35 Years in Church and I Still Don’t Know How to Respond to Poverty

It’s Monday night and the bus is parked at a truck stop somewhere outside Des Moines. I sit in the passenger seat feeling tired and irritable, playing some game or other on my iPhone. The sun, gone from the sky, leaves a wake of color where it was just shining bright and hot a few minutes ago.

I suppose there are many tangible reasons for my irritability tonight: a desire to be home (wherever that is), anxiety about the future, and three and a half months in cramped quarters with five other people (all of whom have many more reasons to be irritated with me than I do with them). Worrying about waste water tanks and fresh water tanks and the money required to keep this beast running.

But emerging in my mind is an unsettled feeling, something new. Something that’s been gaining ground as the trip has progressed. Something beyond my own circumstances.

It started to make itself known in a tangible way a few days ago, when we were in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and we approached the on-ramp of the highway. A forlorn man stood there on the corner. He looked rather pitiful, like a homeless person who had tried to dress up and fallen horribly short. His hair looked combed, but in a way that made me think it wasn’t combed often. He looked self-conscious. Perhaps that’s what he was, because as we drove up, I noticed he held a cardboard sign. I expected the sign to say something like, “Homeless, need money.” But the words I saw scratched in black marker put a lump in my throat.

“Worthington” was written across the top, and “Daughter’s Graduation” was written along the bottom.

Worthington is a town in Minnesota, about 60 miles away. And tonight, as I sit here playing some meaningless game on my iPhone, I’m wishing I would have taken the afternoon and driven him there. Two hours out of my life. I wonder if someone going to Worthington (or that general direction) took him. Or if perhaps, at some graduation ceremony, a girl scanned the crowd, disappointed because once again her father had not come.

* * * * *

Then tonight, as we drove to a Ruby Tuesday’s to use a gift card some friends had given us, we passed another person, a woman this time, standing at another intersection.

“Stranded. Need food,” the black magic marker had written on her strip of cardboard. And again my heart caught in my throat. And my jaw clenched. And I drove on by. We went to Ruby’s and had a good meal, and my youngest cried about his dessert, and I found myself disappointed with what I had ordered.

But my stomach was full, and I wouldn’t have to worry about food until the next morning, when I would look through the fridge and eat whatever I wanted to eat.

Why didn’t I stop the van and take her along?

* * * * *

Again and again, poverty has called out to me on this trip. More than at any other time in my life. Maybe it’s because I’m out of my routine and my eyes are open. I’m looking around. I’m more aware. I’m in surroundings that I do not take for granted.

Again and again, I’ve been sorely disappointed by my response, which basically has been confusion, or uncertainty, or a willingness that comes far too late. My automatic reaction to those in need is skepticism, or distrust. Which is especially sad, considering that I have spent the last 35 years in church. 35 years going at least once a week, and up to four times a week, to a place where people meet who have dedicated their lives to following Christ. Yet after all of those years, I still don’t know how to respond to poverty.

Of course, I do not blame the church. I blame me. I’d like to say that today was the last time. Never again will I encounter poverty without doing something. Anything.

Yet that feels like so many empty promises, and I’m left here, in the passenger seat of a big blue bus, and the sky is almost dark, and I don’t feel that I understand it any better than I did before.

Last week I offered to answer any question you folks cared to ask about our trip. 24 of you took me up on it – tomorrow I begin answering them. Don’t miss it.

35 Replies to “35 Years in Church and I Still Don’t Know How to Respond to Poverty”

  1. I hate to admit this, but when I see people like you described, I am cynical. It stems from seeing the same person stand at an intersection day after day with different signs. One said tornado victim. Another said Vietnam veteran. In the same time period, I saw a team of “homeless” get some groceries and proceed to call someone on the payphone to come get the groceries while they worked for more.
    Yet Christ doesn’t call me to be cynical and I struggle with the coldness and hardness of my heart.

    1. I know, Larry, I feel the same way. But just now as I was reading your comment, I wondered: why do people feel they have to lie to get money? One reason, I guess, is that no one gives them money if they simply say they’re poor.

  2. It can be scary stepping outside those comfort zones. I’d recommend starting by volunteering at a soup kitchen. Free to you; huge to them. And the whole family can do it together.

  3. *sigh* You are not alone in your confusion of knowing/not knowing what to do in those situations. I too have stumbled down that road. When I still lived at home, I was up very late one night and a knock sounded on the front door. It was after midnight, we lived on Main Street, I had one dim light on and the TV was on. I ignored the knock. Then a second knock came. Mom and Dad were sound asleep upstairs. “Please wake up,” I pleaded to the ceiling. No sound of movement upstairs. I ignored knock #2. Knock #3 came and it was a little louder and more insistent. I could ignore no longer. I opened the door. A young gentleman spilled out a sob story about his car being broken down and could I give him $20.00 to pay for the tow. I didn’t have $20.00. Mom did in her purse in the dining room, but that was Mom’s money, not mine. After repeating my answer, “No,” many times and he begging hard each time I said it, he finally gave up and I could close the front door.

