Three stories of recent encounters I’ve had with people in need.
Last week, my wife and I took a trip to Florida, along with another couple. The other guy and I were going to a ministry conference, and our wives were tagging along because, well, it’s January and we were going to Florida.
On our way down, we stopped in Savannah, Georgia. We didn’t have to be in Orlando until dinner time, so we had a leisurely Georgia morning before we got back on the road. I woke up early, and walked around Savannah’s historic district. At one point, I met a guy named Lonnie. We got to talking, and the conversation flowed pretty easily. At that point, when he had me engaged, he asked for help. I’m homeless. Can I get a few bucks for breakfast?
My response, which is pretty typical for me, was: I can’t give you money, but I’ll take you somewhere to get something to eat.
He answered: I gotta meet someone here, so I can’t go with you. So, I went and grabbed him some breakfast – and coffee, too, he asked.
His name was Lonnie. He seemed appreciative.
This week, I was at the church office. A guy came by asking for bus money to get to Wayside Mission. He told me his name, and then I recognized him. Our church had been a part of helping him and his family. I had personally taken him some food when he was in a long-term hotel. We had assisted in other ways. And, more significantly, his wife had come to worship a few times — and was even baptized one Sunday.
He told me she was currently in Georgia with the kids. He was staying at Wayside til they could reunite. Bus fare was $2.25, he said. As he told me this, I thought to myself: My son has a basketball game near downtown. I could just take him myself, and save him the bus transfers and cold bus stops.
So, I offered to take him. He seemed good with that. We’ll leave in about an hour, I told him. I’m going to run over to Kroger, he said, where a buddy of mine is going to get me some food.
Ok, just be back in about 45 minutes, I told him. An hour later, he hadn’t returned.
I was leaving my son’s basketball game (different game, same week), and I stopped to get gas on the way home. It was cold. Really cold. (So this is why people become snowbirds.) I went inside to get my receipt, and as I opened the door to head to my car, I immediately began to jog — because, well, did I mention how cold it was?
As I ran, I heard a guy over my shoulder call out, Hey, buddy. He said something else, I’m not sure what, but it was clear he was looking for some kind of help. I never broke stride; I waved him off. It was cold. It was late. And my wife and son were waiting in the car.
Three encounters. Three different people. All in one week. And I mention these not to make me look good (or bad), but simply to highlight what you already know. There are tons of folks out there asking for help, in need. Life is full of opportunities to help, and often I have no idea what the real need is.
As a follower of Jesus, I want to help. I want to love. I’m called to love. But what does that look like? I mean, really look like?
Sometimes, yes, I believe it is as simple as a sandwich, or a bus ticket. Or maybe, taking the time to actually listen to someone. Or pray with them.
But the reality is: need is so great, and needs are so deep, that it is often difficult (sometimes impossible?) to truly discern what is needed. And I wonder, are some of the ways we help more about the helpers (us) than those we are trying to help? Is it easier to give a guy five bucks, or a box of food, or gather Christmas presents that are then given anonymously? Is it much harder — and messier — to really get involved in people’s lives? And when Jesus said that we’d always have the poor with us, he clearly wasn’t saying that we should just accept it as a reality of life, was he? Wasn’t he pointing us to the reality that poverty is a persistent challenge we will never quite resolve, this side of God’s Perfect Kingdom? Even so, he wasn’t advocating giving up, or ignoring the need — but isn’t the challenge for us to care enough, so that we do the hard work of learning how to really care?
I have very few answers, and way more questions. But maybe it was providential that, after a week of different encounters with people in need, I read this article. I hope you’ll read it too; it’s ten minutes that just might challenge your thinking. I know it challenged me, and gets me to thinking: If I am serious about loving God and loving others, I’ve got a lot more learning to do. So, I am going to continue to pray that God leads me, and the church I serve, to better discern how He wants to use us to minister to those in need. I hope you’ll join me in praying that prayer, too.