When you extend a helping hand, you risk getting your fingers burned

By Mark King

This "Holiday Season" as it is often called, the plight of the poor, the hungry, and the homeless will be on display. In some locations, the problem is more visible than in others. I lived in Chicago for fifteen years and spent half of that time as a pastor, so I have had quite a bit of experience with people seeking help. Chicago has a lot of hungry and homeless people and they will often approach and ask for money. There are also a lot of people in Chicago who will try to play on your sympathy to get money for drink or drugs. Sometimes they are the same people. As a Christian you want to help the hungry. On the other hand, you don't want to enable him in destructive habits. Often it is difficult to know exactly what to do. I have made it my practice in most cases not to give money, but I will buy a person food if they need it. For a while, I carried granola bars in the car so I would have something to give the people holding signs at intersections. Many times a person would come to the church and I would give them food. Our church also supported Pacific Garden Mission where we referred people to who needed food and a place to stay.

I want to share with you a few of the more memorable encounters I have had. Many times you help someone and they seem genuinely appreciative. Unfortunately, those are not the most memorable or entertaining encounters.

One time I was getting gas and a man approached me. He said he was hungry and asked for some money. I told him that as soon as I was finished pumping gas, we could go into the station and I would buy him some food. He said he wanted "a nice hot meal," not any of the food that was available in the station. I told him I was sorry, but I was only offering what I could buy at the station. He responded, "do you mean to tell me that if you are going to buy my food, you think you can tell me what I have to eat?" I said, "no, I am offering to buy you something here if you want it." He walked away disgusted.

Another time I was getting gas and a man came up and started washing my windshield. Then he began to demand money. I gave him 50 cents. He threw it on the ground and walked away so I picked it up. Another time, I was pulled up to an intersection where there were always guys waiting to wash your windshield for a donation. On one occasion, my windshield was dirty and I was out of washer fluid. I pulled up to the intersection, honked the horn, and waved the guy over. He did a great job on the windshield and I paid him a dollar. We were both happy.

My wife Heather and I had just finished eating and we were in the parking lot at Taco Bell when we were approached by a man who asked if he could have some money for food. (We often saw this man in the area and nicknamed him "Noah" because he had a beard of biblical proportions, a walking stick or "staff" and always wore a yellow rain hat and slicker — like he was always expecting a lot of rain.) I told him I would be happy to go in and order him some food but he protested that he wanted money so he could go in and pay for it "out of my own pocket." I declined his offer and he declined mine.

One guy asked me for money and I referred him to the mission. He responded "No way! That's for the down and out. I'm down, but I'm not out!"

Another guy tried the direct approach: "Look I'm going to be honest with you. I need money to buy cigarettes."

We were eating at a chicken place and Heather said a man was trying to get her attention. He was standing outside and waving. I went outside and asked him what he wanted and he said he needed food. I invited him in and he sat down and ate with us. He was genuinely appreciative of the food and the company. We got him some more to go and I broke my rule and gave him enough money to get on the train and go to the mission. I told him it was God's money, and God would see how he used it. He seemed anxious to go. I don't know what happened, but I want to believe that he went to the mission.

When I was working at Moody Bible Institute, a student came to me almost in tears. He said a man had approached him because he needed diapers and formula for his baby. (This is a pretty common story.) The student who didn't have much money spent about $30 at a drugstore on baby supplies. The next time he went into the store, the clerk told him "I just wanted to let you know that the guy you helped brought all that stuff back in for a refund after you left." The student was devastated. I told him, once again, that it was God's money. If he made the gesture in good faith, he was giving it to the Lord, not to the person. The other guy would have to answer to God for it. I encouraged the student not to let this dissuade him from trying to help — but I can understand how it might.

A couple approached me in the grocery store and said they had been burned out of their home. They literally smelled like smoke. They wondered if I could buy them just a few groceries — about $10 worth. I said that I would meet them at checkout. By the time I got there, they already had it rung up just waiting for me to pay — over $70 worth. I asked them to scale it back but they protested. Finally, I took out $30 and told them this was the most I could afford. If they couldn't get the bill down below that, I would have to walk away — so they pared it down.

