I was in the drive-through line at Starbucks when she walked up to my car window. So I opened the car window and asked, “Can I help you?”
“Can you spare a few dollars? My car is just about out of gas and I don’t have any money. I need to get to Odessa for a job interview.”
The middle-aged lady standing next to the coffee menu looked like someone I would pass in the grocery store. My first thought was that she didn’t really look needy. But then I felt guilty for hesitating to help someone when I was about to spend four dollars on a cup of espresso and milk. “I’d be happy to fill your car with gas when I get out of this line,” was what I settled on.
But she didn’t jump on my offer like I expected. “Well, I don’t just need gas. I wanted to get some lunch too, so if you have a few dollars…”
I repeated my suggestion. “As soon as I’m done here I will meet you at those pumps right behind us and fill up your car.”
But she was already backing away. “I’ll just see if the person in the next car has a few dollars to spare.” And she was gone.
I felt sad and irritated at the same time. Sad, because I had not helped someone who might have needed my help. Irritated, because I suspected she had tried to con me.
A few days later I had lunch with a friend, Susan Edwards. She is the director of Midland’s Baptist Crisis Center. I told her about the encounter at Starbucks and asked her if I had done the right thing. “Absolutely,” she assured me. “That’s probably just what I would have done.”
Since Susan’s job is working with the homeless and people who are struggling financially, I asked advice on how to handle something I encounter regularly. At a specific intersection I cross, sometimes multiple times a day, there is almost always someone standing with a sign. “Almost blind.” “Need work.” “Hungry.” I feel guilty about not doing anything; but I don’t know what to do.
Susan told me that practical help and meeting people’s needs directly is always better than handing over cash. She made several great suggestions. First, know where people can go in your city to get help, so you can direct them there. Find out about the shelters, soup kitchens, crisis centers, and other agencies that know how to help. We should also support these places so they can continue to do their job.
Second, purchase gift certificates to places like McDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chicken. Instead of handing out money, give these certificates to people who need a hot meal.
Third, keep a few “emergency food bags” in your car. Fill a grocery bag with bottled water and food that doesn’t spoil quickly. Susan suggested cans of Vienna sausages, nuts, and snack crackers. When I put my bags together I included all that, plus raisins and granola bars. I gave away three bags in two days.
I realize these things are mostly band aids. I can give food to temporarily fill an empty belly, but I can’t fix the problem. I don’t know how to really help. I believe that’s where most of us are – we care, but we don’t know how to really help.
Recently our church became aware of a ministry called the “Interfaith Hospitality Network.” With 140 networks in 39 states, IHN seeks to bring local congregations together to provide temporary housing, food, and practical assistance to homeless families. The goal is help them get back on their feet financially and back in a home of their own. The ministry’s success rate is 80%. (For more information on this ministry see: http://www.familypromise.org/program/interfaith-hospitality-network )
The members of our church have overwhelmingly responded favorably to participating in this ministry. When our local network gets up and running we will have the opportunity to provide food and shelter in the name of Jesus. We’ve cared all along. We just needed someone to show us how we can help.
I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me… Matthew 25:35-36