Bill struggled daily. He suffered from several diagnosed mental health illnesses. One of my first memories of Bill is from our Sunday School Picnic where there was a splash pad at the park. Several moms suddenly approached me, ‘Pastor Dwayne, you need to do something!’ pointing at the splash pad. There was Bill – in his late 50’s, in the splash pad with nothing on but his ‘tighty whities’ (now virtually see through) dancing with children from our church. The following Christmas, Bill brought a couple of bottles of Vodka to our Christmas dinner and was pouring drinks for our guests, many of whom were recovering alcoholics.
Bill connected to our community for years. One Thursday before Easter I received a letter from Bill where he wrote, ‘I’m thankful for the church and all its support. I’m thankful for the government as they help me live. Praying for you this Easter as you speak about Jesus. I want everyone to experience God’s grace and love the way I have.’
I saw Bill on Good Friday and asked if he remembered writing the letter. ‘Of course I do,’ Bill replied, ‘I’m praying for you this weekend.’
Bill ended his life a couple of weeks later. For over a decade his rent was directly paid to his landlord by the government, leaving him with only a few dollars for food and necessities. When he turned sixty-five, Bill didn’t understand that he needed to fill out another set of government forms to continue to have his rent paid directly to his landlord. He missed several months of rent payments owing his landlord thousands of dollars. He saw no way out. He’d been using the extra money to help some of his poor friends with housing and food.
We would have helped him. We would have paid his rent and filled out the forms. We would have called the government and advocated. Why didn’t he reach out to us? Our church was devastated. Caring for the poor can be hard.
What do you do when someone worshipping with you faithfully is struggling to make ends meet?
Recently I walked for just over a kilometer to a meeting from my office in one section of downtown Hamilton to the city’s core. I passed nineteen people struggling to make ends meet who are either living on our streets or in the shelter system. Several of them asked me for money. I didn’t give any out. My heart ached. Caring for the poor is complicated.
How do you respond when someone on the street approaches your car for money as you’re stopped at the light? How do you engage with someone at the grocery store who asks for help? What do you do when someone worshipping with you faithfully is struggling to make ends meet?
What do you do when someone you know struggles to make ends meet?
Christmas guilt is common amongst believers and non-believers alike. It’s the season when most people give the most money to charity. Some gifts are of course connected to year end receipting, but much giving is guilt based. When people realize they are spending an exorbitant amount on themselves but know there are people in need, they pick up something at the store to put in the bin for the poor, donate to a charity that assists others at Christmas or put some change in the Salvation Army kettle to appease their conscience.
What God calls His people to is so much more.
Isaiah 1 states that we are to, ‘stop doing wrong. Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.’ Isaiah 58 declares that we are to provide shelter for the wanderer, food for the hungry and clothes for the naked. In Luke 14, Jesus directs us to invite the poor, crippled, lame, and blind into our homes.
James writes, ‘Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world’ (James 1:27). James 2 reminds us not to show favouritism between the wealthy and poor when they come into our meetings and to look after the physical needs of our brothers and sisters in Christ. One of the ways we are polluted by the world is when we treat the poor they way many in the world do; with contempt and disdain…possibly even oppressively.
So how do we care for the poor at Christmas?
Firstly, there should be no needy among us. Caring for the poor must start within our local congregations. Acts 2 records that congregants gave to anyone who had need. Acts 4 states, ‘And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them.’ It’s not that everyone had an equal share, but everyone had a fair share. This is reflected in James 2 when James explains that wishing a brother or sister without clothes or daily food well, while not helping them, demonstrates that your faith is dead.
Congregational care includes ensuring that every brother and sister is housed, fed, and clothed. The poor among us must be encouraged to come forward with their needs. Those with more (that’s most of us) are called to share what they have with those that have less.
Caring for the poor must start within our local congregations.
Secondly, we have an obligation to believers outside our local congregation. Some of us will participate in more affluent churches largely determined by the demographics of our local community. The poor require food, transit, and housing supports. If none of that is available in your community, less of the impoverished will live there.
Three times in the Epistles, the Apostle Paul mentions taking up an offering for the Jerusalem church. In 2 Corinthians 8, Paul states that it if for the relief of those living in Jerusalem and in Romans 15 he writes that it is for their aid.
The North End of Hamilton was the third poorest community in Canada when the Lord called me to serve here. In the Code Red series published in 2019, the median income of one Hamilton neighbourhood was $118,000 while only a ten-minute walk away, the median income of another Hamilton neighbourhood was $20,500.[i] That’s nearly a staggering $100,000 difference in a short walk. The median income of the wealthiest neighbourhood was $130,000. The gap in lifespan expectancy between the highest and lowest Hamilton neighbourhoods was 23 years.[ii] If God establishes churches of similar size in both the wealthiest and poorest neighbourhoods of our city, and every believer in both churches are honoring God with the wealth He has entrusted to them, the difference in church budgets is astonishing. We need to be supporting gospel-centered churches in our city’s impoverished neighbourhoods. That’s what the Apostle Paul modeled.
We need to be supporting gospel-centered churches in our city’s impoverished neighbourhoods.
Thirdly, we care for the poor around us. Numerous passages in Scripture, including some of the ones I’ve mentioned aren’t focused specifically on believers in poverty. They’re focused on caring for anyone struggling in poverty. God has charged His people with a responsibility to care for the poor. Each of our churches should be partnering with gospel centered churches and ministries that assist the poor and we should also be doing so individually.
We must care for the marginalized unapologetically in the name of Jesus
Many government and social service agencies care for the poor, but believers should passionately partner with ministries and churches who are graciously, yet boldly declaring the gospel. It is inadequate to offer someone their daily bread without sharing the Bread of Life with them. This doesn’t mean they need to sit though a gospel presentation to receive their food, it does mean that we thoughtfully share the gospel with those we are assisting. We must care for the marginalized unapologetically in the name of Jesus
Start with your church. Go to your pastor and ask if there are needy in your congregation that you can journey with. He may direct you to speak to deacons responsible for compassion care. Ask them how you can best assist those who are struggling. You might be asked to donate food or money. Maybe you’ll be asked to invite someone to live with you.
Find gospel centered churches or ministries that are not only caring for the poor but are sharing the gospel. Partner with them. Start with something simple. Volunteer at a program or financially support the ministry. Move to something sacrificial. Invest in the life of an individual or family that is in poverty, invite someone to live with you or adopt a child from an orphanage overseas.
God will be glorified in three ways:
1. The poor will be cared for. They will be sheltered, clothed and fed.
2. Your life will be changed. You will discover that the Lord has much to teach you about generosity. You will learn to live off less and give way more. You will also discover that the poor have much to teach you. You will watch someone with less selflessly give what little they have to someone in need. It will break you.
3. The world will see Jesus. The poor will hear the gospel and others will have no explanation for the way you are living except that the risen Saviour, God the Son, who incarnated Himself has forever changed your life. He died so we can live, and He calls us to take up our cross and die to self so others will see Him in us.
Caring for the poor will become part of the way you live out your faith in Christ as you realize they aren’t just poor at Christmas.
[i] Buist, Steve. “Code Red. Ten Years Later Part 2: So close, so far.” The Hamilton Spectator 22 February 2019. www.thespec.com/news/hamilton-region/code-red/2022/10/04/code-red-ten-years-later-part-2
[ii] Buist, Steve. “Code Red. Ten Years Later Part 1: ‘A five-alarm fire’” The Hamilton Spectator 21 February 2019. www.thespec.com/news/hamilton-region/code-red/2022/10/04/code-red-ten-years-later-part-1