    As soon as the door was shut, guilt washed over me along with so many questions: “Should I have given him the money?” “Was he telling the truth?” “Did I just have a chance to ‘entertain an angel’ and I blew it?” I prayed right on the spot that if God ever put me in this position again, I would give the person the money.

    Lo and behold, several years later, married and living on a small country road, staying up late again with one light on in the living room, a knock sounded at our front door. I wanted to ignore the knock so bad, but my prayer from that night years before came shouting out from someone in my brain. So I answered. Another sob story. Needing money to pay for the medicine for their sick son. I was very doubtful. I asked where there was a drugstore opened at this hour. This answer came with no hesitation. With that prayer seemingly screaming through my head, I decided to give the gentleman the money. It was only $10.00 and I paid it out of my piano lesson cash. I closed the door with a huge sigh of relief.

    A day or two later, my husband warns me about a couple going through the neighborhood asking for money to help pay for medicine for their sick son. “Don’t give it to them,” he says. “They are buying drugs for themselves with the money.” My heart dropped to my stomach and turned to stone as I told my husband that it was too late. They had already been here and I gave them the money. “How much?! he said with fear in his voice. “$10.00 and I paid it out of my piano money.” He seemed relieved.

    I was immediately filled with anger and disappointment. “Okay, Lord. I listened to that prayer of promise from that late night years before. I acted like I said I would. Why?! Why, Lord would you allow me to be duped? Why would you allow my funds to be misused like that? Why, why, why???

    I prayed another prayer: “Lord, don’t put me in another situation like this ever again.” He hasn’t. *sigh* My confusion still exists and my questions were never answered. *sigh* You are not alone, Shawn…

    1. I know what you mean, Paula, and I struggle with the same thing myself. What I try to remind myself is that an encounter like this is an opportunity to be an agent of blessing – a chance to let the Lord minister through me. It’s like the parable of the seed strewn on the rocks, dry ground, or fertile soil; maybe we’re just meant to provide the means, and let Him handle the next bit. Whether someone chooses to accept the blessing, or reject it in favor of doing themselves harm… well, that’s very hard for me to let go of the idea that it might be my business. I don’t like to think that I’m funding someone’s next drug fix or alcoholic binge; but if I really believe that what I have is a gift, then maybe it’s not up to me to decide what happens to it next. It’s not easy at all to restructure my thinking, though.

      1. Whether you’re funding someone’s next drug fix or dose of alcohol is, fundamentally, irrelevant. You’re still helping them. Maybe you’re helping them avoid doing something illegal — like robbery, mugging, or prostitution — to get their fix. Maybe they’ll be able to afford both a bag of heroin or a bottle of liquor AND dinner. Maybe you’ll help them get through their next day at work without being disabled by DTs or withdrawal syndrome. In any case, if someone’s begging for drug money, they’re in a real low place.

        Jesus told people to help others who needed help if you could help them. He didn’t say anything about prequalifying them.

  4. We are all so prone, today, to do that. How many of our military personnel depend on hitching a ride to get back to base on time? Few, very few, but in my youth that was a common practice. The guys could count on the goodness of a passing motorist to get them back before they were AWOL. Recently, I bought a meal I didn’t want, for a man I didn’t know who had all his earthly possessions in a grocery cart, and he refused it. All I could hear in my head though was, “If you offer a cup of cold water in my name . . .” I was scared to approach him and his big black barking dog, but more frightened not to. I don’t know what that means, you’re not alone in being cynical. I’m sitting right beside you wondering if this is all a sham or a true look at the heart of broken individual. And I’m sad that I feel this way.

  5. It can be very hard to discern whether we are helping or enabling. Helping someone who is in need is just about the most rewarding experience on Earth. Enabling an addict or abuser can be gut wrenching and even- perhaps- foolish.There is no perfect answer.
    Personally, the best solution for me has been to partner with established nonprofits that work in my community and to give food stuffs (apples, sandwiches, water) to folks I run in to in town or on adventures. Giving a sandwich, a genuine smile and a silent prayer is usually acceptable regardless of scenario. If you want to help empower homeless, jobless, immigrants, abuse survivors…the list goes on and on….find an organization in your area and get started. Most non profits need many volunteers and donors involved to serve their clients. Jump in and join with a charity you are passionate about. Odds are great that you will be thrilled you took the step!
    Volunteers for everything from filing to direct care assistance. Whether it is your time or money you can give, go for it
    there are many

  6. Oh, I resonate with so much in this post. Every time I pass someone with the cardboard sign along the road, I wonder. How should I respond, Lord? My mother-in-law keeps a Costco size container of healthy & protein packed granola bars that she can hand them. But I wonder, is that condescending? But yet, surely it is better than the nothing that I give.

