I responded to the following question on social media recently. I see it as a reformulation of that perennial question: “How should we, as middle-class Christians, respond to the needs of the poor in our immediate vicinity?” This question is especially pertinent when it seems like those asking for help should be able to do more for themselves.
I have a long-time friend who is homeless and has been that way as long as I have known him. He is in his early 50s but claims that since he is an orphan, everyone should take care of him. He references James 1:27 for support, particularly its statement “to visit orphans and widows in their distress.” He basically uses this to defend his ongoing refusal to work.
I replied by saying that that passage talks about people who are helpless (hence the phrase “in their distress”), and also that there is a biblical mandate to work (Gen. 3:19, 2 Thessalonians 3:10). Recently, though, I thought of another passage:
“32 And now I commend you to God and to the word of His grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified. 33 I have coveted no one’s silver or gold or clothes. 34 You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my own needs and to the men who were with me. 35 In everything I showed you that by working hard in this manner you must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that He Himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” (Acts 20).
Since Paul spoke those words to elders, do you think his example of working hard was meant only for church leaders?
Here is how I responded, with a mix of theology and practical advice as one who has done ministry with people in the margins for a while:
To begin with, I would like to move your discussion with this man “up one level” from the impass where it currently sits: He quotes one passage of Scripture and you quote another. Thus, the biblical “ping-pong ball” goes back and forth all day and nothing is accomplished. Eventually, he will wear you down and you will either cave in to his demands (and feel taken advantage of) or lose your temper and kick him out (and feel terrible about yourself). Nobody wins in this scenario.
FYI: I will be speaking in “two’s” for most of this post. I tend to think this is how Christian faith works best: as a “both/and” rather than an “either/or”.
Let’s begin by looking at our core beliefs and commitments as Christians. First: we believe this man is made in God’s image, part of the Body of Christ, and a Temple of the Holy Spirit… as are we all. As a person in need, he is also the presence of Christ to us, as Jesus says in Matthew 25. Our first task is ever and always to love him (Christ-in-him) with the love (of Christ) that is in us. So really, the question becomes: “How does Christ want to love Christ through me, today?” Anything else we do is secondary to (and in service of) this primary goal.
That being said, you cannot save him (he already has a Savior… and it’s not you). There are two big temptations we face, as middle-class Christians in this culture: First, the temptation to look the other way and pretend the poor are not our problem. Second, the temptation to be the “hero” who swoops in to save the day at the last minute. Again, our job is to be Christ to Christ, but not to be anyone’s Savior.
In order to walk this fine line, we have to kill two things within us: our pity and our judgment. To kill pity but not judgment is to grow cold and hard-hearted in the face of suffering. To kill judgment but not pity is to be a doormat and an enabler. Both mistakes lead quickly to ministry burn-out. We absolutely must learn to look past these reactions.
Jesus said, “Give to all who ask of you” but he did not say, “Give them what they ask for.” Likewise, St. Francis of Assisi said, “Let no one depart from before your eyes without having found grace with you.”
Our ministry can never be “hands off” (i.e. “not my problem”). There are times when each of us needs a “hand out” (mercy) or a “hand up” (empowerment). But my main paradigm for doing ministry with people in the margins is always “hand in hand”. One of my slogans is that ministry in the margins is always “ministry with…” not “ministry to…”. Everyone comes to the Church with both needs and gifts. That includes us, the ministers/members of the Church. There is no dividing wall between patron/client, giver/receiver. Every volunteer and leader, even every priest and pastor, has a need somewhere inside of us that we are trying to fill in our ministry. We benefit from the work we do. One of the biggest challenges for middle-class Christians is to let those we serve expose our neediness and vulnerability. Real faith and courage is what allows us to see that in ourselves and not run away frightened by it. Likewise, every needy person at our door has God-given dignity and a gift for ministry they can offer us. We help each other by being Christ to each other. Our greatest wealth is when we call forth the power of these gifts in each other. The greatest poverty is when we can no longer see the ‘Imago Dei’ in ourselves or our neighbors.
Now, let’s get down to brass tacks: To help or not to help this man?
The Church on earth, as we well know, has limited resources. We cannot “save” the poor, but neither can we turn our backs on them. What helps me most in this work is to take St. Paul’s advice when it comes to giving in 2 Corinthians 9:7 – “Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”
Have a plan laid out ahead of time what you individually or your parish corporately can give. Food? Clothes? Rides? A bed? Cash assistance up to a certain amount? Other? Draw boundaries and STICK TO THEM. The Gospel demands that you must give, but give wisely, according to your ability. Your boundaries are what enable you to do ministry in a sustainable way and not get burnt-out or resentful. This is where you get to be creative. Have a plan. Get to know the non-profit and social-services sector in your area. Have a list of phone numbers and addresses where you can refer people. If you can, I highly advise accompanying people to appointments (if they want you to)… you will learn SO much about what life in poverty is really like. Also, service providers are much more likely to do their jobs well if they know someone is watching. From time to time, it may become necessary to be an advocate for a vulnerable person who is being cheated by the system (which happens far more often, in my experience, than poor people trying to cheat the system).
Don’t take it personally when a needy person tries to manipulate you, lie to you, or otherwise cheat the system. For them, it’s a matter of survival and they are doing what (they think) they need to do. You might very well be doing the same thing in their situation. When they do lie or manipulate, think of it as game. If I give a panhandler a buck or two, I’m paying for the story (even though I know it isn’t true). I know my boundaries and keep them, never giving beyond what I can.
Help where you can, say No where you can’t, but remember to stay in relationship.
Over time, as the relationship develops, most needy people will find some way to give back in some way. There is a homeless man in my current parish who has received lots of help over the years. He never seems to get any better, but keeps peddling the same stories and receiving the same help over and over again. However, when the city Fire Marshal showed up with a long list to bring our building up to code, this guy showed up with borrowed tools and did all of the labor. Last June, as our parish relocated out of its building, this guy was the first volunteer to show up every morning and stay all day, helping to move heavy boxes and the sanctuary furniture to our new location. He gave to the church in the only way he was able. Our church is the only one he can go to and know that he will be greeted, hugged, and welcomed as he is.
When it comes to the needy person at your church, I am inclined to say Yes, he is an orphan. He feels all alone, with no one to care about him. He has a plethora of physical, emotional, and spiritual needs.
Here are some questions to consider, as you move forward:
- What help are you and your church able to sustainably give in order to demonstrate Christ-in-you?
- How are you on the lookout for Christ-in-him?
- What are his real needs that fester below the surface?
- What are the gifts that he can bring to the life of the church?
- What are your needs, vulnerabilities, and/or insecurities that this person draws out in you?
- How can you continue to stay in relationship with this person?