As Christians, we want to show compassion to the poor. But as soon as we try to put shoulder to work, we find an overwhelming number of questions: how can we be charitable without creating dependence? How can we relieve financial emergencies and help people find long-term stability? And how can we help people find hope both in this life and in the next?
The questions can paralyze us before we even start.
Randy Nabors is the Urban and Mercy Coordinator for the Presbyterian Church in America’s Mission to North America. Pastor emeritus of New City Fellowship in Chattanooga, Randy has both years of working in poor conditions in urban America and the personal experience of poverty: he grew up in the projects of Newark, New Jersey.
In March, Nabors released the book Merciful: The Opportunity and Challenge of Discipling the Poor Out of Poverty. In the book, Nabors shares three core principles of a long-term strategy for poverty relief. These can be put into practice by an individual, small group, or organization; but I thought they were so beneficial I wanted to share them! As we try to see Soma Downtown established in a more depressed area of Indianapolis, these practices will become essential for our life and ministry.
First, we do need to be prepared simply to respond to crises quickly, generously, and without always having our paperwork in order. Some people really do need emergency help with a utility bill or a drive to the hospital. They might need food or medicine for this week.
So many people do trade on charity in this way that we naturally become skeptical, maybe even cynical toward these kinds of appeals. Some people know they can work an individual or an organization for a quick handout; a Christian text from the first century actually shows that this was happening in the first generations of the Church’s life! After we get burned a few times, we become tempted to just skip charity altogether.
But we can’t let that happen.
Some people do need a financial (or legal, or what-have-you) “emergency room” – an immediate-service crisis center. It’s good for anyone looking to do mercy ministry to maintain the ability to do this as they’re able. Because we will find people who come to us needing this kind of help.
Should this be our only solution? Nope. Can we exercise discernment? Yep. Will we sometimes be taken advantage of by “unrighteous poor?” Probably; just as God seems willing to be disadvantaged by our unrighteous selves. But the emergency room of charity remains one phase of a robust poverty-relief strategy.
In one sense, charity can be easy. If I can part with five bucks and walk away, I don’t have to sit down and eat or talk with a homeless person. I don’t have to wade into the mess of discerning their problems; I definitely don’t have to help deal with problems.
But if we’re going to see mercy have long-term poverty relief effects, we’re going to have to do more than throw money at crises and walk away. We’re going to have to do the sweaty work of development.
Development means helping people move from a state of crisis to a state of stability. There’s a correctional side, in which we identify and treat “disorders” of life management: poor budgeting skills, toxic spending habits, etc. There’s also a constructive side, in which we help people develop their skills, opportunities, or habits toward overall health. Job training, financial coaching, and similar practices fall under this category.
Development is tougher than charity because it requires a long-term, personal investment in the situation. In “typical” Christian ministry, the closest model is discipleship, which is ongoing and relational, hortatory and formative. In development, we walk alongside people who need mercy to see them grow to a place of stability.
And if this leads us to ask why we want to see people developed, that’s a great question. Do we want people to generate wealth? To become Christian bon vivants who can enjoy God through a yearly visit to their ski lodge?
Christians find the goal of financial stability in Ephesians 5: “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need” (5:28, emphasis added). Poverty isn’t a good thing; but Paul commends an honest living ultimately because it enables a person to bless others. Not all people can be brought to a place where they can make a living; but when it’s possible, it’s better to cultivate people toward a place from which they can in turn help others.
If development is more ongoing and personal than charity, then the merciful practice of accountability is as direct and personal as it gets.
When we provide someone with accountability, we challenge them to a relationship of honesty. We ask them to open themselves to uncomfortable questions and even to rebukes. A person held accountable is a person challenged to confess his struggles and failings.
This isn’t to say that all people who become poor do so from their own choices. The Bible has room for a person of good habits and character to become poor: poverty can come from catastrophic circumstances or broken social systems. But even so, it’s helpful to have to explain to someone what I did with my money last week. Knowing that I’ll give an account of my habits – and that someone might call me out on bad ones – can help me work harder to see bad practices broken and better ones built.
Underlying all this, though – especially for Christian groups – lie the doctrines of the dignity of humankind, the helplessness of fallen people, and the extravagant grace of God. Without the doctrine of dignity – that human beings are created in the image of God – we can absorb the poor into an eternal cycle of dependence. Without the doctrine of human helplessness, we might get the idea that we stand in power over the poor to dictate their lives for them. And without the grace of God – without belief in a God who impoverished himself unto death for wicked people – we don’t have the fuel to keep going when the work feels unrewarding. But our God is lavish, and his power gives us strength to live into this work.