    We are in a time and place in which people take advantage of others with their begging. But is that a reason not to give? I don’t know.

    I spent a summer working with the homeless population in Los Angeles. Every time someone asked us for money, we were told to make the time to take them to lunch. Not just give them food, but sit across the table, and have a conversation. It only worked out a few times, but I always got the impression that the conversation, the being treated like a human being, meant more to them than the food.

    1. So awesome that your mother-in-law does that! I’ve been thinking about keeping granola bars or something like that in my car or else creating goodie bags with shampoo, soap, and so on. Yes, there are people that take advantage of others’ kindness but I believe they are in the minority. If I feel led to give (money, food) to someone, I’m not responsible for what they do with the gift.

  7. Sry…kindle not functioning properly…splicing comment. Anyway, you get the idea.
    Try not to overthink and just get involved. Not trying to come off preachy on this. I am just
    passionate about us all helping each other along on our journey. We need each other. To serve and be served
    requires stepping out of our standard, comfy box and it could be the most meaningful step we take.

  8. Ricky and Maria – I completely agree with your ideas regarding serving, which is why Maile and I always try to be involved in some sort of family service project that all of us can participate in. I think those types of activities are super important. What I’m talking about today are those everyday occurrences where my life intersects with those in financial or relational poverty…and I’m just not sure what to do in those moments.

  9. Shawn, I hear your heart. I’m a grown man and you have a way of making me cry. We all see it every day so what do we do? Some of the folks I meet on the corners are “professionals” at what they do. Does that exempt me? No and again I say NO!! What I do is I keep a case of bottled water in my vehicle and hand it to them. Now, that certainly is not ALL that is needed. It’s a start. I like the post last week about the “Plus One” project. I can do more, just one at a time!! Thanks for blogging.

  10. This is such a common experience, I think. What is the best response? Sometimes it is to give the $$, to offer the ride, to provide the meal. Right there, on the spot. But more often than not, it is to commit to community service organizations that are already on the scene and helping them to make a more lasting difference. Thanks for writing your heart here, Shawn. It’s a good, searching heart.

  11. I’ve been wrestling with this same thing, Shawn. The homeless community has been on my heart for awhile but I haven’t known the best way to reach out, nor have I taken advantage of all the opportunities (being approached by members of the homeless community) that have come my way. In part, it’s a safety issue (don’t pick up hitchhikers! people want to take advantage!) but there’s also a fear of how my actions will come across (will they feel condescended to? am I assuming something about them that isn’t true?) But at the end of the day, some action might be better than no action at all.

    Yes, we’re responsible for our own action or inaction. But I wish churches better modeled this for their congregations. If it was less us vs. them, if we focused more on grace and less on the assumed consequences of their actions, if we saw more people reaching out to the less fortunate in an authentic way, we might not have to have these conversations. Or maybe that’s the idealist in me.

    1. I love CS Lewis’s quote that goes something like this: “When I give money to those on the street, people say, ‘But they’ll just drink it!’ I just tell them that if I don’t give them the money, I’ll drink it.”

  12. Oh so honest! I want to do more and fear that I will not have the courage to do it. While this is probably little comfort to you, I am so glad that I am not the only one who struggles with this. Sometimes I live by the idea that what they do with it is between the person and God. My response to God’s prompting is what matters. I do believe that and I do follow that when I am with others and those in need come to me face to face. That’s a pretty small percentage of time. As with the experiences you have shared, those with signs on the road make me skeptical, sad, and worried about my response. I guess maybe letting those experiences haunt me until something comes upon me again and I pray that God gives me the strength make a different decision next time. Similar to what Paula said.
    And to Paula, maybe God wants to see that you would make that decision again even if it didn’t work out the first time or the second. That is total speculation on my part.
    Thank you for your honesty and your challenge.

  13. I guess all we can do sometimes is trust our gut and the Spirit. Maybe breathe deeply
    and just go with it?

  14. Unfortunately for us, Jesus had an advantage over us. He needn’t be cynical because he knew/knows when people were/are being honest with Him or not. We don’t. Consider John 2:23-25 – “Now when He was in Jerusalem at the Passover Feast, many believed in His name when they saw the signs that He was doing. But Jesus on His part did not entrust Himself to them, because He knew all people, and needed no one to bear witness about man, for He Himself knew what was in man.” I realize the context doesn’t exactly fit, but we do observe that Jesus did not divest Himself about His knowledge of others’ motives in this case. So we pray and help where we know our money and efforts are most likely to be used by God, such as missions, our church’s benevolence fund, etc.

