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How Best to Give to the Poor

by Amy Sherman

The Standard, November 1999

From the halls of Congress to the columns of the Washington Post, calls for the church to provide more aid to needy families affected by welfare reform are heard in the strangest places these days.

In light of more than 400 Scripture verses revealing God's heart for the poor, it is tough to argue with the proposition that the church should be reaching out. If we are honest, we have to admit the church has been guilty of many of the same mistakes the government made. Washington has fundamentally reformed its welfare system, marking a new era of time limits on the social safety net. Now the church must reform its welfare system and mobilize to meet what will be one of the greatest social challenges America has faced in decades putting hundreds of thousands of able-bodied poor people to work.

Churches must stop helping people to manage their poverty and start helping them to escape it. We have offered poor people groceries instead of budget counseling, rent money instead of job training, used clothing instead of friendship. We have been too willing to "help" the poor but too unwilling to know them. We have not practices what church father Gregory of Nyssa defined as true mercy "a voluntary sorrow that joins itself to the suffering of another."

Churches that are facilitating positive, sustainable transformation have eschewed the "bigger is better" mentality and targeted their benevolence activities to a few needy families. They have learned to say no to the easy, but usually ineffective, policy of writing checks to poor people and to say yes to the more stretching, inconvenient and personalized approach of relationship ministry to the whole person.

What has resulted is mutual transformation. Welfare recipients are gaining a clearer understanding of God and learning to trust Him. They are setting goals, managing their finances and discovering their God-given talents.

Church mentors are learning a deeper dependence on Christ as they serve families with seemingly overwhelming needs. They have experienced a renewed gratitude for blessings they once took for granted. They are learning about authentic dependency upon God as they learn from economically poor but spiritually rich Christians. They are worshiping with greater awe as they watch God miraculously answer prayers for their "mentees," requests for things they have never prayed before: "God, heal her daughter from crack addition; provide her with a job with health insurance, even though she has been on welfare for 15 years."

The church needs welfare reform for our own sakes. We are spiritually impoverished when our outreach is sterile, arm's-length, "commodified" mercy that is long on things and short on our time. But we are enriched when we entangle our lives with the needy through face-to-face relationships.


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