In Acts chapter 3 Peter and John see a man begging at the temple gate. The man had been lame all his life and this was his only way to survive. Daily he laid there and asked for donations so he could eat. There were no government assistance programs back then so his only choice was to depend on charity – beg or die. When Peter saw this man, he looked at him and got his attention. Then, as now, most people don’t look at the poor. They are disturbing and it’s easier to ignore them. However, Peter made personal contact. The man expected Peter to throw him a few coins. This would have made Peter feel good about doing his part for the poor. He could claim some spiritual bonus points and move on. That’s not what Peter did. He looked beyond the surface, immediate problem. Yes, this man was hungry and needed money for food, but that was not his real problem. He needed a means to support himself. So, Peter chose to let God heal the deeper problem and reinvent this man’s life. He prayed for and declared the man’s healing by the power of Christ. The man walked away praising God into a whole new life.
Our world today is still full of needs. Even with all the government programs and charities, we have people dying from hunger. Too many families go to bed not knowing if they will be able to pay their bills or end up on the street. People fall through the cracks every day. I volunteer at soup kitchens and food banks. These ministries meet an urgent need, but they don’t reach the deeper problem. They don’t provide the resources people need to rise out of poverty.
I was inspired by Peter’s words to try to find a different way to serve the poor. I wanted to help people become independent and financially stable. I wanted them to see true healing in their lives. So, with very little idea what I was doing, I grabbed a friend and jumped in. We called the group financial advisory and a pleasant young couple from the church was willing to work with us.
This couple was in crisis. They had recently moved into the area and were swamped with all the bills that come with a new home – set up for phone and electric, deposit and rent, etc. They were behind on several monthly bills and had requested funds from the church. Our first step was to set up a simple budget. We listed all forms of income on one side of a paper and all their bills on the other side. We sorted through all the threatening and confusing letters and receipts they had received from their landlord to determine what they actually owed. Then we discussed options. The couple was pleased to realize that their income actually did cover their monthly bills. Seeing the numbers on paper instead of a pile of hungry bills, made it much more manageable. We decided that they would pay the total amount due to the landlord. He was the main source of their stress at that time. Paying back rent and fees meant they would not have enough for electric so we referred them to a local program that assists people in need pay this type of bill. We did not want them to depend on charity, but we needed to get them to a stable foundation first.
The next day I got a phone call from my new friend. She told me that she and her husband had prayed about the electric bill and that day someone came and bought a washer and dryer set they had been trying to sell. This provided the exact amount they needed for the electric bill. I was embarrassed to realize that I had not even told them to pray. At that moment I realized that God was going to use this ministry to teach me and change me as much or more than those I was serving.
The next month I wanted to focus on buying food. I had planned to discuss how to eat healthy on a budget and how to shop the sales. I wanted the couple to see the benefits of spreading their food stamps out through the month instead of using the whole amount at once as they were currently doing. We did not get far into the conversation when the man explained that his mother regularly visited and asked them to buy her food. Since they owed her money, they did not feel able to say no. Their only defense was to spend the whole amount so she could not coerce them more than once a month. So much for my well-planned lesson. That night’s discussion turned to setting boundaries and saying ‘no’ instead of how to shop sales which they were actually already good at. The lesson I learned that night was to get to know the person I am trying to serve. I assumed I knew the reason behind their spending habits, but I was wrong. To help them I needed to truly see them. That’s when the group stopped being about finances and became about life. In the months that followed we would end up discussing parenting, health, relationships and many other things. God was shaping all our lives.
One big lesson I learned from this couple and others I met was generosity. Too often when we think of the poor we think of beggars. All we hear are their requests for help. However, if you let yourself get involved in their lives, you see the other side. I have had numerous small gifts from poor people, not as a thank you but just because they had something they thought I might need or like. Poor people have learned to share to survive. If they have extra they give it away and if you have extra they are confused when you don’t give them some. Those of us who grew up being taught to be independent and take care of ourselves see it as an attitude of entitlement. We don’t realize that this is the way they have stayed alive. This does not mean I say yes to everyone who asks me for something. I have to have boundaries too. However, I no longer feel used when they ask or guilty when I say no. We are all in this life together.
It hasn't always been easy. We have dealt with frantic calls when food stamps were revoked, frustration and fear when homes were broken into, and numerous other setbacks. With God's grace and guidance, we moved forward. I am so proud of the progress that first couple made. They are now living in a nicer trailer park with a cute little yard. They pay all their bills. They are working on starting a small-business in hopes of getting off government assistance. One day they plan to buy their own home. More importantly, they love Jesus and are active in ministry. God has done a great work in their lives and in mine.