Give or teach a man to fish?

I was driving down the road the other day when a familiar scenario played out.  I pulled up behind a line of cars at a busy traffic light and there was a man there with a sign reading something along the lines of, “Hungry family, no job.”  A twinge of guilt and confusion hit my gut.  He was taking cash handouts from the cars in front of me and I began a slight panic of wondering what to do.  I’m sure I’m not the only one who has faced situations like this.  But the question often arises, what do you do?  Obviously, we can’t tackle this whole topic in one blog post, but let’s hit the highlights.

There’s an old saying, “Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day.  Teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime.”  These are essentially the two viewpoints of “simply giving, no questions asked” vs “giving wisely and investing in long-term solutions”.  To put it shortly, I think there is the time and place for both; to “give fish”, as well as to “teach to fish”.

“Give a man a fish…”  You meet a homeless man who clearly could use a hot meal. You go eat with him and then part ways.  Your gift of a meal was a good thing.  There was a direct “emergency” need that you helped meet.  The main downside to this perspective is that it is short-term.  Most often when we see poverty, the problem runs deeper than a single meal or a $20 bill.  Sometimes, when a short-term giving perspective takes over our entire thinking, people can become dependent, and all sense of self-motivation goes away.

“Teach a man to fish…”  Honestly, giving a fish is much easier than teaching someone to fish.  Teaching someone to fish involves helping in a long-term, sustainable format.  What could this look like?  If you have regular encounters with a particular individual, this involves lots of conversation and building a relationship with the person.  With time comes trust.  The more time you spend with someone, the more trust is built, and the more honest conversations can be had about moving forward out of poverty. This might also include finding out what long-term aid programs are available in your area that are designed to help people find jobs, housing, etc.  Once you know what programs are available, you can then invite someone you meet to walk with you to the program office.  Obviously, this “teaching” route is more involved, but often this is what truly helps in the long run.

At the end of the day, Jesus calls us to love everyone, care for those around us, and give to the poor.  When you feel the tension of giving someone a $20 bill or investing in a long-term relationship, I recommend praying and seeking the Spirit’s direction…then move.  When you encounter poverty, do you ignore it, or do something?

~David McCann, NLCF Staff

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