- On June 1, 2017
CEO, Rescue Mission Alliance
One of the most common questions I receive from people is, “Should I give money to people experiencing homelessness standing on the street corner, holding a sign asking for help?” I figured I would make that the theme of my recent speaking engagement at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Liverpool.
I always welcome the opportunity to speak to the faith community. The Rescue Mission was founded by a group of churches almost 130 years ago, and many churches and parishioners across Upstate New York actively support our efforts today. With each opportunity, I am challenged to tailor the message appropriately within the timeframe. For this, I had a target of 15 minutes. (Those of you who have heard me speak know that is indeed a challenge!)
I was asked to speak about, John 14: 15-21, and, while I know this passage, the challenge was in somehow letting the passage speak for itself while applying it to the work of the Rescue Mission. Challenge accepted. The theme of the passage, (click here to read), is that those who love Jesus and follow him obey his commands. So, I started by posing this scenario: You’re in your car and you come to a red light, and there is a person holding a sign asking for help, on the corner right next to you. What do you do? What does it look like to love and obey Jesus in that moment? What should you give to that person?
At that point, we paused to think about the stereotypes that might be going through our minds: “If I give them money they’ll just use it for drugs or alcohol.”
“They’re lazy, no good.”
“They don’t deserve my help.”
In the awkwardness of that moment, when you’re avoiding eye contact, and you are desperately, painfully waiting for the light to turn green, what does it mean to love Jesus and obey his commands?
Since I only had 15 minutes, and I had just used three of them to set the stage, I had to move rather quickly. From there, we reflected that Jesus’ ways were often in conflict with the world of his time: Be good to the poor; release the prisoner; take care of the sick; free the oppressed. No matter the situation, or how a person got there, Jesus would extend grace to them.
So, how do we know if we are living up to Jesus’ example? One touchpoint for me is Matthew 25:34-36: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me… Truly, whatever you did for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
You’re back in your car, back in that awkward moment with the person holding the sign, back waiting for the light to turn… what should you give to them?
Give them your attention.
Smile. Wave. Roll down the window and say hello. Ask them their name. Ask them how they are doing. Give them something to eat, something to drink. If you don’t want to give them money, give it to an organization whose mission is to help them. Give them your time by serving a meal. Give them the dignity of acknowledging their humanity.
However you choose to do it, give them your attention.
As I was shaking hands with every parishioner as they were leaving, a woman gently took my hand and thanked me for speaking on behalf of individuals who are so often overlooked. I wasn’t prepared for what came out of her mouth next…
“That’s my son. He’s one of those guys that is homeless and holding a sign, asking for help.”
I didn’t know what to say. What a powerful reminder that the man or woman you see standing on the side of the road is someone’s loved one.
They are the son or daughter of heartbroken parents …
They are Jesus’ brothers and sisters…
They are our brothers and sisters…
Let’s love them as well.
Alan Thornton is on Twitter @Alanrmsyr.