Every day we cross paths with people asking for help; as we return to our car at the mall parking lot; as we walk to lunch downtown; rushing, late, to some urgently important appointment. Our petitioners may ask for a couple dollars. How should Christians respond to a fellow human being who is apparently experiencing hardship?
Every one of us has most likely pondered this dilemma. Some have found a satisfactory answer. But for others the question remains: “How do I respond?”
A month ago I was in a small waterfront city in the South taking a walk on a pleasant, sunny day. As I approached the downtown restaurant district I heard a voice ringing out “Sweet Hour of Prayer.” I followed the sound to find a young man singing to no one in particular at the top of his lungs. I listened for a couple of minutes and then left.
But unable to forget his face and voice, I returned, to hear him singing “His Eye Is on the Sparrow.” As he finished this rendition, I asked his name and where he lived.
He explained that California was his home. He had come east for a job that he had just lost. Unable to get back to the West Coast, he had lived out of friends’ homes. That option had run its course. He now lived on the street, looking for ways to make money and eat, which was why he was singing in the downtown area. As I was leaving again, I reached into my pocket and gave him a few dollars, perhaps enough for two meals. While I felt good at being able to offer some assistance, I wondered if this in any way made a difference.
I’m certain that I’m not the only one who has relieved their conscience by throwing a couple of dollars at the issue. But for some reason this particular young man haunted me. In the days to follow I wondered, Had he found a place to stay? Did he have enough funds to purchase food? Did he find a job? Did I do enough? I wondered if there were ways I could offer support that could be more lasting and beneficial to those in need.
I interviewed several community service workers who are serving every day in challenging environments where economic resources don’t always get to those who need them most. I asked what type of help they had seen that benefited most the disadvantaged populations among us. While there may be many other ideas that could help, some of these innovative options might enable a new perspective on this problem that has been with us since Bible times when God registered His own deep concern for, and counsel on behalf of, vulnerable populations (Ex. 23:3, 6, 9-12).
1. Gift cards: Many of us receive gift cards to restaurants we don’t eat at, or stores we don’t shop at, and they are left to expire in a drawer. Time magazine predicted in January 2012 that $2 billion worth of gift cards would be left unused that year by consumers in the United States.1 These cards that seem of no use to us could be a blessing to someone else.
2. Clothing: Our homes may well be cluttered with T-shirts, ball caps, and other wearable paraphernalia given out at ball games and concerts that will eventually be thrown away because we’ve changed our team loyalty, or our children have outgrown smaller sizes. These gently used items can bless someone in need, including someone who, for financial lack or otherwise, may not have access to washers and dryers.
3. Sanitizing supplies: Travel or trial-size soaps, sanitizers, or lotions can be packaged in small giveaway bags of toiletries and shared with persons who need and welcome them.
4. Conversation: A few minutes of listening to and talking with those who ask for help would be time well spent. It may be the best way to communicate a sense of care that may be appreciated.
5. Care packages: These may include some of the items mentioned in the third suggestion, as well as such snacks as granola bars, raisins, and any other convenient items, carried in the trunk of your car and available at a moment’s notice. Consider adding a tract or two from your local Adventist Book Center.
6. Education: Do a little research and find out where the closest soup kitchens, shelters, and local churches are; have these addresses printed on cards that you can hand out to those you conclude need them. You may even include a Bible text or prayer, as well as the number to a prayer hotline.
7. Bus passes: Carry a couple of bus passes to provide transportation around the city or county you live.
As a complement to the organized and recognized programs of Adventist Community Services, these ideas will help you, as an individual, make a difference for persons and families that have experienced hardship and find themselves in need of help. Your help might be the ray of light that leads to the break they seek from the challenges of their present position.
I went back again to speak with my Californian singer on the Southern waterfront. I asked about his plans for the weekend. He was open. So I invited him to one of the local churches that I knew served dinner each week. I even encouraged him to join the choir.
I also followed up with the pastor, letting him know where the young man could be found and to also look out for him if he came to church. My panhandling singer promised to go, and I pray that he did. I may never know what became of him, but I am assured that “God shall supply all [his] needs” (Phil. 4:19, NKJV).2 Meanwhile, let’s all continue in our commitment to be hands, feet, and messengers that God can use when He chooses to supply those needs.
Derrick Lea is director of disaster response, and associate director of community services, for the North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists.