“Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress,and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”
– James 1.27
Beggars. The world has known of the poor and needy in many manners and forms, and begging has been the sole source of income for many people throughout the ages. In many developing countries around the world, children are disfigured and mutilated so that they can earn more money as a beggar child, and often people pretend to be sick to make themselves look more pitiful to the passers by. Here in the United States, we have welfare and shelters for the poor, but people often stand on street corners with signs, asking for help for a variety of reasons.
While living overseas, watching children be trained to beg from infancy, but seeing them report back to an adult overseeing beggar, I began carrying water and instant noodles in my car to give away. I was wary that money would go to the overseer, and is not truly a help to those in need, but if they were hungry I could at least feed them a meal. This by no means solved hunger in that country or city, but it was one small way I could help.
When I moved to Denver last year, I was struck by the number of beggars in this city too. There is no way I can know the heart of every beggar whose path I cross. Will the money buy drugs or alcohol? Or will it buy food? Or a new pair of shoes? Not wanting to be the person to whom Christ says, “I was hungry, and you gave Me nothing to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me nothing to drink; I was a stranger, and you did not invite Me in; naked, and you did not clothe Me; sick, and in prison, and you did not visit Me”, I began in like fashion carrying bottles of water and granola bars in my car to give to people who are hungry (Matt 25.42-43).
Recently, I was pulling off the highway and there was a man standing at the intersection at the exit ramp with a sign that said, “Hungry. Anything helps.” So I reached into my back seat and grabbed two granola bars and a bottle of water. As I rolled down my window, this dirty man wearing a tattered jacket with grime under his fingernails reached out to receive my money. When I handed him the food, he turned his hand up and said, “I don’t want that” and walked away.
I have chewed on that and mulled over that time and time again. The applications are endless and the questions as numerous. Was he afraid I had poisoned the food? Did he want money for other purposes? Was he not truly hungry but lying? Do I consider all beggars to be crooks and on the street because they choose to be there? Do they not truly want help?
There was a time in my life less than two years ago, where were it not for the love of my parents, I could have feasibly been on the street. I lost my place to live and my job in one day. While there were friends in the church willing to help out by letting me stay for a night or two, it was said to me that it was the church’s role to care for me Spiritually, not physically. I am a capable young woman, with a Master’s Degree and no hole in my work history who immediately started looking for work the day that I found out I had lost my job. But we all know that jobs are not immediate. I worked for a temp agency as they could place me while I looked for something permanent, but had it not been for my parents telling me I could come home, I would have been homeless.
Therefore, I can without hesitation say that not everyone on the street is there by choice. I can also say that not everyone is there for lack of trying. Lastly, I can say that some people who have been successful right in our Church communities can and do fall into serious need.
The church most certainly does not have a limited role to Spiritual needs. Yes, each of our greatest need is Spiritual: forgiveness from God for our sins. But we are commanded to love our neighbor as ourselves. If you were in a place of need such that you had nowhere to stay, you would not rest until you found a place. So if I am supposed to love my neighbor as myself, how can I rest when he has no place to stay? There are many homeless shelters and food kitchens in our cities, and there are also many halfway homes and ministries to help people get on their feet. But why are we, as a church, not networking to help professionals find jobs in their fields? Why are we, as a church, not offering our homes to those who need a place to stay, work for those who want to work, and assistance in all of these very real needs?
I work for a non-profit organization that sends supplies to those in need overseas. We function with a “basic human dignity” standard, whereby we do not send anything to the field that we would not give to our own families. This clearly does not mean in style or preference, but in quality. We send brand new product. Why? Because we value human life. And people know the difference of a used and worn pair of shoes to a new pair. We communicate our care to another by giving something nice, something new. Not our dirty leftovers or worn out hand-me-downs.
There are times when a person qualified for many things might have to work in food service. There are times when a father might have to work two jobs to provide for his family. There are times when one who is truly trying and wanting to provide simply cannot. There are times when children have no one to care for them and when the elderly have depleted all of their savings on cancer or a new roof or an unexpected bill. These are the times that we should step in.
“If anyone is not willing to work, then he is not to eat, either.”
– 2 Thess 3.10
In our times of distress, we may not be picky. Yes, I have a master’s degree, but when I was completely without, I worked for a temp agency, sitting in whatever role they could place me, just to earn whatever I could. We should not coddle one another and encourage laziness. We must be willing to work in whatever way that we can. But if you are stable and established, why not pull some strings to help that new college grad get an internship? Help that new small-business owner make contacts? Teach that man on the street basic carpentry skills?
Let us not miss the boat. God gave us the church for community, for encouragement and support. We must push one another on to know and love God first and foremost. But we also must care for one another like we care for ourselves. If we care for that homeless man like we care for ourselves, we will help him to develop his skills, work ethic and help him become stable. Not feed him a granola bar and water bottle – that he does not want anyway.
And He said to him, “‘YOU SHALL LOVE THE LORD YOUR GOD WITH ALL YOUR HEART, AND WITH ALL YOUR SOUL, AND WITH ALL YOUR MIND.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.’”
– Matt 22.37-39