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Ungrateful poor people

March 6, 2012

Sometimes, your whole life as a Christian revolves around one particular discipline or focused area of the Gospel for a while.  It’s almost like a halted pillar of cloud that waits to move until you’ve really learned the lesson (or really taught the lesson in some instances). I mentioned before that I’m leading a women’s Bible study on social justice at church this semester.  We’re studying Get Uncomfortable by Todd Phillips. I have a small but committed group of women looking intently into the Scriptures to discover God’s heart for the poor and oppressed.  We have great discussions and are hoping to build upon other ministries in our church and empower others to join in following Christ into service.  This verse, sent to me from Compassion International and seen several times in our study, has been pursuing my thoughts and meditations lately (emphasis the Holy Spirit’s, at least to me):

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. 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? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.  This is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence:  If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.  Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God and receive from him anything we ask, because we keep his commands and do what pleases him. And this is his command: to believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and to love one another as he commanded us.
-1 John 3:16-24

Several of us in the group have felt a sense of conviction in this regard, but that conviction could easily become guilt if we fail to follow through with our actions.  I told our group, we can set our hearts at rest in his presence by loving Christ and loving others.

Meanwhile, in another women’s small group of sorts (almost a Breakfast Club, but without detention, and we meet at a Panera, not a library, but you get the jist), my friends have been talking about these same things.  Some of us are weighed down by the guilt of knowing there are needs in our community and our unwillingness to be bolder in serving our neighbors.  As we talked, we discovered that all of us (4 women living in different towns but moving through the same general area) had met one particular homeless woman.  We all committed to engaging this woman again if we saw her.  Last weekend, at our Breakfast Club, that homeless woman walked in the door.

We talked with her and learned that the McDonald’s where she spent many of her nights was harassing her, even to the point of calling the police one evening and compelling her to leave.  She had told some of us in earlier encounters that sometimes she stayed at a cheap motel to take a shower and seek a peaceful and safe night’s sleep.  There is a local shelter in our area, but our new friend said the clients there were mostly women with children (small children in many cases) and she didn’t like the noise.  Also, she didn’t want to take a bed from a mother, so she found ways to get shelter on the street.  A couple of us gave her our phone numbers (she has a free cell phone) and told her to call if there was ever a need.

Since that encounter, there has been some discussion about how to best serve this woman.  One woman offered our friend a room in her home.  Our friend turned her down.  She would prefer her current system to moving in with people that she knows, but doesn’t know well.

In my experience, the reaction to such a refusal puzzles well-intentioned Christians.  I’ve had friends baffled that a homeless person wouldn’t take a gift card to a restaurant they didn’t like.  “They just want money so they can go buy booze.  If they were really hungry, they would take what I offered.”  We’re tempted to consider the person in need ungrateful or deceitful because they refused our noble generosity.

The truth is, we have criteria for poor people.  They should be unshaved, unshowered, unkempt.  They’re poor.  They shouldn’t have choices.  That’s what being poor is all about, right?  Punishment for being poor.  Our homeless friend having a cell phone is an affront to our notion of what poverty should look like. Never mind that owning one makes practical sense given that there are no pay phones anymore. She has a right to have access to police, rescue, etc. if she needed them.  She also has the right to contact someone like me who lives farther away just to talk, because one of the cruelest elements of homelessness is isolation.

What we don’t see is that in our hearts, we have set ourselves up as benevolent do-gooders.  We want to pat ourselves on the back for being benefactors: benefactors who don’t listen to the poor and treat them as we would want to be treated.  If I were homeless, I’d have rules like my friend does.  I wouldn’t stay in some stranger’s or nearly-stranger’s home.  I’d wonder, “if something went missing or if I did something they didn’t like, would they call the cops?  Would they make rules for me like they do their children?  How would I live among their affluence without being constantly reminded of my poverty?  What if I don’t want to be sponsored or taken care of in that way?  What if I wanted to live closer to other homeless friends?  I don’t think I’d want to stay in a suburban place where I didn’t have the freedom to go to the store, etc. because I couldn’t walk there.”

Our friend would rather go about begging, something she does during daylight hours and sees as a form of work and earning her way, than to be completely dependent upon or indentured to others.  We don’t often understand this because we don’t often consider the humanity of the homeless or the poor.  We look at her refusal as pride.  Maybe it is.  But it’s the same pride we take in a day of work or in having certain resources or owning a home.  It’s not so much pride as it is basic human dignity.  And dignity is an element that’s often missing in our service to others.

