April 11, 1889
"At Our Gates"
THE readers of The Independent have no doubt seen in the daily papers the story of a workingman named Sillars, an industrious, sober fellow, with a wife and child dependant on him, who, losing his position in the Cellonite works at Arlington, went to Connecticut in search of work. He wandered through the state for two or three weeks with no success, and at last, penniless and starving, was driven to beg a cup of coffee from a farmer’s wife. The woman refused it and caused his arrest. He was tried, convicted of having begged for food, and sentenced to a month’s imprisonment and a fine of $30. This is the lightest punishment awarded in Connecticut, it appears, to any man or woman who asks for food. This man, be it understood, was gentle and civic in manner, quietly telling his piteous story.
Pillars escaped from jail and returned home, but was reclaimed by the State of Connecticut and haled back to serve out his full term.
His wife and child, being homeless and without food, were cared for by some kindly neighbors, almost as poor as themselves.
My readers will probably recall another incident which occurred in New York City a few years ago, which bears the same significance as this story. A woman driven from her home by a drunken husband with a starving child in her arms walked, one bitter winter’s night, from one great charitable institution to another and was rejected by all, because she had not the requisite papers of admission. The law forbade her to beg at any private house. She sat down at last on the steps of a church, and there, while the well-meaning worshipers passed in to their prayers, the baby froze to death.
Now, what do these incidents tell us of the condition and temper of the Christian people who throw a starving man into prison because he asks for food, and who allow a baby to freeze to death rather than break the red-tape regulations of asylums?
Not that they are wanting in pity for the poor, or are unwilling to help them. Never, since the world began, was the feeling of brotherhood which Christ taught as strong in it as it is now.
But it shows its strength by united efforts, rather than by individual action. The Lady Bountiful no longer doles out flannels, soup and good counsel to men and women (every one of whom she knows), or feels herself responsible for their clothes, stomachs and morality. She belongs to a Guild or an Association for the Suppression of Mendicancy and trusts to its machinery to do this gracious work for her.
I know all the arguments in favor of these organizations, and acknowledge their force. The country, we are told, is overrun with tramps and professional beggars. It is not the duty of the industrious Christian to encourage them by indiscriminate alms-giving. Give your money to the Board of Charities, or the Society for the Suppression of Beggary, and their agents will take care that it reaches only the worthy poor, etc., etc.
This is all true enough, and the organized machinery is fit and useful, unless it happens to fall into the hands of mercenary, tricky men, as it sometimes does.
But its purpose, be it remembered, is the protection of well-to-do people from imposters, rather than the helps of the poor. In the eyes of the Society for the Suppression of Mendicancy, or of the law-makers of Connecticut, every man who asks for food is a scoundrel and fraud until he proves himself otherwise.
You, a Christian, give your money to the agents of this Society, and henceforth wash your hands of all care of your needy brother. The agents will visit him, question him, and relieve him, if they see fit. He will not dare to ask you personally for help and sympathy.
This work of protection done by these organizations is doubtless a good, admirable work.
But it is not the work which Christ exacted from you and me, and which he never intended we should hand over to any agent or visitor. The damage done by these organizations to Christianity is that they offer to relieve us of that duty and soon make us willing to shirk it.
No Christians can throw the saving of his soul or the saving of his brother’s soul on to a board, or a committee. And how can his own soul grow stronger or higher, or how can he lift his brother out of a mire if he does not come into direct, helpful contact with him? It is the first duty laid down for us by the Elder Brother of us all. We must visit, feed, help the sick, the poor, the prisoner, in person not by agents, giving to the work whatever intelligence, zeal and tenderness is in us. No plausible argument of political economists can free us from this obligation. It is childish prejudice to find a tramp in every man out of work, or a criminal in every wretch that is starving. The poor to whom we owe help still are with us always.
The course of conduct which Christ prescribed for us in this matter is the wisest, even in the light of policy. If the woman (a professed Christian) to whom Sillars came, friendless and starving, had given him food, listened to his story and used her influence to find him work, she would have helped a whole family back to usefulness and respectability and have elevated her own nature. When she caused his arrest as a criminal she made paupers of his wife and child. The State of Connecticut also expended nearly $100 upon the case, which will be paid by the industrious tax-payer.
But it is not the economic bearing of the case that I wish to urge upon my readers, especially on the women at whose gates stands the hungry wretch—the possible tramp. It is the fact that they, individually, owe care and help to him, be he honest or a thief. No middle-man, in the shape of agent or society, can pay that debt for them.
God gives them this opportunity to stretch out a helping hand to their brother. The more of a fraud or a criminal he is the more he needs it. Some day hereafter he will hold reckoning with them to know how they have used that opportunity.
1. See Davis's "Indiscriminate Charity," New-York Daily Tribune (2 Jan. 1877), 2. ↩
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