Wisdom in Serving the Poor – Chapter 1
The goal of Christian service is to communicate the love of Jesus Christ. The mission of Jesus is the mission of the Church and our mission. It is to recon-cile this world to the Father in Jesus.(cf. 2 Cor 5:18-20)
People may sometimes ask us, as representatives of the outreach ministry with the poor, “How do you decide who really needs help?” “Don’t people sometimes abuse your charity?” “Should you help people who refuse to work to help themselves?” Questions from the skeptics should never be feared but treated as friends because they force those in ministry to articulate clearly the Why and How of outreach to the poor. The answers given to these sorts of questions will determine the whole character of a ministry. We must seek the Lord for His wisdom in serving the poor. It is clear that we cannot simply adopt the “worldly wisdom” of the day; we cannot look down on the poor. Rather, we believe that the poor are especially loved by the Lord, and that He wants us to help them. “The hungry He has filled with good things.” -Lk 1:53
When any person has a need for help, we want to help. No assessment or judgment of a person’s character should determine the poor person’s worthiness to receive help, since all human beings are children of God with whom He desires to share eternal life. The volunteer interviewer is not a judge, but a fellow-traveler in the pilgrimage of life. The Good Samaritan in Jesus’ parable did not “judge” the roadside victim to determine whether or not he was “worthy” of help – the victim obviously had a real need, and the Samaritan provided prompt, compassionate assistance. (cf. Lk 10: 29-37)
Listen for their needs.
The Wisdom of Jesus is unique: if someone asks you for your shirt, give him your coat as well; love your enemies; (cf. Mt 5:39,44) love the sinner; what the Father wants is mercy; (cf. Mt 9:12-13) if someone wrongs you, do not avenge yourself, but forgive him – love others as I have loved you. (cf. Jn 13:34)
In Christian service, we try to help everyone who comes to us with a real need: if someone is out of food or short of clothing, they need food and clothing. If someone is being evicted for non-payment of rent, they need rent money. If someone’s gas or electricity is being shut off, they need money to pay those utility bills. If someone is seriously ill, they need a doctor; if someone has an aching tooth, they need dental care. Oftentimes people need transportation from one place to another. A person may need his house cleaned or repaired, or a pair of crutches, a wheelchair, eyeglasses…
Sometimes a person will think he needs something that he really does not need. For example, we should not help people pay finance notes on the purchase of new furniture or televisions. Many times we must help people to understand that the poverty of the present circumstances can be a path to holiness of life. (cf. Mt 6:20-21,25) We do not “need” all that our American way of life offers. “Blessed are you poor; the Kingdom of God is yours.” Lk 6:20
Sometimes people can be dishonest and deceive us in some way. We could be “ripped-off”. Still, we do not want to greet the poor with suspicion and defenses. Jesus teaches us to be openhanded, joyfully generous with those in need. It is no sin to be ripped off when being generous. The Lord is generous to us, and He expects us to be generous towards others: “Give to the man who begs from you. Do not turn your back on the borrower.” Mt 5:42
We do not just give people the material things they ask for. As Jesus taught us, we must speak the Words of Life; we teach and preach; we encourage and correct. (cf. 1 Thess 5:1-11) The Lord’s assistance to us is not a “no strings attached” proposition. Jesus is surely compassionate and merciful; but He is also very demanding. Jesus expects a lot from us. Our past failures are forgiven, but we are expected to do much better in the future. (cf. Mk 1:15)
A moment of loving encounter.
Therefore, before we provide assistance to anyone, we take them aside privately to talk over their problems. This is called the interview, and is the critical moment of encounter, the “mission moment,” if you will. The one-on-one time usually begins with the obvious: the material need of the individual coming for assistance. A thorough discussion of these needs should be made. Why? Will we be prying too much into people’s lives by asking questions about their money, the people in their home, by asking if their relatives or church have helped them? On the contrary, the more we know a person the better we are able to love them!