Our church gives Thanksgiving dinners away to impoverished communities in our area.  If I were to tell you the number, you’d probably be impressed (which is precisely why I’m not telling you).  Every year, hundreds of volunteers line up to put a can of sweet potatoes in a box headed for these communities.  A few of these volunteers go out to the neighborhoods to distribute boxes.  This year, our family participated in our local effort.  While we were out on the line, handing out boxes, I saw a young man approach our table.  He looked to be about 15 or 16 years old.  There were several older women hanging back and sending our men or their men in to get the heavy boxes.  Perhaps he was one of those strong-backed delegates, I don’t know.  When he came to the table, our church woman handing out boxes pushed one toward him across the table.  He went to reach and she put her hand on the top of the box, clutching it on the side with her other hand.

“It’s one per family.  Have you already taken one?” she asked him.  He looked confused and a little frightened.  “Yes.”  “Okay then,” she shoved the box, releasing it to him.  He was embarrassed.  I was embarrassed.  That well-intentioned lady (at least I think she was well-intentioned, I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt, but the doubt is not on her side in my mind) left feeling good that day.  She’d shown up and doled out dinner for the poor on a major holiday.  She had also stripped that kid of any possible dignity in admitting he needed help.  Maybe she thought he was scamming and was being protective of the other families in need.  Maybe she thought that “these people” are always looking for a hand-out, so why wouldn’t he double dip?  I don’t know.  All I know is she did it wrong.

And we all do at times.  We forget that when Jesus did ministry, He brought affirmation and dignity to those the rest of the humanity considered disposable: the sick, the poor, the orphan, the children, the women.  He lived with them.  He physically touched them and listened to them. The way we do ministry is often with a white Savior complex: expecting gratitude, compliance, or general enthusiasm at our mere presence.  If they don’t receive our patronage the way we expect them to, we don’t question our approach, we scorn them.

Jesus did not serve people expecting anything in return. He did not even expect gratitude, as in the case of the nine lepers that walked away once he healed them. He knew they would leave without a word and He healed them anyway.  He even made a point out of it, to show how ungrateful we all are at heart.  Grace and mercy are extravagant and abundant.  This should be our attitude in serving: that we expect nothing. That we give generously. That there are no strings.

A bright young pastor blogging about how we often lack balance in our approach to theology and ministry said this:

Evangelism people overreact to social justice people and make serving the poor the equivalent of the free weekend you get at a resort as long as you listen to the timeshare presentation (That’s not service by the way; that’s marketing).

Time share pitching.  That’s how we serve.  We serve to “get ’em in the door so they can hear the Gospel.” It’s a “hear” or a “see.”  It’s rarely both.  There’s a lot of preaching that can be done in serving people.  There’s also a lot of preaching that could be heard if we’d only have ears to hear and eyes to see what the lives of poor people are like.  But to receive that kind of preaching, we have to not only consider their perspective, we have to begin to give it value.  Maybe more value than our own.  That’s a big part of considering others more highly than yourselves.

In our ignorance, we’re approaching the financially impoverished with our own spiritual poverty rather than with the abundant love of Jesus.  I pray we all start looking at the human beings we serve through the faithful eyes of Christ who showed us the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us.



5 Comments leave one →
  1. TCF permalink
    March 6, 2012 8:58 pm

    Love that 1John passage. The words immediately following the ones you bolded are: “Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.” This is one of the sources of the title of an encyclical by Pope Benedict XVI I’ve been reading lately, Caritas in Veritate (Charity in Truth).

    I think you would appreciate this passage in particular (apologies in advance for its length), because it’s related to themes in the “Get Uncomfortable” study and your thoughts here:

    Charity is love received and given. It is ‘grace’ (cháris). Its source is the wellspring of the Father’s love for the Son, in the Holy Spirit. Love comes down to us from the Son. It is creative love, through which we have our being; it is redemptive love, through which we are recreated. Love is revealed and made present by Christ (cf. Jn 13:1) and ‘poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit’ (Rom 5:5). As the objects of God’s love, men and women become subjects of charity, they are called to make themselves instruments of grace, so as to pour forth God’s charity and to weave networks of charity.

    This dynamic of charity received and given is what gives rise to the Church’s social teaching, which is caritas in veritate in re sociali: the proclamation of the truth of Christ’s love in society….

