Humbled and Enriched by Encounters With the Poor

By Nancy Karpenske

I made myself read through our congregation’s benevolence log before I wrote this, reviewing nearly 2,000 entries. Some of the stories make me laugh, like the day a person rushed in to beg for a voucher for a tank of gas. A warrant had been issued for his arrest, and he was trying to get out of town before the police caught up with him.

Or the woman who called in and requested food. She said she had just wakened from a coma. She specifically needed the prime rib daily special from a local restaurant. When she gave me her address, I recognized she was calling from the hospital. I asked if she was a patient, and she replied she couldn’t eat that awful hospital food. I told her I couldn’t buy her a prime rib dinner.

Not all stories are funny. I’ve met people in the midst of tragic circumstances, who have fallen through the cracks of the systems designed to help them. What really scares me is how close I have come to dismissing someone whose circumstance is truly desperate.

I recently met two single mothers who are relative newcomers to our women’s Bible study. They didn’t know each other, but they had the same story about how they ended up coming to our church. Each woman was in the midst of a messy divorce. Each needed financial assistance. Each was being pushed out of her own church—either as punishment for a failed marriage, or because the congregation couldn’t meet her financial problem.

They each told about calling through the Yellow Pages, asking churches for help. Our church happened to be the only church that returned their calls. I don’t even remember those calls. I’m very grateful I “followed procedure” on those days.

Our church and other churches in our community have developed a unified approach for meeting the needs of individuals and families in our town. It’s not a perfect system. But having a plan, working together, and keeping records makes my individual role easier. The guidelines help me evaluate each person’s need apart from their race, appearance, and ability to present their story.

My Changed Heart

I have noticed a serendipity, an unexpected result in my own life because I take my weekly turn administering our benevolence program. My heart has changed because I come in contact with the poor.

Here’s how that looks. I confess that most of my life I have valued people based on their contribution to the kingdom. If they are not part of the church, or not serving in the church, I haven’t had much use for them. But for more than a decade, I’ve been on call at least one day a week to take care of those who show up asking for some kind of financial assistance. I’m sad to admit how slow I’ve been to realize that God values the poor, even the poor who don’t attend church, as much as he values me.

Sometimes my goal has been to deal with the person as fast as possible and get back to my more important “spiritual” work. Sometimes the situation has turned into an in-depth investigation, trying to verify the person’s story or track down some form of aid. Sometimes the person’s need was more about getting someone to listen than getting financial help.

One day while comparing notes with a coworker, I discovered he prays with each person he assists. Sometimes he gives away a Bible. He asks them if they have a church home and invites them, even giving them a list of our service times.

I’m not typically so evangelistic. I worry they will figure out more aid is available to church members, and they will start attending for the “wrong reason.”

My coworker’s example stretches me. (I’m glad I don’t have to explain my own motivation for coming to church most Sundays.) I try his approach. Sometimes I pray with them and talk about getting connected to a church. Some days I pray silently as I serve them.

My Changed Outlook

Not surprisingly, human wisdom and a written list of guidelines and procedures are often inadequate to determine whether someone “deserves” the church’s money. Even though I’ve done this for years, I still get fooled.

Last year a young girl came in with a complex situation. She was the same age as my oldest daughter, but her life experiences had been harsh and brutal. I was ready to offer her the spare bedroom in my home. A few days later the girl’s grandmother called to tell me nearly every part of the heartbreaking story was a lie. After the initial shock that I’d been “taken in” again, I reminded myself I would rather be fooled occasionally than be continually skeptical and cynical and suspicious.

So I find myself praying as I read the individual’s written application and conduct the interview. “Lord, let me see this life with your eyes, your compassion, and your wisdom.” I’m pretty sure God expects me to be more concerned about compassion than stewardship.

But the money supply is limited. It’s not possible to buy groceries and gas and prescriptions and pay utility bills and rent and insurance and doctor bills and car payments for each family who comes in.

Another surprising benefit has been the opportunity to partner with other churches to meet a particular need. I’ve developed connections, even friendships with staff members from several other churches. Sometimes we are able to “divide and conquer” a financial need that no church alone could tackle. We learn from each congregation’s way of handling this aspect of ministry. Occasionally we identify a family who has gone from church to church, asking repeatedly for financial aid, moving to another church as soon as a financial mentor tried to offer guidance or evaluate spending. So even sharing our lists of “clients” has been valuable.

I’ve learned to rely on God as my shield and protection. Some days the “clients” yell and curse at you when you refuse to help. They call you names and condemn your church as a bunch of hypocrites. Sometimes they even quote Scripture as part of their tirade. They dare you to explain how your church can have a nice building and not care about the poor.

I’ve learned to keep quiet, and not to engage in the argument. I’ve found it’s not necessary to defend the church or report how many people we’ve already helped this week. It’s a challenge to keep from labeling the loud and angry ones as undeserving. I’ve come to expect that a person’s frustration level will overflow. I don’t have to take it personally.

But I dare not treat them impersonally—just another application to read, just another sad story to wade through. And I dare not harden myself as a form of self protection. As I leave my desk and head into the lobby to meet another needy person, I remind myself that “some have entertained angels unaware.”

So I pray something like this: “Father, help me to treat this person with dignity and compassion. You brought this person here today. Help me to discern. Help me to give my full attention. Give me your wisdom and your compassion.” Then I pretend I’m serving Jesus himself. Or I pretend Jesus is serving this person through my hands and heart.

My Growing Faith

I used to think that being assigned to “the Benevolence Beat” was a drag, a necessary part of the job, but nothing with any connection to any part of my “real work.” But now I believe it’s a great place from which to watch God work. Some months the money is gone before the month is over. I have learned to base my decision about help on God’s history in this department. Many times he has provided unexpected funds to meet a need, even to the dollar amount. I’m pretty confident when a need comes to my desk God will also send a way to meet it.

I like being the middleman. It’s been humbling and character-building. It’s been heart-stretching and faith-enlarging.

Nancy Karpenske, a contributing editor with CHRISTIAN STANDARD, is director of women’s ministry at LifeBridge Christian Church, Longmont, Colorado.

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