A lady called me once and wanted to know if she could donate some broken Christmas ornaments to the Mission. A little confused, I asked her exactly what she meant. She clarified, “Oh I’ve got some old Christmas ornaments and decorations I’m trying to get rid of. Most of them are broken and torn up, but I thought the children at the Mission might like putting them back together,” she said. Of course they would – I mean who doesn’t love putting broken Christmas ornaments back together again. That sounds like a tradition I’m going to start with my family next year. Now, I’m sure that this lady had the best intentions. I’m sure that she thought she would really be helping a family in need. But let’s be honest – broken Christmas ornaments aren’t going to help anyone.
And as long as we’re being honest . . . a lot of the things people do to help those in poverty aren’t actually helping anyone in poverty. Some of the things we do actually perpetuate the problem. Some of the things we do actually take away people’s dignity and self-worth rather than restoring it. In fact, if we want to be real honest, a lot of the things we do are more about ourselves and our own self-worth than they are about the person we are trying to help. We do things because they make us feel good. We do things because we get the recognition.
So what do we do? How do we help those in need without perpetuating the cycle they are in? How do we help those in need without glorifying ourselves in the process? Do we do nothing for fear that our efforts might hurt someone in the long run? Do we sit idly by afraid that our helping will hurt? Of course not. Action almost always trumps inaction. And misplaced good intentions are far better than no intention to help at all. If we are simply willing, God can take our efforts and do anything He wants with them. But with all of that in mind, we still want to do the things that are going to help those in poverty the most. We want to help in the best ways possible, not the worst ways. We want to help in God’s way, not our own way. So below are 4 ways that we can begin to help those in poverty.
Stop trying to fix poor people: Do you think there is something inherently wrong with being poor? Do you think poor people have made bad decisions in their lives? Do you think poor people would be better off if they were as wealthy as you are? Do you think you have all of the answers to their problems? If you answered yes to any of these questions, then you might want to take a Biblical look at what Scripture says about poverty. Jesus said, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God.” Throughout God’s Word it is made clear that there is nothing wrong with not having any money. Now the Bible is also abundantly clear that we are to help those who are poor. But helping people does not equal fixing people. Only Jesus can fix us, and we are all equally broken no matter how much money we have. We are called to make disciples, not middle class Americans.
Build relationships with people in poverty: Do you want to truly help someone in poverty? The best way is through relationships. Main Street Baptist Church and Mission is a great church where you can build relationships with those in poverty (ok, so I know this is a shameless plug for our church, but I had to put it in somewhere). But seriously, helping someone in poverty is about more than giving them some clothes you don’t need anymore. It’s about building a lasting relationship. Many people in poverty don’t have relationships with anyone outside of their social class. That’s what makes it so difficult to break free sometimes. They don’t know anyone who has gone to college, started a business, or worked at a salaried position, so they don’t even know where to begin. By building relationships with impoverished people, we can offer a bridge to resources that were once out of reach. We can also know what their legitimate needs are so we can help them when the opportunity presents itself.
Allow those in poverty to serve and give to you: So this may seem counterintuitive at first. Many in poverty have very apparent physical needs – they need clothes, they need food, and they need shelter. We see those needs, and our first response is usually to jump into action. We want to follow the Scripture in 1 John that says, “If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?” And without a doubt we need to follow this Scripture. We need to clothe the naked and feed the hungry before we can meet their spiritual needs. However, what we often fail to realize is that many of the poor, especially in America, are not suffering from starvation or nakedness. Their biggest need is often times a need for purpose. It is a need to feel useful. Often times people in poverty cannot provide for their family’s basic needs, so when someone has to meet those needs for them, it brings feelings of inadequacy to the forefront. Therefore, it is vitally important that we give those in poverty a chance to serve and give back. Allow them to do something for you that will help restore their since of dignity and self-worth. Allow them to discover that God has a purpose for their lives that is beyond anything they could ever imagine.
Ask God for discernment: At the Mission, we have more than 200 people a week come through our doors looking for services. Almost all of them have some sort of legitimate need. They have lost their jobs, they are just getting out of prison, or they have simply made bad life choices. These people truly are in need. Similarly, we get 15 to 20 calls a week for people needing monetary assistance. It would be impossible for our church to meet each and every need. We would be bankrupt in a week. Similarly, it is impossible for a Christian to invest in every need they encounter. That is why it is vitally important that we seek God for His wisdom. Although we can’t give money to every person and cause we encounter, we can and should give to some. We must ask God for wisdom and discernment. And if he leads us to give to someone or something, then we must do so, even if it means making a sacrifice. We must do so even if it means going out of our way and getting a little bit uncomfortable. In doing so, we can ensure that we are building His Kingdom and not our own.
In conclusion, let me say that you cannot help the poor unless you are intentional about encountering the poor. Many people with means go their entire lives without really encountering someone in poverty. That is why I am so grateful to those at Main Street – rich, poor, and anywhere in-between – who have been intentional about breaking down those cultural barriers that so often keep us separated. As Paul said in Romans, “For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile-the same LORD is LORD of all and richly blesses all who call on him.”