When David first met Charles, he was near death. On the way to his inner city ministry office, David had to pick his way through a group of homeless people huddled in the lobby. He describes his first encounter with Charles:
Just in front of the door was a man lying very still. Too still. Something nudged me on the inside, and I knew something was wrong. The nudge was so strong that I forgot everything else and began to try to wake him from his drunken slumber.
Without knowing what I was doing, I saved Charles’s life that morning. Doctors told us later that if he hadn’t been brought to consciousness, he would have drifted into a deep sleep from which he would never have awakened. But Charles did wake up, and then he taught me about mercy.
This story sounds like the beginning of a rags to riches tale, in which the downtrodden becomes the victor. I like that kind of story. But Charles’s story didn’t end that way. A few years after David met him, Charles died. He never overcame his addictions.
Still, David Ruis, author of The Justice God is Seeking, says this about his friend:
Just knowing Charles helped me to understand what it is to love mercy. As I reflect back, I think he had to extend mercy to me more than I to him. There were pockets of prejudice and judgment inside me that I never knew existed; there were attitudes and stereotypes that had to be dismantled as I learned to be a friend to Charles, as we stumbled together along the path to discover what it means to follow Jesus in the brokenness of life.
Judgment is one of the main things that holds me back from treating the poor the way Jesus did. I want to be wise with the resources God has entrusted to me. And honestly the scope of acceptable ways to help the needy often seems narrow.
I can give to a reputable relief organization or homeless ministry, of course. But this action alone lacks the personal touch of Jesus’ ministry. Not to mention, I may never get around to actually doing it.
Not long ago, I wrote a blog post about a church in Seattle that allowed a homeless tent camp to use its parking lot and facilities. I was surprised by the negative reaction of readers. Some of them criticized the church, saying this was not a biblical way to help the homeless.
“We are to live with an open hand toward the poor,” says Darci, a young woman I work with.
Consider Deuteronomy 15:11: “There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land.”
Three years ago Darci became involved with her local rotary club and then the Salvation Army. She started out doing it as part of her job in community relations. “It’s opened my eyes to the poor,” she says. Now she helps with the yearly bell ringing campaign and spends one night a week reading to disadvantaged children.
She points out that providing for the poor is a theme in Scripture seen as early as Leviticus:
When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the alien. I am the LORD your God. (19:9-10)
Some stereotypes of the homeless simply are not true, Darci says. In our community, up to 80 percent are crisis homeless, “the middle class women and children who are couch surfing and in their cars, too embarrassed or ashamed to go through an application process at a shelter because they see their situation as temporary.”
Of the remaining 20 percent — the chronic homeless — as many as two-thirds suffer from mental illness. The percentage of “homeless by choice” is less than 3 percent.Statistics estimated by Dr. Robert J. Holmes, Executive Director for Homeward Pikes Peak
Lending to the Lord
Whether or not the needy deserve our help, there is an undeniable connection between giving to the poor and loving God. Proverbs 19:17 says: “He who is kind to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will reward him for what he has done.”
While it blows my mind that I even could lend something to God, what an amazing privilege! Getting started helping the poor may seem daunting, but opportunities are plentiful.
What are the ministries to the poor in your community? What services do they offer? Even knowing where your city’s homeless shelters are located can help you reach out.
Darci serves on the advisory board for the Salvation Army, which helps her spread the word to others. “Many organizations have an aging volunteer base and are desperate for young professionals to come on board,” she says. “It’s usually just a few hours a month but makes a huge difference to them.”
Pray that God would show you the poor.
In his book, Ruis tells a story about his friend John, who each day would carry with him a bag of perishable groceries for someone with access to refrigeration, a bag of imperishable food for someone with cooking facilities and gift certificates and coupons for those with no access to refrigeration or cooking facilities.
Every day. Every single morning, John left the house with this prayer: “Lord, who am I going to see today? Show me the poor.”
God was faithful to place the needy in John’s path. This man went on to plant the Anaheim Vineyard church, which supports a ministry that feeds hundreds of people each month.
Create a plan to help.
I care about the poor, but too many times I’ve been caught without any means to help. Like John with his bags of groceries, I need to be prepared.
Darci keeps a $5 bill in her car’s center console for those moments when she sees a person holding a sign at an off ramp. “Sometimes I’m led to give; sometimes I’m not,” she says.
Another friend of mine keeps granola bars in her car and fast food gift certificates in her wallet.
No matter how much you say you care about the poor, if your hard-earned cash never makes it to those in need, you may need to check your heart.
Matthew 6:21 says: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Darci says many people will tell her they feel more comfortable giving to services that help the poor than to the homeless themselves. “When given the opportunity, I ask them, ‘so do you?'” If giving financially to reputable services for the poor is your way of helping, great. Just be sure you’re doing it.
Act on the Holy Spirit’s leading.
Giving to the poor doesn’t have to be arbitrary. While there is value in consistent giving, there is also great joy in offering aid as the Spirit directs.
Several years ago, I was walking along the street of major U.S. city when a man asked my friend and I for money. I didn’t have cash and used that as an excuse, as I often do. But my friend pulled out a five and asked the man for his story. He explained that he had a family and was having a difficult time finding work.
My friend asked if she could pray for the man, whose name was Pete.
“Please,” he said.
She prayed for God’s provision and that Pete would be drawn to God’s heart. Her willingness to stop and engage touched me deeply.
She later admitted she doesn’t react that way every time. But that day she did, and her obedience to the Spirit not only impacted Pete, but it made a lasting impression on me as well.
Leave the results to God.
“Once you do the giving your job is done,” Darci says. “It’s between that person and God. I give to show Him I love Him.”
This has been a hard concept for me to grasp. In fact, I was rather shocked by Ruis’ advice for how to respond to a person asking for money (first time):
Give them that 20 bucks or whatever you have and don’t worry about what they’re going to do with it. This is about your heart, not their lifestyle.
There’s a time for rehabilitation — both spiritual and physical — but that comes through relationship and by the grace of God. The truth is, the poor have something important to teach us.
Listen, my dear brothers: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? (James 2:5).
Before he died, Charles wrote a worship song:
Take my hand, dear friend. Take off your shame. We’ll be with Jesus Christ one day. Follow the ways of Jesus Christ.
“Charles got it,” Ruis writes. “[The poor] live and die knowing that mercy is their only hope. Oh God, grant me such sight, such wisdom.”
And I believe He will — when we remember the poor.
Copyright 2008 Suzanne Gosselin. All rights reserved.