More Than Dollars – How to Serve the Poor
by Julia Camenisch of personagratagoods.com
I was recently chatting with a Christian non-profit director about his work in Florida. His organization has a large facility that holds donated clothing and food, has a good core of committed volunteers and has a wide outreach among the poor in their community. And yet, this director wasn’t happy. “We’ve had the same people coming to our center for years,” he sighed. “Handing out free food and clothes isn’t doing anything to move the poverty needle in our community.”
A bit later, another non-profit leader commented on how some of his neighbors in a high poverty community have felt disrespected and marginalized by those who come to hand out free stuff, fix houses, etc. Those groups thought they were showing love, but they were really just making themselves feel good.
Wait, what? Isn’t this what Christians are supposed to do? How can we serve the poor? Give freely and generously to help those less fortunate? Share from their bounty so that others can have the food and clothing they need? Well, the answer is yes. And no.
A Heart in the Right Place
A generous person will prosper; whoever refreshes others will be refreshed.
— Proverbs 11:25
Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God.
— Proverbs 14:31
Those who give to the poor will lack nothing, but those who close their eyes to them receive many curses.
— Proverbs 28:27
These verses (and there’s many, many more) clearly state that God wants us moms to see the plight of those in poverty and respond with compassion and kindness. Unfortunately, some Christians shrug off this duty because of misconceptions such as, “They’re only poor because they’re lazy,” or “There’s opportunity out there for them too if they’d just take advantage of it.” There’s a lot we could unpack there, but I’ll just say that any reason used to justify not being concerned about the poor is unBiblical and dangerous for your own soul.
In spite of the few that refuse to care, by and large, the majority of Christian families truly DO want to “love their neighbor as themselves”. Their heart is in the right place. The struggle comes in knowing what exactly to do!
Dignity: The Greatest Gift
Giving of material things doesn’t help someone deal with years of abuse. It doesn’t fix lack of job opportunities. It doesn’t help the beneficiary learn to use their gifts and skills to make a difference. Instead, it is too often degrading, simply reinforcing the narrative of worthlessness and dependency that many in poverty deal with.
Instead, the greatest gift that can be given is dignity. Dignity reinforces the worth of an individual, affirming that they are made in the image of God and have a part to play in His plan. It says to those in poverty, “You are loved. You are important. And you are able.”
This doesn’t mean there’s never room for giving away free stuff. There is! Plenty of times. But those gifts most often should be given in context of either A) a desperate crisis where there’s no other way out; or B) a mutual friendship where the recipient already knows that you care for them as a real person instead of just a project.
4 Ways to Serve the Poor
Generosity in Action
So what’s a Christian family to do? How do we live a generous life and teach our kids to do the same? How do we serve the poor? It’s unfortunately not that easy since the majority of churches and charities in the US focus on the giving of stuff. So you’ve got to get creative as our family has done. Based on things we’ve learned and been involved in, here’s some practical ways your family can truly love the poor:
Adopt a refugee family:
Through your local refugee resettlement agency, you can find plenty of opportunities to befriend a refugee family. Help read mail, find ESL classes, arrange doctor’s appointments, share cultural experiences…and learn from those who have suffered and survived the unimaginable. Your whole family will be forever changed by this type of friendship.
Run a Christmas or school supply store:
If your church gives away free Christmas gifts or school supplies, why not suggest something a bit different this year? Create a “store” where donated items are priced REALLY cheap. Then invite those families who would normally be receiving a handout to come shop! They get to choose what to buy their kids, plus the dignity of purchasing those gifts themselves. And than you can donate the proceeds to a good cause, so that these families are getting an opportunity to also give to others through their purchases.
Make a loan:
Have you heard of Kiva or Hope International? These organizations work in developing countries, but instead of giving handouts, they provide loans and business training for micro-entrepreneurship. This enables those in extreme poverty to actually make progress towards financial stability! As a family, you can browse the lending opportunities and choose one together.
One benefit of the free giving model is that it allows our kids to have the hands-on joy of not keeping a cool toy but instead sharing it. This IS extremely valuable in our materialistic society. Here’s a way to adapt that principle by buying less. As a family, choose an item to give up or not get for a certain amount of time. Ice cream? Out to eat? Special outing? Whatever it is, set aside that money and than give it to a local organization that is involved in tutoring or mentoring inner city kids. Go for a visit and learn about what the organization does. Than commit to pray for them together regularly. You never know what future volunteer opportunities may arise from this for your family!
Teaching our children to give and to give well is such an important part of our job as parents. I know there’s many more ways that giving can be done wisely, so I would love to hear about things you’re doing. Plus, feel free to reach out to me personally to discuss these issues more. Blessings on your journey to becoming a generous family!
For more info: Please visit personagratagoods.com to support this life changing work.