Is it selfish? Or is it rape culture?

Leaving work one day, I heard a voice call out “Hey Sarahbeth! Can I borrow a dollar?”

I looked up to see a somewhat disheveled man standing in front of me; possibly homeless but hard to tell. At first I was confused how he knew my name, but he probably read it off my custom-printed bag. In that bag was a hefty chunk of cash from my four babysitting jobs that I planned to take directly to the grocery store, in addition to a very expensive Macbook.

The man was only asking for a dollar; not a huge expense on my part. I could and should have given one to him. Yet all I could think was, I can’t let my guard down and risk having my stuff stolen.

I offered him some of my Ramen noodle stash instead, which he politely declined. Getting into my car, I felt like a failure as both a Christian and a human being. I could have done more, and I chastised myself for living in a world where concern for one’s personal safety trumps compassion; where being a single woman alone in a city means automatically fearing any man that approaches, even if his intentions aren’t malicious.

But is it really about safety? Or is there underlying prejudice that prompts us to say “no” when asked to give? Or when we notice people whose lives are radically different from our own?

I don’t always remember to lock my doors when I get in my car, but I lock them when I pass a cluster of teenagers in downtown Denver, always thinking It would be so easy to unlock the passenger door at a stoplight and grab my laptop/purse/whatever. Once, during a discussion group at church, a student was talking about how selfish we can be when there’s an opportunity for outreach: did Jesus not call us to serve others, no matter the personal risk to ourselves? My instinct was to protest, “You don’t understand! You are not a woman who looks ten years younger than she actually is; the world is not as dangerous a place for you, of course it’s easy for you to say that.”

Thankfully I wasn’t the only one thinking this, and the discussion turned into a battle of the sexes: the men kept insisting we (the females) were more concerned about ourselves than others in need, while the women kept insisting that Jesus would never advocate purposefully putting ourselves in danger if we didn’t absolutely have to.

On the drive home I stopped to allow more cars into my lane than usual, as if trying to atone for my selfishness before; once again deceiving myself into looking at salvation as some kind of points-based system. In the end, I am just one person with good intentions who often falls short. I can only do so much. But I feel guilty just the same.


8 thoughts on “Is it selfish? Or is it rape culture?

  1. Beth, I think there’s a both/and sort of thing going on here.

    Not helping somebody because there’s a risk of harm to you may or may not be a good way to look at things – it all depends on the situation.

    If you’re talking about a homeless guy who wants money, and you feel threatened, I don’t see any reason not to walk away. You can always come back “with reinforcements”, so to speak, if you feel the need to help. The homeless guy will probably still be there.

    That said, the existence of danger doesn’t inherently negate the call to help others. I think there’s somewhat of a “safe Christianity” mentality going around that allows us to stay within our comfort zone and not accomplish anything useful.

    If you ever find yourself in that position again, BTW – the “women vs. men” thing, tell one of the men that you’d like to go give some sandwiches to the homeless next Saturday. Tell him that you’d like him to come with. See what he says.

    Because on some level, it’s easy to tell other people what they should have done. But it’s much harder to actually step up and do it.

    And a lot of the people talking about what other people *should* do just aren’t willing to step up.

    Thanks for the thoughtful post!


  2. nicolefios

    Yes – Riding the subways in the Bronx is quite an adventure. 😉

    Much agreement when you write…
    “You did offer a meal to this man, which I think reflects that you were willing to serve him, just not in the way that he wanted.”


  3. Hi Beth

    From the info you gave, and my experience with working with the “homeless” in a large city, you did the absolutely correct thing.

    Let me try and explain. The Homeless Ministry I volunteered with for over five winters, trained others to work with the Homeless in their locals. We had a building that would sleep up to 70 folks and many came for a weekend, Fri, Sat, Sun, from up and down the eastern seaboard. We had some Vans and many would bring their own Vans.

    In the Vans we had two folks from the ministry and 8-10, newbies. We would hit the streets about 10pm and minister to folks on the street, some sleeping in card board boxes, door ways, church steps, subways, train stations, for 3-4 hrs, till to 1am-2am. Each Van had it’s own route so we did not overlap. We gave out blankets, little bags of toiletries, toothpaste, tooth brushes, lotions, etc., sandwiches. And Jesus. 😉

    We also had a list of Ministries and Gov’t agencys
    that could help those new to living on the streets.

    BUT – Before we hit the streets there was a “Training Session.”

    The first thing taught was to always show respect to these folks and ask permission to talk to them, ask if they would like a sandwich, a blanket, or can we sit down on the sidewalk. This was there living room or bed room.

    THE SECOND THING – Was NEVER give anyone money…

    These folks are often homeless, disheveled, for a NOT so nice reason…
    And money given is often squandered on alcohol, drugs, etc…
    And many have learned to survive by lying. Cheating, stealing, etc.

    We would ask “what do you need the money for?” If they said, “For food.” Then do as “you did” and give them some food. Go buy them a sandwich or slice of Pizza.

    And – Often – As you experienced, they refuse the food. 😦

    BUT – NEVER give anyone money. Acknowledge them, spend some time with them, most are avoided like the plague by most who walk by. And, when able, Share with them the love of Jesus.

    Much agreement, and this sounds like God to me, when you write…
    “…while the women kept insisting that Jesus would never advocate purposefully putting ourselves in danger if we didn’t absolutely have to.”

    Yes – We also taught, this is NOT a game, this is dangerous, many of these folks have mental problems. And, there is a big difference when you are part of a Ministry going out in the Name of Jesus or when doing this on your own, all alone. Even Jesus sent out His Disciples two by two…

    I worked in this city. During the day I saw the homeless, and the hucksters, the con artists, the panhandlers, and rarely did God give me permission, the okay, to deal with, minister to, or talk with these folks. A glance, shake of the head, say hello. But keep on walking…

    But – You have to ask Jesus for yourself. 😉

    “Jesus would never advocate purposefully
    putting ourselves in danger if we didn’t absolutely have to.”

    Sounds to me like you did just fine…

    Jesus love you this I know… 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I go to school in the Bronx and take the subway often into Manhattan, so I am grappling with this issue all of the time. It’s a hard situation because as people who are so much more fortunate, it can be hard to justify not parting with that dollar, but I also think that there are other ways to serve the homeless that go further than one dollar to one man, especially in a potentially dangerous situation. You did offer a meal to this man, which I think reflects that you were willing to serve him, just not in the way that he wanted.

    Liked by 1 person

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