I have a friend, Bert, who is a strong follower of Jesus and also is homeless. He travels from church to church, from homeless ministry to another, receiving when he must and helping when he can. He’s often a bit too loud, and sometimes he just has to suddenly leave, but he has been a great encouragement to me for many years.
Bert related a story about a time he visited a church who was going to have a free meal for the public after their Sunday service. My friend, as was usual, arrived as the sun was just rising. He squatted against a wall and read the Bible, preparing for a long wait. Unexpectedly, it began to snow. Bert wasn’t ready for that, and his camp was a distance away. He wasn’t sure what to do, when he noticed that the church had a basement window open. He said to himself, “I’ve helped this church out a lot and they know me. I’m sure they won’t mind that I slip in out of the snow for a couple hours.” So he entered through the window and hung out in the basement. It was so warm and cozy in the basement, he fell asleep.
He awoke to a screaming church member who discovered him in the basement as she was preparing for service. She ran to get the pastor and Bert gathered his wits to get out. The pastor confronted him and Bert tried to explain. The pastor was already on the phone with the police. In a brief time, Bert was arrested for breaking and entering, and ended up spending that day in jail.
When every church begins a ministry to the homeless or poor, allowing non-members on their facility, there are questions that get brought up:
- “Does our insurance cover this?”
- “What happens if the property is damaged?”
- “How do we deal with violence?”
- “What precautions should we take against theft?”
- “What will be the neighbor’s reaction?”
Questions like these are important to consider. They must be brought up, and precautions should be made. Some may want to say that such questions are unworthy of a compassionate church. After all, we should be welcoming, not cautious. It is true, we need to be welcoming, but we also need to recognize that for every hundred people we serve, most of whom will be grateful and helpful, but a few will want to take advantage of more than just our hospitality. Very rarely, but occasionally violence can occur. Rarely, but occasionally a thief will steal in with the sheep. And we must be wise, recognizing that we will have to deal with it.
But if we are going to minister to the poor, we need to be sure that our compassion outweighs our concerns about security. If we, or some of our congregation, have a tendency to call the police at every sign of trouble, our ministry will be considered a blight not only for the poor who know we cannot be trusted, but for the police who are spending time caring for our anxieties instead of serving the public. If we are going to serve a needy population, we need to be prepared for the inevitable problems that will be “unacceptable” to most of the church.
Love is dangerous Every true ministry involves risk. Jesus recognized this when he said, “If you love only those who love you, what reward will you get? Even sinners love those who love them.” Jesus was trying to communicate to us that our love should not be determined by worldly limitations. Our love should be dramatic, overflowing, even unthinkable. If we are living out the love of Jesus, outsiders should be able to say about us, “Those church people are crazy, but they are helping people no one would help.” We should get complaints from neighbors that we are too generous, too kind. And yes, at times we should be so generous that we might get our insurance cancelled.
Obviously, this is a difficult calling. But let’s face it: love is difficult. And to truly, completely, unconditionally love means facing problems that the average church member would consider unimaginable. But choosing ministry over security means entering an adventure of love—and adventures are never comfortable.
On the other hand, there is a balance. We must be innocent as doves and as wise as serpents. We must love adventurously but not recklessly. We want our environment to be both compassionate and safe. Here are some recommendations to have our ministry strike that balance:
- Be generous to a fault and to a point. Be free in what you can give, and try to be as joyfully generous as you can. But also make determinations of what you give and what resources you provide. Get used to saying, “We don’t provide that, but let’s see if we can find someone else who does.”
- Set boundaries. Basic boundaries are necessary for the safety of all who come to the facility. There will need to be rules, and the rules should be posted. If they are posted, they should be simple and not long. We have four posted rules: “No violence or provoking violence. No stealing. No alcohol or drugs on the property. No blasphemy.” We have posted that no one can spend the night without written permission.
- Plan for the worst. Have your staff gather together to talk about potential situations and about situations that have occurred. Everyone should be allowed to express their concerns, but in the end, Jesus’ call to welcome all and to care for all should win out. It might be recommended for some of the staff to obtain peacemaking training or training on working with the mentally ill.
Some tips on dealing with conflict in ministries to the poor.
When should we call the police? There is a time to call the police, and a time not to. Every church must make that determination themselves, but it should be decided ahead of time. Some of these issues are discussed in this article This essay might provide a beginning point for discussion.
It was cold, but no freezing rain or snow. More than a hundred hungry people from the community were in the basement, waiting in line for a meal. A group from a local church was in the kitchen, putting the finishing touches on the soup, bread and salad they were serving that night. A leader of the church group announced, “Okay, let’s pray.” And the kitchen group gathered in a circle, held hands and prayed a blessing and the Lord’s Prayer together. Then they served the meal on plates, handed it to the waiting folks, who sat down with their meal, ate and left. The kitchen crew gathered all the dirty plates, cleaned them, cleaned the kitchen, swept the floor and they too left.
Sounds like a good night. Why was there something wrong?
