I faced a dilemma. Several years ago, a mother needing $7.43 for baby food taught critical lessons about being more alert to God-given opportunities to help others. Recently, I received another chance to help a couple wanting a ride to church but they were too far away and I suspected a con. That seemed to be the end of it but later that evening while teaching a Bible study in walked the very same couple. Now what do I do?
Once the others left, we talked. They recently moved back to this area after he lost his job. Now they were here with no job, no car, few possessions and nowhere to go. The Bible is very clear about helping others: “Suppose you see a brother or sister who needs food or clothing and you say, “Well good-bye and God bless you; stay warm and eat well’ but then you don’t give that person any food or clothing. What good does that do?” (James 2:15-16)
Later that night, I found myself saying to them: “Why don’t we settle you in for the night in the local motel and tomorrow we’ll see what we can do?”
“Thank you,” they both said, “but our stuff is at a hotel in another town.”
So, the three of us left the church late that night to pick up their belongings and transport them to a hotel near our church. During the drive, I learned they both had family in the area but were no longer welcome in either home. Over the last few weeks, they lived in various hotels and shelters supplied by a network of churches and organizations. We were now the church looking after their needs but in a few days, they would probably move on to other hotels and other organizations.
We could certainly supply their immediate needs for a day or two but then what? They needed a job but possessed very few skills. Even if they found employment, how would they get to work? They had no car and could not even legally drive. I was being given a valuable lesson on the difficulty of helping someone climb out of extreme poverty. Providing temporary shelter and a few meals was certainly a nice gesture but wouldn’t begin to solve their ongoing problems.
I was providing a band aid for someone in need of open heart surgery. I must do better.
The next morning, I started making phone calls and found an agency willing to help the couple find work while another promised long term shelter. Social services agreed to meet with them and find other benefits. Prospects for the couple were looking brighter so I sent a volunteer to pick them up.
Minutes later, the volunteer called back saying, they had bad experiences at the shelter and didn’t like the work offered by this agency. In short, they were unwilling to leave the hotel. Now what?
Feeling sorry for their situation, the volunteer paid for them to stay another night in the hotel. I agreed but asked the volunteer to warn them we could provide no more help. For several more days, they found other churches to pay their hotel bill and bring food but I knew it couldn’t last.
Proverbs 10:13 reminds me of another painful reality of poverty: “If you love sleep, you will end in poverty. Keep your eyes open and there will be plenty to eat.” In other words, there is only so much an individual or an institution can do to help someone in need.
Critical choices must also be made by those seeking help: “are you looking for a handout or a helping hand?”
Taking full advantage of the creature comforts offered by the motel, this couple only wanted handouts but the willingness of people and churches offering aid was dwindling fast.
One week after our first meeting, at the same Bible study the couple showed up again but this time they were willing to make serious choices. A relative in another state agreed to provide a place to stay and help them find employment if we would find a way get them there.
Later that same evening both of them boarded a greyhound bus with a smile on their faces and hope in their hearts.
Although this particular story had a reasonably hopeful ending, I learned that people dealing with poverty are not so easily helped. As individuals and as churches we often supply band aids for people who need major surgery. We as God’s people are given a Holy calling to do much more.
I also learned that people in poverty must make critical choices to assist themselves before our helping hand can be effective.
The continuing lesson of $7.43 is that God is calling us to be alert for opportunities to make a difference in the community around us. How will you respond?