A few afternoons back, Sharon and I were returning home after running errands downtown. We heard the call of the DQ Blizzard so we stopped to enjoy a little ice cream. Both of us had our favorites – a Heath Bar for her and strawberry banana for me. As we sat eating and visiting in the DQ parking lot, a bedraggled man with a knapsack walked up to Sharon and asked for some money to buy food. She turned to me and asked what she should do and I suggested she give him something.
One thing I have learned over the years is that Sharon is much more generous than me. She reached into her purse and pulled out a five dollar bill. I must say, that is more than I would have given. Promising not to use it for alcohol or drugs, the man walked away and crossed the street.
About five minutes later, coming down the street from the other direction, was an elderly woman dressed just a tad better than the man. She walked straight to the dumpster next to the DQ and began rummaging inside. It seemed obvious that she was digging for food. After watching for a few minutes, Sharon decided she wanted to help this woman as well. This time she took a ten dollar bill from her purse and walked over to the dumpster.
It turned out the woman was seeking ice. She was too embarrassed to go inside the DQ and ask for a cup of ice and she didn’t have money to walk up the street to purchase a bag at the Mercado. Sharon spoke with her for a few minutes and then handed her the money. The woman actually tried to talk Sharon into giving her only five dollars rather than the entire ten.
The interesting thing to me about this experience is the conversation Sharon and I had on the way home. We are both aware that spending more on these two poor people than we spent on ourselves at the DQ did very little to solve their problem of poverty. We have been in the ministry all of our adult lives and have tried to help countless numbers of people get out of the perpetual cycle of poverty. It is probably not an exaggeration to say we have had no success.
My ministry for more than a decade was to be the stewardship guru for the state of Texas. I preached and taught stewardship in more than 500 churches. I developed and wrote much of the stewardship material that was used by Southern Baptists around the country for many years. I remember one evening waiting at a church for a meeting to begin. I stumbled across a Bible study book that contained a series of lessons on stewardship. I thumbed through the lessons and thought, “This is pretty good stuff, I wonder who wrote it?” When I looked in the front of the book I discovered that I had written the lessons years earlier.
In all my experiences of working with churches and stewardship, I learned the things that interest Christians most in the area of stewardship are having money to build new buildings, family budgeting and finances, increased giving to church budgets, and making sure we have enough for retirement. I stayed very busy responding to requests for each of these areas of stewardship.
I have written books on giving, fund raising, budgeting, financial planning, and investing. However, I do not recall ever being invited to address the stewardship issue that seems to be at the top of Jesus’ list of stewardship matters – helping the poor. I had a friend who had a great ministry helping low income families learn how to handle their finances, deal with credit issues, and actually construct an affordable home for them. I worked hard to introduce this program to churches but I could never get them excited about actually doing something to help the poor.
The problem of poverty is so difficult that I’m not sure anyone knows the solution. Even a wealthy country like ours seems to have no idea how to help the poor. The reason it is not easy to solve is because it is so expensive to be poor that folks cannot simply “earn” their way out. It is not as easy as getting a job and managing your money.
If someone has a job that pays near minimum wage they can never make enough to stay above the poverty line. They have to make difficult choices just to stay afloat financially. When you are poor and cannot afford to make a deposit or qualify for a mortgage then you are forced to pay more for less. If you don’t have transportation then you probably have to live in more expensive neighborhoods that have public transportation. Living downtown also means you must purchase groceries at small convenience stores rather than suburban super markets, which means higher food prices. Living paycheck to paycheck usually means no savings so when a medical emergency (likely you have no insurance) or another expected expense appears you turn to short-term “payday lenders” and pay exorbitant interest rates.
It is a viscous cycle that is extremely difficult to break. It is even worse for those with some type of disability or situation that does not even allow them to maintain any employment. I am well aware that Sharon’s generosity did little more than provide temporary hunger relief, but I’m also confident that what she did was in the spirit of Jesus’ model to be concerned for the poor.
As a society, however, if we are to make a difference, a significant difference, we must do more than what is currently happening. Politicians are doing little to help. Most of their approach is to strengthen the economy with the odd notion that if the rich get richer, somehow the poor will also. While there is some truth to the idea that when the tide rises everyone benefits, the reality is that an extremely small number are becoming exceedingly wealthy, but they are either hoarding that wealth or using it to create inadequate minimum wage type jobs.
In the meantime, the church is doing little better. As I learned from my own stewardship experience, the most excited churches get about stewardship is when they have a building to construct or a budget program to finance. Dave Ramsey has also taught us that it is possible to get middle class folks excited about getting out of debt but that doesn’t seem to translate into much help for the poor.
I will be the first to admit that I don’t know how to solve this problem. I have already confessed my lifetime of ministry attempts toward the poor have been a dismal failure. But I do think we can do more. Here are a few suggestions:
- Express as much passion toward speaking against materialism and greed as we have about other sins. I am not suggesting we tone down our approach to issues like abortion, but we need to understand the danger of materialism. Jesus spoke a great deal more about the destructive power of greed than He did about murder and sexual behavior. If we believe Jesus then it is likely there are few rich people in heaven.
- Encourage followers of Jesus to adjust their standard of living in such a way that we remove our excesses and make more available to help others. Just because we can afford something does not mean we should possess it.
- Challenge your church to get out of the property business. This is a huge thing because the American church has trillions of dollars tied up in property and spends billions more each year. This one step would provide tremendous amounts of money and resources to help the poor. (I will follow up with some suggestions on how this might happen in subsequent articles.)
What we are currently doing to address poverty and help the poor is not working. It is little better than Sharon handing out fifteen dollars in the DQ parking lot. It’s a nice gesture but folks are waking up the next morning with the same problems. This is the real stewardship issue the church needs to address.