One thing I often struggle with, and have for quite some time, is my attitude toward the poor.
Growing up, I didn’t know any poor people. Everybody I knew seemed to be doing about the same, economically. None of my friends or classmates had divorced parents, and I don’t remember any dads being unemployed. In fact, many of the dads, including my own, occasionally worked two jobs. They worked two jobs, so the wives/mothers could stay home with the children. Putting a child in daycare was unheard of.
I didn’t really see poverty until my early 20’s when I started serving at the Dorothy Day Center in inner city Minneapolis. However, I mostly worked in the kitchen, so I still didn’t KNOW anybody who was poor.
Then, in 1998, we moved to Wichita (serving at a downtown church), and holy cow, poverty was all around us.
Motivated to Serve
Early on, I was motivated to do as much as possible for the poor, as an expression of my Christian faith. For example, each day, we set out free coffee in the church lobby for the homeless to enjoy. And they were always welcome to use our restrooms. I also became personally acquainted with many of the downtown poor & homeless. They called me “Pastor D” or “PD.”
For several years, I led a neighborhood Bible study, drawing 12-15 homeless each week. A number of them, I had the privilege of baptizing.
Each Christmas & Easter, a friend and I would take a vanload of the homeless to a nice restaurant. I also arranged for a wealthy couple in our church to annually host the poor at their lakeside home, and sponsor a day of boating, swimming and enjoying their hot tub. Most of the guests had never been on a boat before.
While all this was going on, our church was busy developing new ministries to serve the poor, including a free medical clinic, a Sunday morning breakfast, and an after-school program. Once a month, we arranged to have barbers come and cut hair. We also arrange for manicurists to come and do women’s nails.
Our church was becoming a model for other churches, and occasionally, I would be invited to speak at some of them, or they would ask how they could assist us, since we had the ideal location for serving the poor.
We really had it goin’ on!
A Hardening Heart
As time went on, however, I sensed my heart beginning to harden toward the poor. I found many of them (probably even the majority) to be dishonest, manipulative (especially of Christians!), lazy, godless, and, frankly, incredibly irresponsible.
Frequently, our restrooms at the church would be trashed, including urine and feces all over the floor and walls. Occasionally, we would find a couple having sex somewhere in our building; once, there was a couple having intercourse right in the open. Do dogs even do that?
Violence was another problem. One day, a homeless person threw a brick through a window, just missing my head. (Yes, he was aiming for me.) Several times a month, it was not unusual for a fight to break out during the Sunday morning breakfast. That’s when I started lifting weights and working out a lot.
The truth was, I was becoming burned-out on the poor, and that was one of the things that propelled me to start thinking & praying about moving to another church.
I faced a dilemma. On the one hand, as noted above, I found deep character flaws in many, if not most, of the poor. I also felt growing resentment concerning all the government programs that are designed to help them.
You can be poor and America and do quite well, including: free housing, free utilities, free food, free medical care, free child care, free contraceptives, free abortions (for those who fail to use contraception), free clothing, free transportation, free legal services, free laundry, and of course, a free cell phone. Of course, none of this is free; somebody pays for it. And is all this free stuff really helping them, or enabling them?
On the other hand (and this is the rub, as they say), I know what the Bible says about the poor. Get this: not once in the Bible are the poor criticized in any way! Why is that? And why such strong commands to bless & serve them? To be compassionate and generous?
We’ll consider what the Bible says about the poor next week. And then in Part 3 of the series, we’ll try to draw some conclusions.