Referring Jesus

Robert D. Lupton

Your phone rings. It is the receptionist at the front desk. She says there is a lady there who is asking for food. You glance out your office window and observe an unfamiliar car parked in the church parking lot. A man is behind the wheel. You assume it is the car the lady at the front desk arrived in. You close your laptop and walk down the hall, checking your spirit for any ignoble attitudes – residue from previous disconcerting encounters with the needy. You will want to give this woman the benefit of the doubt, listen to her story with empathy and understanding. But how will you know if what she tells you is the truth? To even ask for verification will expose your suspicion. Besides, you do not have the time right now to spend getting involved in what could be a complicated situation. Your past experience has taught you that a request for food is often merely the tip of a pathological iceberg.

You greet her with a handshake and your warmest pastoral smile. You listen attentively to her story. It is believable enough and you do not question a word of it, not verbally anyway. Her demeanor and attire offer no conflicting clues. But you do not invite her into your office. You take her request for food at face value and instruct the receptionist to fill a box from the food pantry and give it to the woman. In less than five minutes the woman has thanked you profusely and exited to the waiting car. You return to your office, watch the car pull out of the lot, and settle back down at your laptop. You have fed the hungry, you reassure yourself, given freely with no strings attached. Now you can return to your sermon preparation.

But for some reason you find it difficult to stay focused on your reading material. Your concentration is distracted by an uneasiness that disturbs your spirit. Did you merely “expedite” this woman, dispatch her with an easy handout? Come to think of it, you did not even get her name. But you did give freely – that counts for something. Should you have offered to pray with her? Actually, she seemed rather relieved that you did not push for a more involved interview. She was probably just as happy that she got what she came for without being subjected to a counseling session. Yes, you handled it properly. Back to the Sunday sermon.

But what if she was hustling, making the rounds to churches all over town? Taking advantage of caring people? Selling the food to support a destructive drug habit? You would have no way of knowing if your charity was helping or hurting. Not without some sort of an accountability system. Where are all these questions coming from? Too late to do anything about it now anyway. Too many Sunday responsibilities pressing in. Maybe, next week. Right now you have a sermon to prepare.

But the disquieting thoughts persist. You decide to weave some self-disclosing remarks into your sermon about the biblical mandate to care for the poor and the difficulty in this culture of doing it rightly. Perhaps this will provide you some measure of closure.

But by Monday, with the issue still churning in your viscera, you come to the conviction that it is God who is troubling your spirit. You must face this dilemma and address it head on. You call a fellow pastor to see how she deals with similar situations. Shee tells you about a program that has been a godsend. A Cooperative Food Ministry (CFM) that is supported by several churches in the area. Participating churches collect food on their assigned Sunday, volunteers take it to the CFM center, the CFM director records each donation, documents each recipient, accounts for each distribution, connects to a county-wide computer system that safeguards against fraud and double-dipping. The cost is minimal, it provides good service opportunities for church volunteers, it is well-managed and accountable, and it fulfills the biblical mandate of feeding the hungry. It is the ideal solution, your pastor friend tells you.

Yes! This is just what you needed to hear. It should be easy to make the case to your church board that shifting the church food pantry to the CFM would be a much better way to minister to the poor. Indeed, this is much more efficient and responsible. It would eliminate those awkward interviews to get at the truthfulness of stories. It would resolve those worrisome tensions over responsible or irresponsible stewardship. CFM will handle all of this. They are the experts, after all. A good accountable referral system is definitely what is needed.

But you find that the new system does not relieve all your anxiety. Why does it still linger? Why do you feel in some way that you have referred Jesus away from your door? What is it about poor people, anyway, that so disquiets one’s spirit? Their intrusiveness, the way they interrupt your schedule, the demands they place on your time, especially when you are drawn into personal involvement with them. And there seems never to be a clear solution to their plight, always more complicated than you were first led to believe.

You wonder, in your more courageous moments, if all this might somehow be more about your own salvation than that of those you are trying to help. Might the appearance of Jesus in the form of a needy person be divine light to illuminate darker places in your soul – lack of compassion, self-protection, self-importance, impatience? Ouch! Too much reflection like this could be downright depressing. Good sermon material perhaps. But what over-worked pastor is going to relinquish control of his or her tightly packed calendar? Not a chance. It would be irresponsible. You just wish Jesus had been a little more understanding of the priest and Levite in his Good Samaritan story.
Your phone rings again.

So what are you going to do? Did it ever occur to you that your anxiety might be a result of your complicity in a charity system that does the poor more harm than good? Providing free food, clothing, and shelter is an emergency response to a crisis situation. The Red Cross does that well. But the poor we see in our food lines and clothes closets are there because of chronic poverty situations. The right response to chronic poverty is development. Address a crisis with an emergency response and lives are saved; address a chronic need with an emergency response and people are harmed. Starvation is a crisis need that demands urgent intervention; hunger is a chronic need (in our country) and calls for a “teach-a-man-to-fish” solution.

Obviously it takes more time and money to start a food coop or job training and placement ministry than it does to operate a give-away food pantry. And we both know how busy we are and how tight our benevolence budgets are. But at some point do we not have to ask ourselves: Is hurtful charity better than no charity at all? Would we not rest easier if we invested well in the lives of a few (at a time) needy ones than continue to participate in a flawed system that diminishes human dignity?

[For a helpful guide for pastors in cultivating new ways of thinking and relating to the poor in our communities, see Bob Lupton, Compassion, Justice and the Christian Life: Rethinking Ministry to the Poor (Regal, 2007) and Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It) (HarperOne, 2001).]

Posted May 07, 2014