I've learned a lot from the beggars of Shanghai. I have had a few painful lessons but also some sweet spiritual experiences in connecting with the ones that are really in need.

A few nights ago as I walked out of a restaurant I wanted to try but just didn't feel right about eating at, I was approached very quietly by a young girl, perhaps 18, but too thin and definitely poor. Timid, shy, sorry to bother me, she explained in Chinese that she and her mother needed help to get back to Nanjing. My "shake down" alarm went off, as usual, and I was going to just give a token amount and walk away, but as I looked at her, and then her mother who was also there, it just seemed obvious that she wasn't used to this and really was in a tight spot. I gave a large bill and they lit up and I walked away. Then there was a tug on my arm. They were following me, gently, but persistently, for the daughter had more to say. I supposed they found someone gullible enough and didn't want to lose out on trying for more. But it seemed they really did need a little more, and perhaps I could help. I did. I doubled what I had given before and apparently exceeded their expectations. They seemed so relieved and glad. They followed me some more, not asking for more, but glad to have someone that was friendly to them. What cemented my trust for them was their expression of gratitude and an offer to welcome me in Nanjing if I ever come there. I do go there, I told them, and would be glad to introduce me my wife to them. So they wrote down their phone number and appeared happy at the thought of being visited there. I then gave them some more cash. They were OK with that and extremely gracious.

OK, maybe it was all a con job, but I also know that there are truly needy people who don't want to beg but really need someway to ask for help. The girl was awkward, timid, inexperienced, humble, and so relieved to get the help they needed. The mom was sweet and seemed like one of the hardy good people of China that I love so much. It just made me glad that I was able to be there and help, and not just blow them off. I hope I successfully distinguished an appropriate and legitimate need from a con job. I skipped the fancy dinner I was going to eat that night (I was a lone bachelor then with my wife in the U.S.) to partially make up for the cost of helping them, and was glad to just eat some food from the refrigerator. I really hope I made a difference. I did follow up a few days later and they were in Nanjing and seemed to be managing OK, and didn't ask for more money. As far as I can tell at this point, they were legitimately in need and are good people. If I'm right, I am glad I was able to help. I can't do this for everyone, but I could for them.

Another lesson came a couple of weeks ago with a man who approached me on the street. He seemed to be acting like he was hungry and like he couldn't talk well. He pointing to his mouth, grunting or moaning for food and holding out his hand for money. Yeah, right. Unconvinced, I said, “OK, let me buy you some food.” He looked confused. I pointed to a little convenience store nearby, sort of an open kiosk, and told him to come over there with me and I would get him some food (unspoken thought: "as if you're really hungry, you scammer!"--I was really feeling about that skeptical). I walked over to the store and naturally, he didn't follow.

I gave him another chance and pointed at the food there. Then he got it. He cautiously walked over and looked. My goodness, he looked at the food as if he might really did want to eat something. I said, "If you want some food, I'll buy some. Go ahead, pick something." He cautiously pointed to some instant noodles. Yes, I'll pay for this. More? Then some chicken feet or something weird and cheap like that, and a drink, and another snack. Sure, I'll pay. Then he seemed really excited and got another item, looking at me like a child looking to see if it was OK to add it. I gave a nod and he was glad. I paid for it as the storekeeper and his friends laughed at the whole situation. High comedy, this weird American in a suit buying snacks for a beggar. It was only about $8. When it was paid for and handed to the man, that son of God that I had distrusted was so happy. Tears came to his eyes and he smiled with his rotten, disgusting, damaged, missing teeth and thanked me with words he could barely utter with his speech impediment and then hugged me, twice. We were brothers, united for a sacred moment. I need to go back and feed him again as I remember this event.

And then there are crooks and thieves and con men who spoil the joy of helping the needy and make it hard to give where it matters. Thank goodness for the Church welfare program and for all the other good charities around the world that work directly with the needy and try to help in the right way, but these are never enough and we must do our own hand-to-hand combat with poverty from time to time, when possible. Someday I hope I can develop ninja-like skills in that regard. And it’s one of the things that energizes me about my work, the idea that I can help create jobs and wealth for others in a part of the world that truly needs more prosperity.

As for the problem of poverty, I’ll share my most recent story with beggars. On my way back from loading up on cash a nearby ATM, I walked past a woman clearly in need of help. A poor woman who was digging through a garbage can and pulling out some food items that I guess she was going to eat. I think she was looking for recyclable plastic as well. I walked past and felt bad for just ignoring her and wondered what to do, since she wasn’t asking for help. With a prayer in my heart, not wanting to offend her or embarrass her but just wanting to help, I approached her and discreetly held out a bill and said something like, “Here, you can buy some food.” She looked up at me with beautiful, intelligent eyes set firmly in her tight, skinny face. There was a gracious smile and a polite bow but then a firm shaking of the head. “No, no,” she insisted and waved the cash away. She wouldn’t take it. She didn't seem offended and I think she understood my intentions and smiled kindly, but was firm in turning me down.

There was grace and dignity in that smile from an impoverished woman who wouldn’t take unearned cash. I could do nothing more, smiled back, and walked back to the luxury of my simple apartment. A few steps later, I stepped over a trampled, flattened white flower on the cement and recognized it as a painful symbol of that woman. She had flattened by economic burdens, with potential unrealized under the pressures of life. What would her life be like if she had the blessings of education and did not need to spend her days digging through garbage to survive?

How great the need is to lift people and nations from poverty. This is why I’m passionate about innovation, about new products and the jobs that can be created in healthy markets and the lives that can be enhanced with economic development. This is why business matters to me, at least somewhat. Economic development can lift the poor in ways my little handouts never could.

On the other hand, those in poverty may have wisdom and spiritual strength that the wealthy will never know, unless they repent and humble themselves in serving others. It’s wrong to think that the woman digging through garbage lives a less meaningful or precious life than mine and that her mortal sufferings can’t be used by God to refine her for great and wise eternal ends. But I think the world would be much better if she had enough for her and her family, and could spend more of her time developing new skills and gaining new knowledge in other ways, ways that are difficult for the poor. God can certainly use poverty, but I think the world could use a lot less of it.
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