudy to his one-man show.

The thing was that my husband and I had worked our way up the education and corporate ladders—working in law and finance—with nothing more than hard work. We were good about our money, donating extra money to our church and the charities our workplaces promoted, and we were good about our time too, volunteering whenever we could. We even lived in East Harlem, where the rent was cheaper.

So, after the fifth time I heard his speech, I decided that Louis was not actually in need. Instead, clearly, he was lazy and chose to get on the subway to ask hardworking people like my husband and me for change so he could buy Jordans and straight-visored caps.

Several weeks after our last encounter with Louis, our pastor did a sermon on giving.

“If God gave his only son to save your life, why are you holding onto a dollar when someone is hungry?” he said. “And who are you to judge someone’s level of hunger?”

I’d never felt so convicted.

I’d never felt so convicted. Of course I was taught in Sunday school that it’s better to give than to receive. The widow who gave her last mite was the richest of them all, Jesus said, because she gave out of her lack. As a single mother of two, my mom modeled giving as best she could, donating a few dollars to charities that campaigned at work or church. Like the widow, my mom gave out of what she didn’t have and had faith that the Lord would provide.

But here I was calling a guy in the subway a fraud, clinging to my change.

What was my criteria for giving? I asked myself. Exactly how dirty did someone’s clothes have to be for me to give them a dollar? Two dollars? Five?

Confronting my own self-righteousness, I wanted to change. I wanted to practice what Christians actually believe: that it is better to give. But that proved difficult.

After my spouse and I relocated to Washington, DC, we bought a condo. Just before we moved into our new place, I purged about 40% of my possessions. I wanted to be done with my old life and hurdle forward into my new one.

So, I gave.

I donated all of the office-appropriate clothes I no longer wore as a writer, a hundred books I no longer loved, and the wedding-registry appliances we still hadn’t used five years after we got married.

After the purge, I read some books about minimalism. I was surprised to find that the foundational principle of the lifestyle is gratitude: focusing less on acquiring new possessions and more on being grateful for what you have. Hotdog, I thought, this is the right way to live!

So I began to wonder if the same principle would work with money. If I gave it away, maybe I would feel more grateful for all that I had been blessed with.

If I gave it away, maybe I would feel more grateful for all that I had been blessed with.

So, I decided that as a New Year’s experiment, I would give cash to anyone on the street who asked, without questioning their intentions.
But it was harder to give up cash than old clothes.

While I was standing at the bus stop on Day 16 of the experiment, a woman’s voice called out to me, “Excuse me, miss!” I immediately thought, Please don’t ask me for money.

The middle-aged lady to whom the voice belonged approached me. She was wearing a coat, scarf, hat, and boots, similar to what I was wearing in the thirty-degree weather, so I concluded she wasn’t homeless, but I still prayed that she wouldn’t ask me for money.

“Do you know where the medical supply store is?”

I told her that I didn’t know, sorry.

I breathed a shameful sigh of relief. I hadn’t wanted to give her anything, but I also didn’t have anything to give if I had wanted to: it was Day 16 of my experiment, but it was also Day 16 of my not carrying any cash.

It wasn’t intentional, but subconscious. Around January 8, I realized that I was simultaneously making an effort to avoid spending money on stupid small things that wind up adding up, like two-for-one Kit-Kats at CVS. But this was obviously in conflict with my desire to be a better, more giving person.

I realized how much my giving came down to control. My fear was that my money would be used in inappropriate or nefarious ways. What better way to prevent someone from doing drugs than to not even give them money for food, right? Probably not.

After chiding myself for not wanting to help the woman who didn’t actually need my help, I went to an ATM. Then I went to CVS and bought two-for-one Kit-Kats to break the twenty dollar bill.

Soon after that, while I was waiting for the Metro, a homeless man canvassed the platform. He limped along through the crowd, his hand out. He would have spoken, but his bottom lip formed a jagged downward arch, as if he’d had a stroke. He seemed to be in his fifities by the looks of his gray hair. On the same side of his face where his lip dragged down, his eye followed it, running tears almost incessantly.

If I’d had more money on me, I would have given it to him because there was no question in my mind that he needed it.

By the time he reached me, I’d taken ten dollars out of my bag. I gave it to him.

“Thank you, sis,” he said. He dragged off down the platform, asking others still.

I prayed silently that he would be well, that God would heal him and make a way for him. If I’d had more money on me, I would have given it to him because there was no question in my mind that he needed it. From what I saw, he wasn’t being lazy or trying to get over on anyone; he was not capable of taking care of himself, and therefore, he was who Jesus was talking about.

But what if the amount, circumstances, or person don’t matter? What if what matters is my willingness to give without regard for what is going to happen after that money leaves my hand?

“Give generously to the poor, not grudgingly, for the Lord your God will bless you in everything you do.” (Deut 15:10 NLT)

That, to me, is a challenge—do what God tells you and believe that he will take care of everything that falls after it. Like a loving, involved parent, he likes for us to feel like we’re taking part in his work, even if it’s an insignificant role, like licking the spoon while making a cake.

So, now, when I have the cash, I give it. When I don’t have the cash, I say a polite, “Sorry,” and try to remember to pray that God will send some other willing, money-holding soul along to play a part in his solution, to lick the spoon of his generosity.

Vonetta Young
Vonetta Young is a writer living in Washington, DC. She is currently writing a memoir about growing up with an absent father who was a minister. Her essays have been published in Catapult, Blavity, Ozy, and Levo League, among others. Follow her on Twitter at @VonettaWrites.

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