The week I arrived in New Jersey from New Mexico with my wife and children, having driven across country into a very uncertain future, I received an e-mail from the son of one of the elders of the church I had served before leaving in a hurry. He’s my age, and innocently taking his inquiry as to our well-being as honest concern, I replied back that we had made the long trip safely and were staying at the home of church members in New Jersey. I mentioned that we were worried about finances and anxiously looking for work to keep things going.
His reply? Maybe, he suggested, I should get a tin cup and go out into the street.
I’m not kidding.
Things were bad, as I really hadn’t wanted to leave the church in New Mexico (accepting defeat) and so hadn’t prepared much of a fund to support ourselves through the transition. Also, I had never really trained for anything other than ministry and teaching English. There were ESL schools around, and all looking to hire, but with low salary, no benefits and no full-time schedules to start. What on earth was I to do?
In my heart I’ve tried to give that fellow the benefit of the doubt, but considering how badly that congregation hurt me, especially that man’s father, I tend to believe that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. What he probably couldn’t have known was that I read that e-mail at a friend’s computer (mine was in storage, along with most of our other earthly belongings) in Newark, New Jersey, less than a block from Penn Station, and that I had passed several panhandlers on the way in. One, in fact, was a young lady who to this day (now two years later) still sits on my friend’s apartment steps asking for money.
Both in Brazil and now in New Jersey, I’ve seen a lot of homeless people and panhandlers. It is difficult to know what to do. Although I’d like to help, I think I share everyone’s fear that any money I give will end up buying alcohol or drugs. Just giving money isn’t the answer, but then neither is ignoring the person. When a person is begging and people ignore them, there is something dehumanizing about that. The already distorted image of God in that person (perhaps, in some cases, less distorted than in the guy rolling around town in a new BMW?) is only further degraded.
Joshua Graves has an interesting article on New Wineskins about the homeless. A shorter version of this article will be coming out in the May 20 Christian Standard as well. In any event, Josh writes about his experiences helping out with a church project for the poor in a Detroit neighborhood, and the enlightening conversation he has with a homeless man he calls “Professor Jack.” The article is well worth reading.
Homelessness is a chronic problem found in urban environments, something I never really saw growing up in rural Missouri. If a person had been homeless there, someone would have known and tried to help. I suppose the mentally ill and drug-addicted simply found their way to the cities (although there were some addicts and mentally ill people living with family and friends in the region where I was raised).
My family was not wealthy, but my Dad kept making ends meet and Mom was a good manager. A lot of families were on government aid, though it is a matter of debate whether they needed it or not. Overall, life was comfortable. So it struck my family as odd, really odd, when the churches of Quincy, Illinois began sending over truckloads of groceries. People lined up for sacks of dry goods from the good people of Quincy, while their children went swimming at a nearby lake. Every time they had these giveaways, my Mom would find discarded items along the rural roadside during her evening walk. You know, uninteresting things like flour baking powder.
The point is that I have seen people who did not need assistance receiving it, ungratefully throwing out what they didn’t want and laughing behind the backs of the givers. The churches of Quincy had the right intention, but the wrong method. They tossed “the poor” some aid without getting to know the beneficiaries, just as many of their gifts were cast out car windows. Their assistance was careless in both sense: They did it without taking care to do it right, and they did it without showing that they genuinely cared about the recipients.
Now, years later, on my way to church nearly every Sunday I see a line of people receiving breakfast at the steps of one of Newark’s many Episcopal churches. Now, I know that not all of those people are probably truly homeless, but they line up and receive “free eats.” If this is part of an overall package of responses to the difficulties and needs of the poor and homeless, it’s good. But, if this is all a congregation does, it can’t accomplish much.
The challenge to the church, God’s appointed mission-bearer, is figuring out how to effectively address the twin problems of poverty and homelessness. There but for the grace of God and benevolence of the church go I.