published Tuesday, August 20th, 2013

Cook: To give or not to give

In fundraising and philanthropy circles, they call it The Ask.

It's the critical moment when a person, in need of another person's money, directly comes out and asks for it.

There are books, classes and seminars, all devoted to asking The Ask, which, apparently, is not that different from a singles bar.

"As in any courtship, it helps to know the tastes, interests, and background of the person you are wooing," advises a Business Week article called "The Art of the Ask," which sounds a lot like something I once read in Seventeen.

A few weeks ago, I went to the Gig Tank and watched as several groups of digital entrepreneurs wowed the crowd with their brilliant ideas before settling in with The Ask. In this case, it was for hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Yet no one was offended by such forthrightness. Asking for half-a-mil? It's the bold American Spirit, we said to ourselves. It's entrepreneurship! Gutsy salesmanship!

But isn't panhandling kind of the same thing?

"People are not getting what they need to meet basic needs, so they beg for money," said Rebecca Whelchel, executive director of Metropolitan Ministries, the McCallie Avenue nonprofit agency that gives aid to hundreds of Chattanoogans each week.

Panhandling is a dressed-down, grimier version of The Ask. Panhandlers are seemingly everywhere downtown, and encountering them is a messy, social soap opera that forces us to confront our own biases about poverty, money and public places, things we'd rather not do on a date night.

Panhandling is laced with emotion: guilt, anger, imposition, rudeness, politeness. We feel conflicted if we give, conflicted if we don't.

Panhandling makes us wrestle with truth and perception. We don't really decide to give that person money without first deciding whether we can trust the story they're telling us.

I need $1.23 for bus fare to get home, or my car's broken down, and I need to buy a gallon of gas, or I just want some change for a hamburger.

I wish someone would come out and say it: Five dollars will buy me some cheap booze because life is so stinkin' hard and drinking is the only way I can feel good.

(Let he who does not buy things to feel better cast the first stone.)

Panhandlers are the modern beggars, and begging was once a graceful practice. Buddhist monks used to beg, holding their bowls out in silence before villagers. Had the monks performed some spiritual function or delivered a worthy sermon, villagers would feed them. If the monks proved useless or hollow, no food went in the bowl, and soon, the monks got the message and left town.

Yet panhandling -- or at least the version here -- isn't as serene. Downtown business owners are getting more frustrated with panhandlers who accost and frighten off customers. Recently, I've turned down panhandlers who then seem offended and dissed; as if the money in my pocket really belonged to them. Like I owed them or something.

"It isn't simple," said Whelchel.

It rarely is.

In my life, I've oscillated between overt and naive giving (walking someone to the ATM for withdrawals) which proved to be unsafe and red-faced foolish. Later, I adopted a blanket Nancy Reagan just-say-no policy to any and every panhandler that asked. That, too, proved empty.

Like Goldilocks, my street giving was either too large or too small. Was there a middle way?

Over the weekend, some of us were at a public park downtown. On the outskirts was a man in dirty and old clothes, sitting on a bench. He had his hand out, like his bench was a toll booth and he the tax collector.

Passed him by. Said no. Kept walking.

But then I stopped.

I went back, and gave him a dollar. Strangely, it was for selfish reasons. Not for him, but for me.

Street giving seems to tap into some part of my heart that I need to keep awake. Even if it's a quarter, even if it'll be used to buy drugs, even if it's totally unearned. (I think the theological term for this is grace.)

Unearned giving greases the skids of the part of my spirit that needs loosening, the part that's in conflict with the hardened part of me that says: what's mine is mine and nobody else's.

Unearned giving is the joker card of the spirit; most times, giving that dollar bill seems to affect me more than the outstretched hand receiving it. Not out of obligation or fear, not even because They Asked.

"It is a good practice," said Whelchel, "not because people need your money, but because it is a good thing to let go."

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

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