Once a lady and her son (maybe 7 years old) came to the church and asked for help. The problem was finding a shelter for her and her son. Some shelters take women but not children. Others take children, but no adults. We finally found someone who could help, but pretty soon she was back again. This time I was able to help her with a subway pass so she could get around. I also made some phone calls to find out what agency might be able to help her better. I had her come back during the day so she could make calls. We got her connected with someone who could help her find housing. However, it became clear to me that she lacked the basic skills — reading and finding phone numbers — to be able to access what help was available to her. There is a lot more to the problem than just people who are unwilling to work. I was thankful that there are people and programs that specialize in helping this kind of person. I believe we need to utilize them whenever they are available.

A married couple showed up at church. They had just come into town and were destitute. A member of our church and a social worker helped them get IDs, then found that the man had several years of veteran's benefits checks that had never been cashed — they had been returned because he had moved and left no forwarding address. We were able to get them into a senior apartment with all meals provided at a price they could afford. They stayed a few months and then left, owing rent.

Another man came asking for money for a down payment on a new apartment. He said could make the monthly rent, but needed the down payment. I told him to give me the name of the landlord and I would talk to him and see what I could do. At first, he said he didn't want to do that because he didn't want the landlord to know he was short of money. Then the story changed. He said he was actually moving in with a friend who wanted the money to help pay his rent. Finally, I told him to come back that night with the straight story and some phone numbers so we could find out what we could do to help him. We were having a church supper and the deacons would be there to meet with him and approve the funds. He asked, "are you telling me that if my story doesn't check out, you won't help me?" I agreed that he had the idea. He never showed up that night.

One man said he used to attend the church regularly and the former pastor would loan him money when he needed it. He said he would always pay it back a little bit at a time. He said, "I am sure he would remember me." I called the former pastor and asked him about this. He responded "I don't remember that name. I loaned money to a lot of people over the years and if any of them had ever paid me back anything, I am SURE I would have remembered it."

The line between genuine need and the scam is often blurred. Many folks on the street are homeless and hungry because they have mental health issues or substance abuse problems. They need food and shelter, but they also want to feed their addictions. Some would prefer their freedom on the street to a program that would require accountability. Some really need the money, but they try to get it the wrong way. Helping these folks is a very complicated process, but we need to do what we can.

I have always thought of myself as both streetwise and compassionate. I am willing to help, but I make sure I don't give out money that could be used for other purposes. However, on a couple of occasions, I have gotten completely fooled.

I was in my study one day when a man came to the door. He said he had just bought a new house on the block and while he was moving in, he locked himself out. His keys and wallet were inside the house. He needed to borrow a phone and phonebook to call a locksmith. He made the call and I heard him give the address and explain the whole situation. When he got off the phone, he said "the locksmith wants $70 to come out and get me into the house. If I could just borrow $30, I could get a cab to where my girlfriend works in the suburbs. She has keys and then I get into the house, I'll bring you the money right back."

I thought that since he was new to the neighborhood this would be a good way to extend a helping hand. I gave him the money and he thanked me and walked out. He was gone for about 30 seconds when my brain kicked into gear. I ran and looked out the door of the church both directions, but he was gone. You see, the houses on the same block as the church were in the $1,000,000 price range. Nobody who just bought one of those houses is going to quibble over $70 for a locksmith, nor are they going to spend all that time to take a cab to the suburbs and get a key.

I went over to the house that he had just "bought" and it was vacant, still for sale. There was one other thing too. He was dressed pretty normally — golf shirt and jeans, tennis shoes — not real nice but could pass for someone in the neighborhood who was in the act of moving. But I remembered his hands. When a person lives on the street, their hands begin to look a certain way. They get cracked and the dirt gets ground in. Although the rest of him didn't match, his hands had the look. He got me hook, line and sinker. He had the routine down and it disarmed me because he didn't start out asking for money and he let me see the whole scenario unfold.

The problem of poverty — of hungry and homeless people is complicated. Simply meeting the immediate needs of people who find themselves in desperate situations will not solve their problems. However, it will solve their immediate need for food and companionship. It would be easy to get cynical. But if Christians are told to give our enemies food and drink if they need it (Proverbs 25:21, Romans 12:20) how much more someone who is not our enemy — even if their condition is the result of their own choices (which it may or may not actually be!).

There are times that I have given money when I should not have. I am sure there are many other times that I have not helped as much as I should have or could have. I encourage you this Thanksgiving and Christmas (and all year long) to be generous in the name of Jesus. Look for ways you can help individuals and/or organizations that have the infrastructure to provide long-term physical and spiritual help. And always remember, if it were not for the grace of God, you could be the one in dire circumstances. And you could be the one that God uses to bring a needy person into his fold.

Published 11-14-16