Serving the Poor Part 1: Beginning Somewhere

I used to think serving, loving, and making a difference was complicated and required sophisticated strategy. But now I know better.

When I was a freshman in college, I worked for an inner-city ministry and unexpectedly landed in front of the Board of Directors giving a very big presentation. I felt completely out of place as I looked around the room at all the credentials and business suits. I fumbled through my presentation and at the end, one of the important women approached me. I knew she was the CEO of a massive company. My palms grew sweaty and my heart raced as she moved toward me, and I kind of braced myself by putting one hand on the table behind me to steady my balance. But she didn’t ask me any questions. She didn’t pick apart my presentation or my plans for the organization’s summer program. She just introduced herself, paused, and said something I’ve never forgotten: “Meredith, I want you to know God has put you in my heart and whatever you do in your life, I’m for you.” We hugged and she walked away, and I wholeheartedly believed our interaction would slip her mind, but it absolutely did not. For 15 years, she’s patiently, lovingly, and graciously been with me through so many seasons of life. Heartbreak. Opportunity. Marriage. Parenthood. Starting an organization. Celebration. Grief. She didn’t just say she was for me or that she loved me. She has consistently been with me.

Susan didn’t have an agenda or hidden motive. She was just with me. I’ve learned so much about Jesus because of her friendship. We don’t have to look far in the Gospels to see Jesus’ habit of being with people. He simply invited His disciples to walk with him, to share life with Him. He attended weddings, funerals, and feasts - with people. He sat with the women at the well. He was inside with Matthew and his questionable friends at his party while all of the religious folks stood outside criticizing and speculating. He was with the poor, needy, and sick at Peter’s mother-in-law’s house. He intentionally put himself with people - he moved toward them. Jesus is sometimes called Immanuel - “God with us.” God could have orchestrated salvation any number of ways, yet He chose for Jesus to be with us, to move toward us. I think that sheds a lot of light on how we are supposed to love and care for others.

There are thousands of verses about justice and caring for the poor. Thousands. It’s a major theme in the Bible, and honestly, I missed it most of my life (more on that another time). But when we do get around to thinking about it or talking about it, there are a lot of different camps in the matter, and the pendulum swings wide: pour resources, time, effort, and energy into meeting tangible needs like food, clothing, and shelter, OR focus on alleviating root causes and providing long-term impact. Are we enabling or leading to freedom? Are we hurting or helping? Am I wasting my time/money/resources or am I making a difference? These are honest concerns and valid questions. I hear these questions a lot. It’s so much easier when there’s a clear line between right and wrong. We know how to categorize into black and white, but bleeding over into gray makes things complicated and messy. If we were solving a math problem, there would be one right answer and a whole bunch of wrong ones. People aren’t problems to be solved, but sometimes we trick ourselves into thinking they are.

I’m actually a huge advocate of wrestling with these questions, in fact, I encourage it. But that’s not where our efforts of caring for the poor should begin. But having said that, please know we must get around to beginning somewhere because not having the right answer doesn’t translate into a free pass of doing nothing.

Here are 4 “What If’s” to get our hearts moving in the right direction:

  1. What if we moved toward people who might make us feel a little uncomfortable?
  2. What if we purposed to spend time with people up-close instead of loving them from a distance?
  3. What if we stopped viewing poverty or tangible needs as problems to solve, and focused on being with the people behind the statistics and needs?
  4. Jesus started with love. What if we did too?

Answering these questions may not result in mass alleviation of social problems, or in the forging of new pathways out of long-term poverty. Inviting someone who recently got out of jail out for coffee won’t solve their need for a job. Attending dinner at the homeless shelter every Monday won’t alleviate hunger or solve people’s housing need. But I guarantee something will start to change. And that something will be us.

Question: Who can you move toward this week that you might naturally move away from? What would it look like for your family to spent time with those who are poor and marginalized in your community on a regular basis?

Serving the Poor Part 2: FAQ's on Homelessness

Serving the Poor Part 3: Resources