How to Give Alms

If you have compassion fatigue, this post is for you.

Revealing God’s presence one dollar at a time.

The biggest mistake that people make with almsgiving is applying corporate law to their reasoning. There are lots of types of charitable giving. There’s philanthropy to community organizations, stewardship of church life, tithing outright to religious organizations, fundraising, supporting far flung ministries and relief. They’re all good things, but they aren’t almsgiving.

For the sake of almsgiving, organizations do not count as people. 

Now that that’s out of the way, you can focus on what almsgiving really is and why it matters. In seasons of fasting, almsgiving can be especially important. I talked about what almsgiving means in my life with Angela Doll Carlson on her Ancient Faith podcast, The Wilderness Journal. Check out those episodes {here} and {here}.

Alms are given by one person to another person, in person.

They are given without judgment and in humility.

They are an outpouring of overabundant gratitude to God, whether or not they flow from an abundance of financial resources. 

The teachers of the Church have always stressed the importance of almsgiving for spiritual health. If you have compassion fatigue from the stacks of requests for financial support that come in the mail at this time of year, this should relieve you. Why? Because the pile of demands that meet you online and in your mailbox are not required of you.

Alms are not grand gestures. They’re quiet, and they’re personal. They won’t get your name on a mailing list or on a brick or a wall or a scholarship. 

You also don’t have to go out of your way to find and put together a Pinterest-worthy “blessing bag” or other pre-packaged gift to beggars. In fact, it’s probably better that you don’t.

Almsgiving is fundamentally a practice in not judging one’s neighbor. 

If you avoid almsgiving because you think poorly of the characters of beggars, then perhaps it’s time to make a good beginning.

Here’s how to give alms to strangers:

  1. Gather small bills. If you don’t carry cash, go out of your way for a month to save change and have it turned into dollar bills, or cash a $20 bill into ones. It takes preparation.
  2. Use the time of preparation as a reminder to thank God and to pray for those who will receive the alms, whoever they are.
  3. Put a few dollars, folded individually, into a pocket or an accessible place in your vehicle if you’re likely to see people while driving.
  4. When you see a beggar or happen upon someone short a couple bucks in line, give the money to them, from your hand to theirs.
  5. Ask them to pray for you. You can say, “please pray for me,” or “Please pray for my family,” or “Please pray for {your name} a sinner,” if you like. (That last one seems over the top in the US, but do as you feel led.)
  6. If they ask you to pray for them, too, tell them you’ll do so. If not, nod anyhow.
  7. Smile and go on your way, thanking God for the glory of a person – the living icon – you just got to encounter. Pray for them.

To friends, it’s up to you. Cash, check, gift card, anonymous or not, the main thing is that you give freely and with gratitude. 

Did I just tell you to give with gratitude? Yes. You will become happy in giving. It will humble you and fill you with joy and thanksgiving.

What if you need alms?

Ask. Let your need be known. Pray. Give thanks to God whether you receive or not. Do not allow oppression to make you bitter. When you receive alms, pray for the people who gave.

Last year, our family had a few months of financial crisis during which we gratefully received alms from several families of our acquaintance, some anonymous and some not. I was profoundly grateful to all those who gave, and I spent hours before the icons thanking God for the givers and praying for them.

If this sounds a bit like you’re buying prayers, that’s because alms is a part of praying without ceasing that you can see. When the desert fathers talked about praying without ceasing, they assumed the poor they supported by their alms would pray for them while they slept or took care of other bodily needs.

We are all in the presence of God together, and almsgiving makes the togetherness visible.

What’s your experience with almsgiving? Comment for our mutual encouragement.

{For a reflection on almsgiving during my time of trying to give alms in-kind, check out my older post, A Tale of Two Grannies.}

1 thought on “How to Give Alms”

  1. I quite often encounter people asking for alms with signs at the off ramp on the freeway. There is very little time. I began to get frustrated when I had only large bills (ten or twenty) and I encountered the people asking four or five days a week (not always the same people). I finally decided I could afford to give five dollars four or five days a week, and would get a stack of five dollar bills from the bank, so now I always carry some fives. Now whenever I encounter someone asking for alms on the off ramp or on the street, I always have something to give.

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