“I had to dumpster dive last night, because the three meals I got at the Mission weren’t enough,” a homeless man once complained to me. “Bro,” I started, “I don’t eat lunch most days because I’m working.”
This young man then changed topics and began to complain about the uncomfortable beds in our overnight shelter. “We’re not the Marriott,” I replied. “The shelter is meant to keep you alive.”
In the early 19th century, the needy were largely separated into two categories: those who were physically unable to remedy their situation through hard work and those who were physically able yet unwilling. The latter were not looked down on as if they were at the bottom of the social barrel, but with eyes that saw their potential to either improve their situation or dive further in unhealthy living. In fact, requiring the able-bodied poor to work was not seen as unloving or oppressive, but was their way of treating all those in need as members of the community with responsibilities.
The man mentioned above is smart, in his early thirties, and is physically able to remedy at least part of his homeless situation. Instead, he sells his EBT card for cash to buy marijuana, is a full-time loiterer where permitted, and spends his days playing Magic (some sort of card game I don’t understand). He may not have a home or a job, but yet, he is still a member of this community — and as such, it is our responsibility to treat him accordingly.
On October 12, we’ll be hosting our annual banquet with author and speaker, Robert Lupton. The stories and data presented in his book “Toxic Charity” (which was my first introduction to him) were both convicting and inspiring. I became committed in those early days to not only help the hurting, but to do so in a way that treated them with dignity, where I could play my part in calling people higher; reminding them that they still have purpose and something to give — in spite of their current need.
After years of on-the-ground ministry and international missionary experience, Lupton crafted “The Oath for Compassionate Service”:
#1: Never do for the poor what they have (or could have) the capacity to do for themselves: “Personal responsibility is essential for social, emotional and spiritual well-being. To do for others what they have the capacity to do for themselves is to disempower them. The negative outcomes of welfare are no different when religious or charitable organizations provide it. The struggle for self-sufficiency is, like the butterfly struggling to emerge from its cocoon, an essential strength-building process that should not be short-circuited by “compassionate” intervention. The effective helper can be an encourager, a coach, a partner, but never a caretaker.”
By the late 19th century, charities understood this principle and warned their volunteers, that “well-meant interference, unaccompanied by personal knowledge of all the circumstances, often does more harm than good.” Should it pain you to see someone hungry? Yes. Should you immediately intervene with a meal? Not necessarily. That would be well-meant interference. Perhaps, it is those very hunger pains that would lead that individual to reach out for help to change the rest of their life, not just a meal for the moment. Fortunately for us, we live in the agricultural hub of the world, and hunger here, to quote Lupton, is a “chronic poverty need, not a life threatening one.”
As we always say, it’s not just about helping — it’s about helping within a healthy context. Direct those in need to available services where they can eat, receive shelter, and make new relationships. And, if you’re willing, join us — in the kitchen, in the shelter, in the office. You can make a greater difference than you realize.