31 May We Don’t Have the Answers – But We Keep Talking
Today I encountered a situation that comes up frequently for most anyone in my line of work and in fact, for most anyone who pays attention to people and cares about the dignity and well-being of others. The door bell of the church rang not long after the office manager had left for the day. As I walked toward the door, I could see through the glass that there was a man I had never seen before standing outside. When I pushed the door open and said hello, he told me he was hungry and asked for food.
Just a few days prior to this, a woman was waiting for me inside the church’s front door after the Sunday worship service, and she asked for money for food or a gas card. Hardly a week goes by that someone doesn’t call or come by the church office with a similar request. The volume of requests increases dramatically in times of economic hardship, like the most recent recession. But, human need never takes a holiday. It is a constant reality.
As followers of Jesus, we take seriously God’s call to serve our neighbors, to help people who need it, and to treat each person as if Christ himself is standing before us. We also acknowledge the fact that there is more human need than we can ever meet. And that is precisely what creates the dilemma. How am I to respond to the myriad needs that cross my path? How are any of us to respond when we pass someone on a street corner extending a cup, hoping for a few coins or a dollar bill to be placed into it? What do we do when we wait at the same stoplight every day on our commute to work or school and the same woman stands on the roadside, holding her homemade sign that asks for help? What is the right or kind or “Christian” thing to do when we encounter our needy neighbors not occasionally, but regularly, sometimes multiple times a day?
We are more savvy than ever about what it means to be “enablers,” so it often feels that we walk a tightrope between being loving and compassionate towards those who need it, yet avoiding being “used” by people who prey on other’s kindness to support their unwillingness or inability to seek the health and help they truly need. It has been well documented that a significant segment of the chronically homeless population suffers from mental illness. And there is also reliable reporting suggesting that some panhandlers are more con artist than needy. Other folks lose a job or face crushing medical bills or are trying to support more generations than their paycheck can cover. Poverty comes in all shapes and sizes and occurs for a multitude of reasons. For those of us passing the homeless or hungry on the streets or greeting them at the church door, it is impossible to tell what kind of need we are actually encountering. And, does that even matter?
It is not infrequent or uncommon for these questions and concerns to arise in conversation at Calvary. It seems we all struggle with how to respond to those random strangers who ask for our help. So, we talk openly and honestly together. We hear different perspectives born of various experiences and viewpoints, and we do our best to figure out how Jesus would ask us to reach out and be a good neighbor. There are no pat answers, and we don’t offer any. We simply keep asking and talking and reflecting on each encounter as it occurs. What did we learn? What can we do better or differently? These are good and necessary conversations, but regardless of where I “land” in my understanding and practice this time around, I keep an uneasy and tenuous peace with myself, at best.
I asked the gentleman at the door to wait while I came back inside, rummaging for anything I could find to give him. I remembered seeing a prepackaged tuna sandwich in the mini-frig. I didn’t know who it belonged to, but I was willing to give it away and replace it when the rightful owner came demanding their lunch. Alas, it had expired three weeks ago (clearly placed in the ‘frig and forgotten), so that went in the trash. I had a smallish apple on my desk that I had planned to eat for dinner plus one granola bar stashed in a drawer. I took this meager offering to the door and he gladly accepted both. He had already taken a bite of the apple as he thanked me and walked away.
Did I do enough? Should I have gone across the street to the convenience store and bought more food? I don’t know. I never do. I know that no matter what I do, it never feels like enough. But, I keep at it. I keep trying to listen and to thread the needle between compassionate response and not being an enabler. It’s not easy. Jesus never said it would be.
Yours for the Kingdom,