But we must bear in mind that our relationship with the person in need is still quite superficial. There are many walls between us which can block the transmission of Christ’s love from us to the person and, yes, from that person in need to us. For example: we’re the haves, they the have-nots; we’re educated, they may not be; we’re one race, they are another; we’re a believer, they have no religious affiliation; this is our hometown, they may be a stranger.
Our whole mission with each person can be accomplished only when we are able to bridge these walls of division so as to communicate Jesus’ love. We must know the barriers – those gigantic walls – which separate us from the poor, or we risk being taken in by the illusion of quick and seeming “success” in our evangelism. We must approach each person with a humble heart by being acutely aware that we ourselves are sinners, and by understanding our own poverty. We have our own walls as well which separate us in different situations from the fullness of Faith, Hope and Love that Jesus comes to give us. Our pilgrimage is not yet complete either.
After finding out everything we can about a person’s needs and that of the family, we will be able to give concrete assistance in those areas of need. Material assistance is as important as any spiritual assistance we may give because the physical body is the doorway to the soul.
- Material assistance should be sufficient to significantly meet the need.
- Material assistance should be quality assistance.
- Good referrals should be given when unable to render specific assistance needed.
- Accurate and confidential records should be kept to aid in future ministry.
May I pray with you?
Then we come to the high point of the interview, when we say the five most important words that we’ll say: “May I pray with you?” This question will elevate the interview to a new, spiritual plane. This question, or one similar to it, opens a crack in the clouds above to let in the light of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit. (cf. Mt 18: 19-20)
The person we’re interviewing should be given the opportunity to voice their concerns first. They must be given complete freedom! Never manipulate or press someone to pray. Suggest in a gentle way that prayer might help. Don’t say, “Let me pray for you,” and immediately launch out with a loud, extended prayer. God knows what is in our hearts before words come to our lips. He isn’t impressed by loudness, but by humility. Be open to praying for the obvious, the most real of the applicant’s needs. Our previous questioning will probably have turned up many needs that we know could be prayed about.
For example, if their situation of need is caused by that person’s sprained ankle or chronic back pain so that they haven’t been able to work, pray a prayer of faith that they be healed. Many Christian service ministries report that the Lord heals when we pray. The five-word question, “May I pray with you?” really means that we believe God can intervene in the human condition, and desires to do so NOW, and especially in the life of that needy person. Have expectant faith that miracles will happen! (cf. Mk 11:22-24)
Giving someone complete freedom also means that they may in fact say, “No” when we suggest prayer. That is perfectly fine. We should never make the applicant’s agreeing to pray a condition for giving them our love, compassion and material assistance.
We can at some point, and always in a gentle, non-condemning way call them to turn away from any apparent sin, to believe the Gospel, to follow in the way of Jesus. We especially focus attention on any sin which contributes to the “problem” for which they seek assistance.
Introduce Them to Their Shepherd.
If we can get people to put the Kingdom of God first, then we know that the Good Shepherd will come to their assistance, and all their needs will be met. We repeat the promises of Jesus: “Seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness and all else will be given to you besides.” Mt 6:33 Ultimately, all of us must rely on God’s grace. It is always God’s work and not our own. If a person insists on separating himself from the Lord, our best efforts to help will not accomplish much. We cannot save anyone; only Jesus can: “There is no salvation in anyone else, for there is no other name in the world given to men by which we are to be saved.” Acts 4:12
The Lord comes to save each of us individually; and in the same way we must treat each request for assistance on its own. There is no factory-like process to follow. We must pray for the wisdom and enlightenment of the Holy Spirit in each case. There is no “hopeless” situation. We have seen the Lord make a way where there was no way. Jesus has a limitless love for the poor. His desire is to provide their every need. He is willing to take the risks, offering Himself defenselessly, generously. He has shown the Way, and we must walk in it. (cf. Jn 3:16-17)
Up next, The Volunteer’s Christ-Like Character.
Written by Mike Firmin, founding Executive Director of Golden Harvest Food Bank.