Monday, June 06, 2005

What is it that we are to do? How do we put mercy into practice? I have four principles: Be available, get involved by coming alongside someone in need, establish relationships, and offer hope.

If a homeless person attends the ministry for ten years (or for long time) but does not come for spiritual reasons wouldn't you ask that person to leave? God is in charge of the timetable. We encourage everyone to continue attending our worship and Bible studies and we continue to nurture and pray for their salvation and transformation.

Who do you allow in? How do you figure out who is “deserving”? None of us is “deserving.” Praise God that Jesus drank the cup of wrath so we would receive salvation and not condemnation. Mercy is our loving the unworthy and unlovely. There is a cross-dresser (a man who dresses as a woman) who attends one of our Bible studies. The first time that this person came to the Bible Study, I was standing at the door to welcome our guests. She came in. I shook her hand, welcomed her, and then saw what she really was. I felt repulsed and thought to myself, “Oooh… I don’t want this person in here. This is a holy place.” Immediately God convicted me of my sin. Who else beside sinners do we want in Bible study? We can’t change her, but God can as we make ourselves available to be used by God in mercy ministry.

If someone asks me for money on the street what should I do? A firm policy is never give cash. But, try to make it a win-win situation. If someone says he/she is hungry scripture encourages us to help. The best way to help is to invite the person to join you for a meal (in a public place, never your home). Share your lunch in a park. Establish a relationship. If the person requesting help really wants food and not cash he/she will take you up on the offer. But, don’t be afraid to say “no” if the person continues to want cash money and your offer of food is rejected. Say “I’m sorry I’m not able to do that.”

If someone comes to the church asking for money what do I do? Again, a firm policy is never give cash. We provide valuable referral information to those agencies we know to be helpful. Over the past fifteen years we’ve concluded that at least 95% of those asking for help are con artists (we have to use common sense and prayer for the rest). Our church provides the following information:
“Dear Friend, Thank you for coming to Tenth Presbyterian Church. We welcome you in the name of Jesus Christ. Whoever you are and whatever your life’s experience may be, know that we open our doors to whoever seeks God and the peace he provides through Jesus Christ. Our ministers gladly serve those who come in need. Often they are involved with the needs of others and may not be free to see you when you walk in, but they will set up a time when they are able to. Our ministers can share Scripture, pray and give spiritual counsel. Tenth Church has ministries and groups that may be of further help to you, and the ministers may refer you to them. However, our ministers are not able to provide money, tokens, food, clothing or other physical services. Attached is a list of places that will be able to help with those needs.” Most people are looking for fast cash and actually appreciate a no answer. They don't want to waste their time if the answer is no!

What are the “red flags” I should be aware of? In so many cases deacons and other "well-meaning people" are drawn to the tyranny of the urgent. These are easily manipulated and fall into the trap.

What experience has impacted you the most? In 1988, soon after I began ministering at Tenth Presbyterian Church, I attended our community dinner (homeless banquet). I believed wrongly that as someone with over 15 years of working in urban ministry I could facilitate conversation at my table without any difficulty. I asked one of the men at my table, "who is your hero?" He looked around the room at 120 other homeless persons and said, "Look at them. Do you know what I see? Losers, nothing but losers. We don't have any heroes, so don't even talk to me about heroes." At that point I felt very small, inadequate, and ashamed. As I was going to reply another said, "Do you know what? Not only are we losers, we are all no good, rotten bastards." I didn't know what to say next. As I recall, I changed the subject and began talking about football. In reflection, I learned a lot from that brief conversation: that is exactly the way everyone is before they receive salvation in Jesus Christ. When we come to Jesus Christ we are no longer losers, or rotten, or bastards. We become worthy. Though our sins are like scarlet and our righteous acts as filthy rags, in Christ’s righteousness we are heirs, children of Almighty God.

Can you give a real life example of how you set limits?
1. After a church paid one member’s bill, the power company began sending people to the church for help. In this situation ground rules need to be set--what you will and won’t do. When we had a food pantry, EVERYONE came for help. It was unruly and destructive for us. We discovered that there were abundant resources within two-three blocks, closed our pantry and began referring elsewhere. As other agencies had referred people to us, we notified them to refer elsewhere as well. Regarding the power company, above, the church must please alert it to the church’s policy (paying the bills of members only, frequent worshippers, residents of the block, etc). Setting boundaries like this is vital.

2. Someone comes to the church on the night of choir practice and requests food. Within reason, don't submit to the tyranny of the urgent. It was night. The requesters had all day to find help for food. You can say, "No one is available to help you at this time (after hours). Please return tomorrow during the day (they probably won't)." A good idea is to make up a list of resources in your area and give it to them.

3. Someone comes during choir requesting money. That's the key. Say, "I'm sorry we are not able to do that." Be assertive (but kind); the person will usually leave. Deacons and others should be trained to say, "No" when tough love is appropriate. As soon as a non-suspecting person "goes outside to talk" he has lost control. It helps to work in pairs but, here, the situation already got out of hand. In this case he said his mother had died the week before (red flag) and that he had spent all his available money on the funeral. He said he had no money for food. The man again asked for cash, and when the deacon refused, he berated him for not trusting him. He claimed to be a pastor with 20 years experience. Be careful. Don’t be conned.

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