Bootstraps or Biblical Dignity?(Part 1)

He has told you, O man, what is good;

and what does the Lord require of you

but to do justice, and to love kindness,

and to walk humbly with your God?

—Micah 6:8, esv

Today we have accepted homelessness as the new norm.

I see more and more camp sites in the National Forest near my home town of Bend. An editorial in our local newspaper reported an almost 20 percent increase in homelessness in our county since 2015. Recent statistics reveal a 21 percent increase in youth homelessness in Central Oregon in 2017. Men and women, holding cardboard signs, can be found at most major intersections. I often debate with myself whether I should help them—but then the traffic light changes, and I have things to do.

The question is, “Are we helping by responding to the panhandling, or simply enabling them?” Yes, that may sound a bit harsh, but it’s a question worth considering. More importantly, how should we be involved?

My local church, Foundry Church, is deeply involved. We prepare and serve meals to almost 200 people once a month, and lunches twice a month. We provide a shower truck so homeless people can bathe and receive clean underwear, socks, and other necessities. Foundry supports The Shepherd’s House in Bend and the local Teen Challenge with both finances and hours of volunteer work.

Is it enough? Are we doing the right thing? I can hand the guy on the corner a dollar bill and feel a little better. But what if his need is deeper?

When Helping Hurts, a book by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, claims that many efforts to alleviate poverty may actually hurt in the long run. The greatest need people have, according to Corbett and Fikkert, is not more resources but relationships—someone to walk with them and care about them. And I would add that their greatest need of all is a personal relationship with the God who loves them.

The lack of relationships helps explain the weakness of our public welfare system.

The woman holding the sign has a name besides “homeless person.” She also has a story. She’s somebody’s daughter—and perhaps has daughters and sons of her own. Beneath those placid eyes that won’t maintain eye contact is a person created in the image of God. I can’t help but wonder how long has it been since she enjoyed a real conversation? Received a compliment? How long since she was embraced without carnal motives?

Sometimes, of course, I assume the homeless person is sitting there by choice. After all, it’s easier to ask for a handout than apply for one of the abundant job opportunities in Bend. Perhaps they just want another bottle of cheap wine or another syringe dripping with heroin. They have made their choices and now they’re reaping the consequences. So why not leave them alone to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps?

I admit those statements sound harsh, but they illustrate how difficult it is to know how to help or whom to help. It is much easier to become the proverbial Levite or priest and just walk on by the wounded soul by the side of the road. After all, it’s not my problem; let the State take care of it.

One thing is certain: everyone wants to be treated with dignity and respect. So the challenge, then, at least as I see it, is how can we help people without doing even more damage? How can I offer dignity to the woman behind the sign?

I can’t forget how often the Bible commands us to care for the poor, widows, orphans and immigrants. God deeply cares about the vulnerable among us. These are the bruised reeds I wrote about on August 20th.

In Michael Barram’s book, Missional Economics, the author writes: “God is deeply concerned for the hungry, and God’s people should be as well.” (p. 96) God’s concern for the poor was demonstrated by the laws concerning gleaning. The Israelites had suffered under Egyptian bondage; now they were to show compassion for the poor among them. (Check out Deuteronomy 24:19-22, Leviticus 19:9-10, and 23:22.) Barram writes that God required farmers to intentionally leave part of the grain and fruit un-harvested so that the poor could “earn their food with dignity.” The words “earn with dignity” leaped off the page at me. Even the simple act of going into a field to gather grain or pick fruit provided some dignity for the poor. “Gleanings were not handouts,” writes Barram. The fact that gleaners would come in behind the harvesters suggests the farmer was aware of the poor living in his community—and even implies a relationship between farmer and gleaner. In the book of Ruth, that lovely older testament gem, Boaz’s invitation for Ruth to glean in his field eventually blossomed into a marriage relationship—leading to the eventual birth of King David.

I have resources the poor lack. My challenge is determining how should I invest them. How can I offer my hand to another image-bearer? How can I help meet their greatest needs—a relationship and dignity? This is a dignity that God Himself demonstrated by sending His Son to rescue them, just as He has rescued me.

When I first volunteered to serve at The Shepherd’s House, a local faith-based recovery ministry, I met Sam (not his real name). Sam had just arrived from Portland where he had hit the bottom after losing everything he valued in this world, including his wife who had been killed in an auto accident. Buried in depression, Sam felt little hope. I begin to take him out for coffee or a meal. We went to Wal-Mart where he could pick out clothes, because everything he owned was on his back.

Over weeks and months of sharing meals in our home and spending time together, the darkness began to lift. Sam today is gainfully employed and enjoying life again. It wasn’t the coffee or the clothes that I gave Sam; it was my time. Myself.

Sam’s greatest need was the relationships he discovered at The Shepherd’s House and in the time we spent together.

In the gospels, two rich men met Jesus. The rich ruler was as a respected insider, but he left sadly after rejecting the conditions Jesus set to have a relationship with Him. Zacchaeus, a social outcast, enjoyed the party of a lifetime in Jesus’ honor. The only difference between the rich ruler and the rich tax collector was that one was already on the inside; the other on the outside looking in.

It seems to me that things haven’t changed a whole lot. The difference between me and the man on the corner with a cardboard sign is that I am sitting in my warm vehicle looking down while he is sitting on a plastic bucket looking up.

Next week I want you to meet another man whose life is being transformed through relationships.

Have you ever considered the greatest need of the poor among us is not more resources but relationships?

Today the economy is good and jobs are available yet millions remain on the welfare system. Could the lack of relationships within the beauracracy be one of the reasons it has failed? What do you think?

Do you have a story about the power of relationships to help restore a wounded person?

Thanks for visiting The Front Porch Swing today. I welcome your comments and input. Please invite your friends to join us.