Over the years, people have often asked me, “How do I respond to financial request from those in need?” It’s a good question and one that needs discussion. It hit home for me just recently.
Two Sundays ago, towards the end of my sermon, two women, a mother and daughter, entered the back of the sanctuary. They sat down on the last row. I recognized them because they tend to show up every couple of months. I knew they were there to ask our members for money. In God’s funny way, I was ending my sermon on showing hospitality to the stranger. It was a passage from Hebrews 13. This passage says that you might be entertaining angels when you welcome the stranger. As I was trying to stay focused on the sermon, I could feel the energy of the congregation moving to the back of the room towards our guests. The whole point of my sermon is that angels aren’t necessarily people flying around with wings, but regular people with a message for you. I wondered what sort of message our guests had for our faith community?
After the service, they did as I expected. They asked church members in the parking lot for money to fund their stay at a local hotel. I had an administrative council meeting right after church so I couldn’t really address the situation. The situation escalated. This mother and daughter wanted to speak with me. I was in the middle of addressing our our administrative council, which made it hard as our volunteers tried to balance interrupting the meeting with trying to find a faithful way to respond to our guests.
Thankfully one of our staff members spoke with them and explained we were in a meeting. These two visitors were not satisfied with our church’s response. They wanted to speak with me. When told to wait, they wound up calling our staff member some slanderous names and had some colorful things to say about our church.
Eventually, these guests left the premises. Church members have struggled with how one should respond as a Christian. If we were talking about radical hospitality, should we not open our doors and our wallets (or pocketbooks) more generously to guests in need? But how does one ensure they are not taken advantage of? Herein lies the heart of the dilemma.
To my Haygood family, I would simply offer these words: If you gave to these women, good for you. You were showing radical hospitality, the kind we had heard about in the scriptures. My encouragement in the future is to not give cash, but instead to find a staff member and we’ll work to find a faithful way to give. We have given to this mother and daughter before by paying for hotel rooms for the week. We make our payment directly to the hotel as we know by experience that cash be spent on other goods.
We do our best to be generous. But please hear me. If you feel in the moment, you must give and that it’s the right thing to do, who am I to prevent your good deed? Do as you feel led by the Holy Spirit. I’m simply here to tell you my experience is to inform the staff in order to ensure we are doing the most good as a church.
Several years ago, at a different church, we had another situation. We had visitors, two ladies, at our 8 a.m. service. We were so excited because normally you don’t have many visitors at the early service. Afterwards, I showed them around our church, including our offices. The next week, during the 11a.m. worship service, they stole our offering out of our business manager’s office. They had preyed upon our hospitality and scouted out where we put the money. We bought a safe the next week!
Jesus taught us to be wise as serpents and as innocent as doves. That’s good advice, but it’s still hard. Our gospel is about Jesus who was so often moved with compassion to help the most vulnerable people of his day. We are called to follow his example. It’s my prayer that we will not allow our hearts to turn to stone. Helping people is rarely easy or convenient.
One of my favorite stories is the story of the Good Samaritan from Luke 10. It’s not an easy story for the pastor types as we are the ones who pass by the person in need. Instead, it’s the Samaritan who notices. I always like to point out that this Samaritan decides to help as he comes near the hurt of the man in the ditch. He is moved in his inward being once he gets close enough to feel the hurt. That’s my prayer for us. Let’s continue to move close enough to the hurts of this world to care enough to help.
We are still committed as a church to help this mother and daughter. Indeed, I do think they were angels with a message. Our missions and outreach staff member, Wally Rice, has met with them. He has addressed that it’s unacceptable to slander our staff members who were simply trying to help.
I pray our church will continue to be one with a big heart. I’d much rather us error on the side of showing compassion and mercy.
I’ll leave you with this story of redemption. I hosted a “Dinner with the Pastor” gathering at our parsonage on Sunday night. We like to bring together Haygood newcomers and church members in our home. We had a good group. We also had plenty of leftovers. Given there were cookies involved, we thought about keeping them in our home. Instead, we brought the leftovers back to the church. The next day our custodial worker, Larry Williams, knocks on my office door.
“Pastor, I noticed all those leftovers in the refrigerator. I don’t want us to throw those out at the end of the week. That happens a lot. I know some people who might want them. Do you think I could take them if no else eats them today?”
I said, “Sure.”
Later that afternoon, Larry had spread out all these to-go boxes and was filling them up with chips, tacos and salad. He took more than 30 of them to places throughout Atlanta where the homeless tend to gather.
Larry told me later, “I just drove around and when I saw someone who looked like they could use a meal, I said, ‘here you go. This meal is from you from our Haygood family.’ That’s all I did.”
In truth, the meal was really from a good-hearted person like Larry who takes seriously the call of Jesus to provide for the stranger.
So often, we make discipleship and preaching more grand than it needs to be. Sometimes we don’t have to start the non-profit to follow Jesus (sometimes we do). Sometimes it’s packing to-go boxes of tacos and heading out to the streets.