    1. Ok, THAT is the stupidest Christian statement I have ever heard.

      Did Jesus say “Take up your cross and follow me, but only if you are similarly gifted with supernatural powers of ESP”????

      Did he say “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me, but only if you were able to make absolutely sure that you knew their motives”???

      When you give charity, you are making an act of grace. The generosity is the grace. The act of giving is the grace. The act of giving – without judgement without strings without questions – creates the kingdom of God. SO WHAT if they spend it on drugs. That’s not the point. The point is the gift. In Southeast Asia, Buddhist monks beg on the street for food every day. It’s part of their duty, but it’s not because they want others to serve them. It’s the other way around: Begging is a service the monks do for others, by allowing them to enact generosity towards other beings. They know that the very act of giving makes merit, changes souls.

      Yes, it’s even better to also work for social justice in a way that will change the underlying injustice that lead to that person becoming an addict. But the act of giving to another remains the point. Get used to being generous. Get used to giving without judgement. It will make you a more Christlike person. And as to your recipient – if they get used to the idea that people might help them when they ask, eventually they might be able to ask for the help they really need.

      1. Si, I appreciate your thoughts. In the future, keep that first sentence to yourself or your comment will be deleted. You are welcome to leave your own opinion, but try to refrain from calling other people (or the comments they make) stupid, idiotic, moronic, etc. If it is in fact the “stupidest Christian statement ever made,” the strength of your own argument/comment will make that self-evident.

  15. After years of living in a poor neighborhood, my wife and I have come up with an approach for whenever someone we don’t know asks for money: After they explain why they need the money, we say yes, let’s go pay/buy/pick up/whatever. We don’t give any money directly, but we will drop what we are doing and go with them to take care of whatever they need. If the story is just a story, the person will usually just get grumpy and move on, but if the need is real, you will have time to get to know the person. You have to be willing to spend the time, but the rewards are tremendous.

  16. I’m surprised that you don’t blame the church. The church and family are what form our moral core and they teach us how to take action. The homeless are invisible with no clear way out of their poverty – how is it not the church’s duty to make them visible? Or give us a framework so that our individual actions actually mean something? What if instead of giving them a granola bar you could give them a card with info about resources that would get them out of their poverty?

    1. I guess I try to stay away from blaming organizations when, in fact, it is made up of individuals. In other words, me. Besides, some churches do a great job of interacting with their communities.

      I like the idea of having a card with information on the available resources.

  17. I don’t think that I need to make a judgement call on whether these people need money or not: having once been mistaken for a beggar, I cannot imagine anyone turns to that if they have other viable options. Also, I try to remember what John Chrysostom had to say about people like me:
    “Only see, you are large and fat, you hold drinking parties until late at night, and sleep in a warm, soft bed. And do you not think of how you must give an account of your misuse of the gifts of God?
    … On the other hand, you question very closely the poor and the miserable, who are scarcely better off in this respect than the dead: and you do not fear the dreadful and the terrible judgment seat of Christ. If the beggar lies, he lies from necessity, because your hardheartedness and merciless inhumanity force him to such cheating.”

  18. Who says “Give?” God or society?
    Who says “Don’t give?” God or society?
    Does it matter what gets done with the money so much as your ability to give, to see another as your neighbor?

    I can see being concerned that your money not go to, say, buy someone some drugs. But I think many times we refuse to give not so much because the money will be misused as because we don’t want others to see us as naive “suckers.” Let’s face it–the CW view of someone in that much need is of someone irrevocably flawed and unworthy, and the current tenor of the most vocal American Christianity doesn’t do much to contradict this, despite the economic facts on the ground.

  19. I always give, it may be a dollar or a sandwich but we do not know the “true” situation. It doesn’t matter. God asks that we gives with a generous heart. I am trying to teach my boys to alway give a dollar or more when they see this. I don’t care what they are using it for, it doesn’t matter to me. I just give because you never know when this could be anyone of us. God obviously was talking to you last night Shawn because you had such a heavy heart. Next time you will know exactly what to do. Don’t beat yourself up, God is teaching us daily and sometimes it takes situations like this to finally “get it.” Be careful on your trip and may God continue to bless you on your travels.

  20. This may be off subject for this thread….

    Choose CULVER’S the next time! There’s one across from Ruby Tuesday! Yup, this is coming from person who frequently shop in DesMoines metro. For a good truck stop around DSM metro, Love’s came first to my mind.

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