It reminds me of a potluck that the apostle Paul went to. It was in Antioch, his home church, which was mixed with Jews and Gentiles. The potluck was good, and while most of the Jews were sitting in a couple tables and the Gentiles had their own table, a number of the Jewish leaders made a point to sit with the Gentiles.
They did this because in the first century, to eat with a group of people is to include them as family. This only made sense because a group meal, in the ancient world, was a messy business. No one had utensils, they ate with bread, and everyone at the table would dip their bread into the same stew in the middle. So everyone at the table was eating off of the same plate, so to speak. Because eating together was such an intimate experience, to welcome someone to a table was to make them family. We still have a shadow of this sense today.
Jesus had made it clear that he was welcoming the outcast as family. He would eat with the sinners and tax collectors. He made a point to have his feasts in the homes of some of the most disreputable people in town, such as Zaccheus. The early church continued that practice. And the church in Antioch, at their potlucks, with the mixed Jewish and Gentile group, did the same thing. The Jews would eat with the Gentiles, which any proper Jew would never think of. But Jesus made the church somewhat improper for the sake of love.
But this potluck in Antioch was different. Peter had come from Jerusalem to visit and some VERY proper Jews had visited with him to check out the church. And on this day, Peter and Barnabas and the other leaders of the church didn’t eat with the Gentiles. They didn’t welcome them as family. They played a segregation card.
Paul was furious. He stood up and rebuked Peter and the Antioch leadership publicly. And he said, “Why are you treating these Gentiles as second-class Christians? You may have been a ‘proper’ Jew before Jesus, but Jesus showed us how improper we all were! That we had to recognize ourselves as inadequate before God and only Jesus makes us right before Him! If that is so, we need to treat these Gentiles as our equals, as our family, because we are no better than they.” *
Today we recognize that segregation between races and sexes isn’t right—yet we still often practice the segregation between the servers and the served. We are implying that those who are served are not worthy to be serving, and those serving are of a different tribe than the poor being served. In doing this, we are neglecting to welcome the poor as family, as brothers and sisters in Christ.
While certainly not all the poor are believers in Jesus, a number of them are. And whether they are or not, we are all children of God, and needing to be welcomed into the kingdom. If we, who are confidently in God’s kingdom, neglect to treat the poor as our family, then we are neglecting the practice and command of Jesus. When we see a poor brother or sister, we are to treat them as if it was one of our own family coming to visit us, or, dare I say it, Jesus himself.
- The server should eat with the served: If we are providing a service to the poor, we should take time to fellowship with them, to appreciate them as company. We should not do this as a “ministry”, but as we would for family, because it is important to connect with and spend time with them.
- The served should be invited to serve: If there is someone who asks to help, we should find a way for them to help. Not only does it give them self-respect, but it gives them a sense that they are a part of the “serving” group, at one with the ministry of Jesus. To allow someone to serve is a ministry to them.
- Weep with those who weep: The ministry for the poor should not be like a fast-food encounter. There should be laughter and compassion and high-fives and sorrow. We need to appreciate the needs of those around us, to not wall ourselves off from them. We need to sympathize, empathize and pray for those with needs.
*You can read about this incident in Galatians 2:11-21.
This brief poem is by James, a recent volunteer to Anawim in St. Johns.
Do I have a vested interest in you and you and you over there?
I see my reflection in you
I put you there
I need you so I can see what to do
To reach out, rediscover
To redefine my sense of compassion
Relationships are a necessity so
that everyone of us may know
We can make a difference
You give courtesy, generosity
You give me laughter and life
You give me despair and I don’t care,
missed appointments and no call backs
You give me entitlement, for what?
The dinner roll and beans I hand you
Your shame hides what? The dirty sheets
The piled stank of dirty laundry and wet periodicals
And you cry shame with your actions?
Then what is love if I don’t return and return?
if I don’t keep inviting you, serving, seeking to be with you
What is love if I don’t see me in you?
Just about an hour ago this young woman in her 20’s trying to imitate the appearance of man came into the store portion of the gas station I was buying gas from. She wandered around picking up two sandwiches pocketing one while putting the other back and then the chips and then a large can of beer and then she made her dash for the car and the clerk grabbed her before she got the door open.
I paid for my gas and my mocha and was leaving when the police blocked the entrance to the station with squad cars. A few moments later they are escorting the gal out and the police officer comes to me and says, “The clerk says you saw what happened.” and I nodded. “She is hungry and doesn’t have money for gas or food and was trying to steal both.”
The officer chuckles and says, “Yeah for the third time today. These guys were on the ball and caught her.”
I walked over to the squad car and took out a card and said as I tucked it into her pocket. “If by some grace of God you get out come to this address. There I can give you food, a shower and maybe some clothes and a blanket if you need them.”
She just sat there looking at me and then said in a hushed voice, “Why?”
And I smiled and said, “Because, God really does love you.”
She just kept staring even as the squad car was pulling away. The police would not tell me her name but the clerk said he heard her say Sandy……so pray for Sandy who is now sitting in a holding cell somewhere. Pray for mercy and that she will show up at Sanctuary and find Sanctuary in the Arms of Jesus.