By Dan Ebener
What would you do? Let’s say you are walking along the streets of a major city and you see a mother and child sitting on the sidewalk. The child looks very ill and the mother is holding out a tin cup, desperately asking for help.
For me, it is never easy to walk past anyone begging on the streets without feeling some empathy for their situation and some remorse if I do nothing. It is especially hard when it is a mother and child. Some people might blame the mother for being in this plight. But what do we really know about her story? And what about the child? How can we blame a child for being in such a horrible situation?
I was faced with these questions on my recent trip to Mostar (Bosnia), when I encountered an infant child on the lap of his mother who was begging on the sidewalk. I followed my natural inclination, which was to donate a few euros.
This made me feel better for a few moments until I saw two more mothers with infant children begging in the next block, and the next and the next. It was a touristy area, with one of the oldest functioning bridges in the world in that neighborhood (see photo). Obviously, this was an organized activity. But who would do such a thing?
That night, I posed this question to Damir Medic, my host in Mostar, and a high court judge in Bosnia. Damir explained that these moms and their babies were from Romania. They were being forced by men in their families to panhandle. They sometimes force the infants to drink hard liquor so they look half-dead and don’t cry.
It sounded to me like human trafficking. I asked Damir why they don’t arrest the men and put the mothers (teenagers themselves) and children in foster care. He said the police arrest them, the judges convict them, but they are back on the street the next week. The laws and the social system are not strong enough to do anything else.
This activity picks up during tourist season. Not only in Mostar, but increasingly, it is becoming a global phenomenon. The famous bridge in Mostar is very close to a Franciscan church that, remarkably, has been filling the pews on Sunday. The Franciscans, who run various social programs themselves, are also running a campaign to educate the community in Mostar to NOT give money to the panhandlers — but to charitable organizations instead.
This reminded me of traveling with Catholic Relief Services (CRS) in Guatemala where we encountered young children selling gum on city streets. The CRS staff informed us that these kids were skipping school to raise money for their families. They explained that if we bought the gum, we would be encouraging the kids to skip school again and again.
Whether we open our wallets on the street or not, it seems to me that it is important to recognize the humanity of the begging person on the sidewalk. It lessens our dignity and theirs when we totally ignore them. How can we be kind to such persons without giving them money directly? Gazing kindly, stopping to say hello, just smiling seems a good start.
As for donating of money, my preference is to contribute to organizations like CRS that can assist the whole family, or better yet, the whole community, in a systematic way, such as they do in more than 100 countries around the world.
This may not settle the remorse I feel about walking past beggars on the street. But every time I see a beggar, I tell myself that is a reminder to give ever more generously to CRS and other charitable organizations working for justice and dealing in structural ways with poverty.
(Dan Ebener is director of stewardship and parish planning for the Diocese of Davenport. and a professor in the St. Ambrose University Master of Organizational Leadership program.)