Driving around town, it’s easy to notice the many people standing on street corners holding cardboard signs asking for some kind of help. It seems as if their numbers have increased over the last few years with our struggling economy. As you sit in your car at a stop light, one of these individuals approaches. What do you do? Do you reach out and hand them some cash? Do you offer them some food that you happen to have in your car? Or do you stare straight ahead, refusing to make eye contact? And what do you think of this individual? Do you assume they are lazy? Addicted? Mentally disturbed? Lying? Genuinely down on their luck and without a “safety net” of family and friends?
The Bible tells us that we are to be generous and merciful to the poor. The book of Proverbs says, “Blessed is he who is generous to the poor” (Prov. 14:22) … “Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord” (Prov. 19:17) … “Defend the rights of the poor and needy.” (Prov. 31:9) In the New Testament, St. Paul in particular holds up the example of the Macedonian and Achaian Christians who gathered a collection for the impoverished believers in Jerusalem who were suffering from the effects of a famine (Rom. 15:26; 2 Cor. 8:13-15). Likewise, in the context of explaining that faith without works is dead, James gives us this example: “If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?” (James 2:15-16) James is speaking of helping those within the Church, yet his words may echo in our ears every time we pass by someone holding one of those cardboard signs.
So how do we respond? It’s not wise to hand out money, since we can’t be assured that it will be put to good use, especially when there are many on the streets who are addicted to alcohol or drugs. A hot meal is always welcome, so perhaps a booklet of fast food gift certificates is a good thing to keep in your vehicle. You can direct them to a shelter, but what if the shelter is full? Inviting them into your home would not be safe or prudent.
Being on a busy boulevard and near a freeway offramp, people occasionally stop by the church to ask for help. Recently, a man dropped in who was trying to make it to Bellingham, so I directed him to a homeless shelter there. On the shelter’s website (thelighthousemission.org), I found some helpful suggestions about ways to truly help the homeless whom we meet. The following is adapted from their website.
- Never give cash. Too often, well-intended gifts are converted to drugs or alcohol - even when the "hard luck" stories they tell are true. If the person is hungry, refer them to a local meal program.
- Talk to the person with respect. Taking time to talk to a homeless person in a friendly, respectful manner can give them a wonderful sense of civility and dignity. And besides being just neighborly, it gives the person a weapon to fight the isolation, depression, and paranoia that many homeless people face.
- Recognize that homeless people (and their problems) are not all the same. The homeless are as diverse as the colors of a rainbow. The person you meet may be a battered woman, an addicted veteran, someone who is lacking job skills … the list goes on.
- Share God's love whenever you can. If Jesus were walking the earth today, He would certainly spend time with the homeless. He would speak with them, love them, and help them. Today, Jesus works through people like you and me.
- Pray for the homeless. Exposure to the elements, dire, occasional violence, and lack of purpose all drain years from a person's life. God can use your prayers so that the brutality and futility of life on the street may bring many of the broken to himself.
- Take precautions for your own safety. Some living on the streets are criminals and fugitives running from the law. Always be prudent while talking with street people. Stay in areas where other people can see you. Don't take unnecessary chances.
- Encourage the homeless to get help at a local shelter. Local shelters offer immediate food and shelter to the homeless. Some offer long-term rehabilitation programs that deal with the root causes of homelessness.
- Support your local shelter. Find out how you can help by donating resources or volunteering your time.
Whenever God presents the opportunity for me to assist someone, I try to always point them to my motivation to help. I tell them something like the following, and you can put this in your own words when God gives you an opportunity to help someone in need. Tell them “God has blessed me so much, even though I don’t deserve it. None of us do because we are sinners. Yet God in his grace and mercy has forgiven me all my sins by sending his Son Jesus to die on the cross as my Savior. I have the riches of heaven. And through God’s love for me in Christ, I can share this small gift with you.” When they insist on repaying you, tell them it’s not necessary. They often will insist, but don’t expect it. In my 15 years in the ministry, only one person has returned to repay what was given to them. But that’s beside the point when doing an act of mercy. After all, there’s no way you or I can repay God for his mercy shown to us in Christ.
In 2 Corinthians 8-9, St. Paul encourages the Christians in Corinth to give generously and cheerfully, not under compulsion. And the motivation to do so is centered in Jesus. “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9) … rich not in temporal goods, but the riches of heaven, forgiveness, everlasting life. The Lord “has distributed freely, he has given to the poor; his righteousness endures forever” (2 Cor. 9:9). God has indeed “distributed freely” to those who are poor in spirit (Matt. 5:3), that is, those who recognize their spiritual poverty before the Lord, and who know that the righteousness of Christ bestowed upon them in Baptism and received by faith is truly priceless.
In Christ’s service and yours,