Today I am an ordained pastor; in presbyterian polity, this means I am a particular kind of elder. Before I was ordained to the eldership I served as a young deacon in Indiana. Most of our congregations give their deacons access to mercy funds in order to bless the poor. Please allow me to rehearse some of my growing anxiety at that time, a deepening concern that, perhaps, we were “doing more harm than good.” At times, it seemed that we were supplying resources to deepen addictions (both to chemical substances & to an unhealthy kind of dependence on “O.P.M.” = Other People’s Money). We may have strengthened false impressions about “the Main Purpose of the Church.” It was remarkable to observe the audacity of callers who sought to instruct me (the church deacon) that the major mission of the Christian church is to give money to the poor, specifically, to them, at that moment.
I also had the strong impression that we were fostering a culture of lies. Many times after the bestowal of some mercy gift a recipient would insist that, out of gratitude or some kind of pay-back, he’d see me on Sunday for worship. In the early years of my diaconal labors I thought this was wonderful and appropriate. Alas, by my count, 14 of the 15 who made this commitment (one I was never seeking) failed to attend THAT Sunday or any Sunday.
More reasons for angst: We know the Biblical importance of giving even a cup of cold water in the name of Christ, but our typical design for delivering the help made the mere mention of Christ’s name (and His gospel) awkward. We were also hearing from the same people quarter after quarter, with the same “emergency” need, and sometimes the one asking for the assistance had no recollection I was the same person to whom she spoke on the previous occasion [this “relationship” was not progressing]! We also found ourselves giving charity dollars to people who were members and/or attenders at other Bible-based churches in our city. Often the needy person told me that his church did not give charity. So in my giving, I ended up resenting some in the wider body of Christ, but today I am wondering if those congregations had good reasons not to give to this one or that one.
Many of the people who called were driving from East Coast to West, to attend the funeral of some dear one, but alas, their old car blew a tire, and they had three babies in the back seat running out of formula, and all they needed was $50 & a night in the interstate motel. Or so they said; so they all said! Then again, how many ostensibly starving folks I offended and angered by buying $30 of groceries and putting $20 of fuel into their tanks instead of just handing over the $50 they really wanted, even though they told me they needed food & gas. On several occasions, the very announcement of this plan led to a fast drive-away!
One particular mercy call stands out from the rest. Following good counsel, I grew into the decent habit of enquiring about the caller’s relationships & circles of helpers. That is, I would observe aloud that this individual was calling for help from total strangers, and so it was only natural for me to wonder if the caller was capable of addressing his own financial needs. If not, what about his/her family, out to the level of cousins? Then: Do you belong to a church, even one in which you were involved years ago? On this occasion, the young man was telling me his sad story about the mean grandparents who had kicked him out onto the mean streets of our city. Jaded, perhaps, I asked to speak with these monsters. Within the hour, there we were, all together ~ myself, the eighteen-year-old, and his grandparents in their living room. Clarity came swiftly: This youth was repeatedly violating their reasonable standards about drugs and curfews, and so he was experiencing the first hours of some hard consequences for his foolish choices. I mean, he had called me and many other churches within one day of being evicted! At best, this youth was giving me selfishly slanted truth. My impression was that this boy’s real needs were much more complicated than I had considered. The grandparents, in a gesture of great patience, expressed a willingness to take him back into their home that very evening if he would promise, once again, to comply with their simple regulations. A $50 gift from our church to this youth might have cut off his strongest human relationship.
There are interesting parallels in the area of foreign missions, with plenty of good and bad examples still bearing their fruit many decades after “the missionaries landed.” More than a century ago, John Nevius noticed (from his Biblical and practical studies) that the new fields do much better in the long term if “three selfs” are respected from the earliest days: self-support, self-governance, and self-propagation. But if the outside missionaries insist on doing for the “natives” what the “natives” can do for themselves, a root of paternalism and unhealthy dependency is planted which may never be removed. For those who care for details, this Nevius Plan was carried out most insistently by presbyterian missionaries in South Korea, a church-culture which is doing well in many ways. The RPCNA’s more recent efforts in Sudan seem fruitful in the early decades. The Westerners resolved, there, not to preach, but to get behind the best young men who showed some gifts and ministry inclinations. These young leaders were highly supported, behind the scenes. The sense that our workers might have to leave this war-torn region at a moment’s notice also helped with this resolve to get in & get out. In missions ~ it appears ~ we start out on the right foot or curse our friends to limp along for generations after we enjoy a hero’s praise.
Closer to home, our denomination sponsored holistic ministries in Alabama among the freedmen, in Kentucky among the mountain-poor, and in Oklahoma among recently relocated Native Americans. In each case, churches and schools and craft-shops worked in unison to care about “the whole man” and the individuals in community. Clear evidences of social transformation were showing. Then, of course, a government public school was built nearby, offering free education, welfare for parents, & fewer strings or conditions for all the assistance. Hundreds transferred out of the church schools & these missions closed down soon after ~ producing a poverty of spirit which remains to this day in these places.