“What the Poor Have to Say About Responding to the Poor.”
Recently, a friend sent me a blog written by Shawn Smucker titled, “35 Years in Church and I Still Don’t Know How to Respond to Poverty.” As I read it, I was struck by its candor, its honesty, and its heartfelt confession. Shawn writes about encountering multiple opportunities to reach out to someone in poverty, but not knowing how. He said, “Thirty five years going at least once a week…to a place where people meet who have dedicated their lives to following Christ. Yet, after all those years, I still don’t know how to respond to poverty.”
I believe that Shawn’s feelings are shared by many people both inside and outside the church today, particularly around the holidays. As a pastor who has served in an urban setting for 7 years I sometimes struggle with knowing the best way to respond even though the needs of the poor are right outside my door. How should we respond to the poor? I believe that the best answer to that question comes from the poor themselves. Here are some of the insights that I have learned from listening over the years.
1 Relationships Heal--If you ask most middle to upper middle class people, “What are the biggest problems facing the poor and homeless today?” They will usually say, “money, housing, and jobs.” And they would be right. But if you ask the homeless the same question, they will say, “Loneliness, Fear, Depression, and Worthlessness.” Jesus knew that relationships heal. That’s why he did not just give handouts and send people on their way. He took the time to sit with them, to listen to their stories and to see their worth as human beings. That’s why the seating at The Gathering is arranged with round tables rather than pews. Because we believe that relationships are formed around the table. How can your church’s outreach to the poor provide not just relief, but relationships?
2 Cash is Not King— Our church has adopted a “no cash” policy when it comes to giving relief. Why? Because our downtown community, like many urban settings is plagued with addiction and cash is the currency of choice. Therefore, when someone asks you for cash, respond with caution, but be prepared with an alternative. Consider carrying gas cards, bus tickets, gift cards, or coupons from local fast food restaurants. In addition, once a month, our church holds a special prayer service and takes an offering for the poor. All of the money collected from that offering supplies our church office with emergency needs. And remember: Once you’ve helped someone, make sure to invite them to church or to the next event at your church. Find a way to feed the poor in your community both spiritually as well as physically.
3 Give the Poor a Way to Give Back—If we are not careful, the church can become an enabler of dependency by not giving those who receive assistance a chance to give back. When Haiti was devastated by an earthquake in 2009, our church was new and worshipping about 45 people in the basement of another church. Most of the people who came were living in homeless shelters, were unemployed and were consumed with worry about how they would get by. That Sunday, we looked at the pictures of the devastation in Haiti and the tremendous loss of life there. I told them, “if you have a roof over your head, you have more than the people in Haiti today. If you have a hospital to go to, you have more than the people in Haiti. If you know where your next meal is coming from, you have more than the people in Haiti.” Then I asked, “How can we give of ourselves to help these people in such great need?” The rest of that morning, everyone at The Gathering pitched in to pack emergency health kits to be shipped to Haiti the next morning. The people who came to church that Sunday with heavy burdens and worried faces, consumed with their own problems, left with smiles, expressions of thanks and a newly found purpose. One man said, “ I never realized that I had so much to give.”
Rev. Carrie Jena is the Pastor of The United Methodist Gathering in Middletown, Ohio. She may be reached at email@example.com. The Gathering worships 125 people from the downtown Middletown community on Sunday morning and over 100 for Christ-Centered addiction recovery on Monday nights. Donations may be mailed to PO Box 30 Middletown, Ohio 45042
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