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In Sarajevo, Exploring the Ethics of Giving

By Jack Mewborne D’99

Photo courtesy of Jack Mewborne
Jack Mewborne D’99 with children in front of the Youth Center, Gornji-Vakuf, Bosnia, July 2003. “Whenever the children see us in town, they give us hugs and high-fives,” says Mewborne.

It was just a normal warm and bright Sunday afternoon. The streets of Sarajevo were filled with people walking and talking. Several members of our mission team were sitting at a sidewalk table under a large Coca-Cola umbrella enjoying our overpriced but refreshing colas.

Suddenly, a small boy with tattered clothes, tousled hair, and dry dirt caked on his face wandered over and stood in front of me with a sad look that seemed rehearsed. I patted my pants leg and told him in English that I didn’t have any money. After a few awkward moments he moved beside our co-leader Melinda’s chair.

Melinda carefully selected a coin from her purse, placed it in his outstretched palm, and he departed as quickly as he had arrived. But this small Roma boy on the streets of Sarajevo left something behind. His sudden presence and absence became the impetus for dialogue concerning discriminate and indiscriminate giving in light of human decency and informed Christian ethics.

As we talked about whether it was right or wrong to give money to someone begging in the street, Melinda’s comments struck a nerve. “It doesn’t matter what the person does with the money that you give them, God is most concerned with the heart of the giver,” she said. “What they choose to do with the money is between them and God.”

I responded by asking, “But aren’t we required to be good stewards of the limited resources we have?” Those few comments launched a conversation that lasted for much of the three-hour van ride back to Gornji Vakuf/Uskopje, where we were engaged in an UMCOR project with the post-war children of that ethnically-divided town.

In Bosnia we encountered numerous unkempt children groomed in the art of begging, as well as mothers, babes in arms, pleading their cases with desperate looks of hopelessness. Interestingly enough, we were never approached by men, which led me to wonder cynically if experience had proven women and children are most adept at gaining sympathy.

This begging was in stark contrast to our experience of Bosnian hospitality and pride. Our friends and hosts were all struggling to survive in an area where the unemployment rate is more than 50 percent, and those with jobs work long hours for very little money. But there is a prevailing attitude of pride among Bosnians. Even though their homes have been structurally damaged by war, the insides are kept tidy and flowers are everywhere. Disdain for the practice of begging is clear.

In all honesty, I find being asked to give away my “hard-earned” money an affront to my capitalist sensibilities. It is easier for me to appreciate the entrepreneurial spirit of those who sell trinkets to tourists, or those who attempted to earn money by washing our car windshield.

But I find it baffling that someone would make no effort at self-support and, without a trace of pride, beg as a means of survival. My typical response was to take refuge in the language barrier, hiding behind my inability to speak with those who wordlessly communicated their desire for money. It would have been easy to hand out a few coins and forget the people begging for them. Frankly, it was easy enough to justify denying them as well. But an ethical question remains that I have yet to fully reconcile within myself: What is my Christian duty to them?

Does a handful of loose change make me a proponent of their lifestyle, at best, and a sucker at worst? Or is the gift and the giving an expression of God’s love, and therefore worthwhile? Am I required to exercise faithful stewardship of the things God has entrusted to me, or is that merely an excuse to protect my precious American sensibilities? Is it enough to appease a beggar with a coin or two, or does my Christian responsibility extend beyond such a disembodied gesture to an incarnational theology that demands a fuller expression of God’s grace and the abundant life it affords?

I realize how much easier it is for me to give when I see a need, and can help without being asked, than when someone unashamedly asks for my help, expecting me to trust his or her intentions. In the parable of the Prodigal son, the loving father gave the younger son his full inheritance. If we understand the father as God, we must therefore acknowledge that he knew that his son would squander the money. Yet it wasn’t the money that concerned the father, it was having a relationship with his son. The money didn’t matter. The relationship mattered. Maybe that is what should concern us most when we are approached by someone begging—not the money, but the relationship that we could have with them as ambassadors for Jesus Christ.

What do you think?

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JACK MEWBORNE D'99 is a youth minister at Benson Memorial United Methodist Church in Raleigh, N.C. His passion for missions has been fueled by experiences with hurricane relief work in eastern N.C. and Mississippi, the Hinton Rural Life Center in Hayesville, N.C., the Appalachian service project, and foreign missions in Jamaica, Bosnia, Macedonia, and Viet Nam. His latest adventure is training for a triathlon.