The Poor–What is My Responsibilty?

the poor of India

Most Indians are inventive, self-sufficient, and resourceful. I’ve been amazed by the creative ways so many find to make a living and provide for their families. And yet, not surprisingly, we’ve encountered many poor, some who beg for money or food. Seeing them makes me question my responsibility for the poor.

Most sad is watching little children in the streets who come up to cars and ask for handouts. Although some may be orphans, it’s likely that the parents of most of these children have sent them on this daily errand because they either have not chosen or been able to find their own employment. The long-term consequences are far-reaching as these children and their parents fail to develop the skills or receive the education that could someday lift them out of poverty.

But I’m also aware of how little I understand their world. Although we produce enough food to feed everyone in the world our social order is not always set up to do so. Somehow there are those who end up on the bottom of the economic curve and, for various reasons, either must or choose to resort to begging for their food.

A Personal Encounter

I’m thinking back to our first trip to a large outdoor market. Small shop owners specialize in what they sell—fruits and vegetables, beans, rice and lentils, cloth, plastic containers, shoes, most everything imaginable. An example of the entrepreneurial spirit of these people.

As we walked around the market, some people would approach us and ask for money or even food. I felt compassion for them. However, I also felt in a dilemma. My little offering would help them survive one more day but would not help lift them into a better life. What do I do?

I struggled particularly when approached by one man with crippled legs. He “walked” by lifting and lowering himself with his hands and arms, his useless legs folded in his lap. He came up to me and held out his hand.

I want to be generous and treat others, particularly those so less fortunate than myself, with decency and respect. I recognize that I was born into a far better life than this man.

But I was uncertain and I’m now ashamed to admit that I was moved to give to this man but did not. I looked at him for a brief, awkward moment, and moved away from his gaze and outstretched hand by walking down a different corridor.

Initially shocked by the sight of someone so deformed, I was afraid of looking in his eyes and connecting with him at a human level. The encounter brought up discomforting thoughts about how to explain/justify to myself how someone could be born into such a cruel world/fate. He’s been this way his whole life. He’s probably accepted it, his “Karma” in Hindu terms. The awkwardness was mine.

My Responsibility

Some of my uncertainty was not knowing the limits of my responsibility. When do I give and when do I stop giving? The need is endless. This man represents but a tiny drop in an ocean of poverty and suffering.

Frankly, some of the people I admire most are those who have committed their lives to endless giving, the “Mother Teresa’s” of the world. There are many who have given up a comfortable way of life to care for the most physically, mentally, and socially destitute. They know that their giving makes but a small dent in human suffering and yet they give all they have, not just in money but service, compelled by an incredible compassion and responsibility to their fellowman. How I respect their selfless giving.

However, I’ve been told that better than giving a handout is giving to the charities that serve these people. The leaders and care-givers of these organizations try to serve in ways that that not only preserves human dignity but helps them become more self-sufficient. Hence, part of my ambivalence.

But I don’t know that such organizations reach this man, the one standing in front of me at this moment. So next time I’ll give. I think of a passage of scripture that says, “From he that asks, turn not away.” It even goes on to say, “Are we not all beggars of our Father in Heaven?” Yes, how true.

Who’s to say how much my little offering will do? Perhaps as much for me as him. But I have been born into incredible affluence. I am rich. I have a responsibility for the poor. It just might help and bless another if only for another day. 

Perhaps you’ve felt this dilemma. How have you resolved it?



  1. Fred Zirkle

    Roger, enjoy your emails.
    FYI, my brother Lew founded SIGN. He manufactures implements then trains local surgeons (all for free) to help those with broken legs get back into action.
    One center is in Inda.


    Fred Zirkle

  2. Rachana

    Dr. Allen,

    A strong suggestion from an Indian born & raised. Please get to know these people before helping them financially.
    Please read on mafia operated begging business & thuggery also. Be safe while being compassionate.
    I really applaud you & your wife for doing whatever you are doing for my fellow countrymen & all human kind.
    Thank you.

  3. Jim Arbuckle

    Daily in Minneapolis I get asked at for a hand out. For a long time i didn’t give much until one day I saw a car load of Labor Ready guys go out of there way to help one of these beggars. These guys were working for me and i knew they had very little money.
    Their example changed my life. Now i give to everyone.

  4. Pam Infanger

    My 10 year old grand daughter taught me a wonderful lesson. She asked her parents to put a case of bottled water and a case of saltines in their car. When she encounters someone begging, she hands them water and a package of crackers. “Out of the mouth of babes”

  5. Jan Mayer

    I used to have the same concerns you have experienced. If I didn’t give, it was haunting to think that I could have helped and didn’t. I realized that if I was aware of a need, I was responsible to do whatever I could. I began giving when I was able and discovered I’ve never felt sorry that I helped others-even if they may have been taking advantage of my generosity.
    The judgement part isn’t up to me. Now I feel grateful that for one small moment I might have been a blessing someone sorely needed.

  6. Merlin Jenson

    Yours is a touching analysis of your experience. Yes, we are all “beggars.” But our begging is not usually to sustain physical life.

  7. Jack and Diann Saari

    We have felt the same way. Our ecclesiastical leader answered our question concerning “Who do you choose to help?” by saying that when they ask for help, if they will do what you ask them to do then you help them. This only applies to those who we know well enough to make a request. Concerning all the rest, we must rely on the Holy Ghost…to help us discern what we should do.

  8. Steve

    Acts 3:6 “Then Peter said, Silver and gold have I none; but such as I have give I thee: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth rise up and walk.”

  9. Roger Allen

    I appreciate all the comments to this blog. I appreciate the many perspectives and “truths” in your comments. Thank you.


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