One evening, as my husband Luke was doing the final tucking-in of our three-year-old son, I overheard them talking about needy people. Our son was very struck with the idea that there are some people who do not have enough money to buy the food or clothes that they need, and that it makes God happy when we help these people out.
I was very glad to hear the generosity of his tiny heart, but it actually plucked my conscience a bit. It’s pretty likely that my son gets this natural compassion toward the poor from my husband.
While I’ve never had any kind of ill-will toward the needy by any means, I was raised with the much more cynical (and probably more common) mentality that people asking for money on the side of the road are going to spend it on drugs, etc., so why even give them money?
Not About Me, But About Thee
The debate about whether we as Catholics should give these people we might encounter the benefit of the doubt, and therefore give them money, could be an entire discussion topic in itself.
But what I want to talk about is a simple way that we can concretely help these people. Incidentally, it also makes a great service project for a dating couple to do together (and can help prepare you for that possible one-day when you might have toddlers asking about why there’s a guy holding a sign at a stoplight).
So I suggest that, one day when you have a free afternoon to spend together, you dedicate the time to purchasing supplies and assembling bags of things like toiletries and small food items to have on hand for when you encounter anyone in need.
It’s really pretty simple, but here’s how we do it in our family.
Putting Together the Care Bags
We like to try a 99 Cent Store or Dollar Tree first for cheap toiletry items and possibly some of the food (stores like this typically do sell a lot of pretty decent quality things, if you search past the junk). Here are the useful items we usually find at a dollar store:
- Gallon-sized zip bags to put the items in
- Pocket-sized facial tissues
- Toothbrush and toothpaste
- Wet wipes (hand sanitizer is not a great idea, as it can be a temptation for alcoholics)
- Small packages of crackers
- Granola bars
- Trail mix
- Small packs of jerky
Whatever of these items we can’t find at a dollar store (jerky, for instance, is usually pretty hard to find there), we then buy from somewhere like Walmart.
Before you go to purchase your items, decide on the amount of bags you want to make, and/or how much money you want to devote to the project.
Also, be prepared for strange looks or questions from the checkers when they see you purchasing a large quantity of things like the deodorant. If you prefer not to let your left hand know what your right hand is doing (or feel too awkward, like I did), you can always brush the questions aside.
But you could also, if you’re brave, tell the checkers straight-up what you’re doing and treat it as an opportunity to evangelize.
Other Items, Thoughts, and Gestures of Spirit
Another good idea, if you’re somewhat hesitant about handing money to homeless people, is to put gift cards into the bags. We bought McDonald’s gift cards and put them inside. Luke tells me that he’s actually seen several homeless people get very excited when they realized there was a McDonald’s gift card in the bag.
Then there’s also the question of whether or not to put evangelization materials into the bags. Some people think it’s a good idea, as homeless people need God just like we all do. But personally, I don’t think it’s a great idea.
To me, it seems like we’re telling the people, “Oh wait, there’s a catch to my charity. You’d better join my religion now.” Maybe that’s just me, but I tend to think it’s more effective to tell the person something like, “God bless you,” or “You’ll be in my prayers,” when handing the bags out.
Make the Bags and Give Them Away
It’s pretty simple from here on out. Just bring the supplies you’ve bought to one of your homes, spread it out on the table or floor, and make a two-person assembly line to put one of each item into the bags.
Then, you can either keep them handy in your car (maybe only one or two bags at a time if you live in a warmer climate), or if you’re especially brave you can take the bags together to a homeless encampment.
Maybe you’re like me and have an innate hesitance to even approach these people. But as my kindhearted husband and innocent little son remind me, the poor and homeless are Jesus in disguise.
So if you want to grow in holiness together as a couple, serving the poor in a real, tangible way like this is a great way to start.
“Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.” (Mt. 25:40)