    Charity goes beyond justice, because to love is to give, to offer what is ‘mine’ to the other; but it never lacks justice, which prompts us to give the other what is ‘his,’ what is due to him by reason of his being or his acting. I cannot ‘give’ what is mine to the other, without first giving him what pertains to him in justice. If we love others with charity, then first of all we are just towards them. Not only is justice not extraneous to charity, not only is it not an alternative or parallel path to charity: justice is inseparable from charity, and intrinsic to it. Justice is the primary way of charity or, in [Pope] Paul VI’s words, ‘the minimum measure’ of it, an integral part of the love ‘in deed and in truth’ (1 Jn 3:18), to which Saint John exhorts us. On the one hand, charity demands justice: recognition and respect for the legitimate rights of individuals and peoples. It strives to build the earthly city according to law and justice. On the other hand, charity transcends justice and completes it in the logic of giving and forgiving. The earthly city is promoted not merely by relationships of rights and duties, but to an even greater and more fundamental extent by relationships of gratuitousness, mercy and communion. Charity always manifests God’s love in human relationships as well, it gives theological and salvific value to all commitment for justice in the world….

    To love someone is to desire that person’s good and to take effective steps to secure it. Besides the good of the individual, there is a good that is linked to living in society: the common good. It is the good of ‘all of us,’ made up of individuals, families and intermediate groups who together constitute society. It is a good that is sought not for its own sake, but for the people who belong to the social community and who can only really and effectively pursue their good within it. To desire the common good and strive towards it is a requirement of justice and charity. To take a stand for the common good is on the one hand to be solicitous for, and on the other hand to avail oneself of, that complex of institutions that give structure to the life of society, juridically, civilly, politically and culturally, making it the pólis, or ‘city.’ The more we strive to secure a common good corresponding to the real needs of our neighbours, the more effectively we love them. Every Christian is called to practise this charity, in a manner corresponding to his vocation and according to the degree of influence he wields in the pólis. This is the institutional path — we might also call it the political path — of charity, no less excellent and effective than the kind of charity which encounters the neighbour directly, outside the institutional mediation of the pólis. When animated by charity, commitment to the common good has greater worth than a merely secular and political stand would have. Like all commitment to justice, it has a place within the testimony of divine charity that paves the way for eternity through temporal action. Man’s earthly activity, when inspired and sustained by charity, contributes to the building of the universal city of God, which is the goal of the history of the human family. In an increasingly globalized society, the common good and the effort to obtain it cannot fail to assume the dimensions of the whole human family, that is to say, the community of peoples and nations, in such a way as to shape the earthly city in unity and peace, rendering it to some degree an anticipation and a prefiguration of the undivided city of God.

    Again, apologies for the length! I just couldn’t resist sharing something so compatible with what you’re studying and doing. 🙂

    You wrote: “There’s also a lot of preaching that could be heard if we’d only have ears to hear and eyes to see what the lives of poor people are like.”

    Sometimes very literally! A couple of years ago I took one of my homeless friends with me to lunch. We were chatting while waiting on our food, and he took the opportunity to share the gospel with me, to tell me how Jesus came to save us from sin and reconcile us with God. I responded with a hearty “Amen!” I am so grateful for all our conversations. His concern and encouragement over the years has been a real gift to me.

    • bnbecky permalink*
      March 8, 2012 11:39 pm

      You’re *so* Catholic, TCF. 😉 Thanks for adding that. We forget that this is a justice issue. A friend recently wrote to me that she had understood “have” and “have not” and knowing that made her more grateful for what she had, but she had never questioned the disparity or looked into the injustices that created and codified it. Sometimes I really hate that “be thankful for what you have because some people don’t have anything” line (especially when I say it to my own kids!). I can’t quite pinpoint why it bothers me except that, in some way, it feels like we’re taking comfort for ourselves in the misfortune of others. I’ve known many a person to go on a mission trip to an impoverished community and come home talking about how thankful they are for what they have. I understand that sentiment, but I’m pretty sure that’s not supposed to be the takeaway from that experience.

  2. March 7, 2012 7:32 am

    “The poor” are no different than anyone else. We all have our own walls, and our own vulnerabilities. This concept of differentiating “the poor” — seems contrived to me. If we really saw the beauty of New Jerusalem, we’d realize the poverty here. It’s ALL POVERTY. To think we are not poor — is relative. Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. It’s all poor here — and we’re all poor here but rich in Jesus.

    Think about New Jerusalem — and look at your own digs. You’re poor. 😉

    • bnbecky permalink*
      March 8, 2012 11:30 pm

      I wish it were contrived. You’re right that a person’s a person regardless of income. Still, until that new kingdom comes to fruition, we have to be mindful of and active in addressing injustice and inequity/iniquity in our world.

  3. Mindy permalink
    December 16, 2013 6:37 pm

    Very good read! Luke 6:35 “lend without expecting to get anything back.” Enjoyed your web page

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