Lesson 7 - Need for community: On a cold Sunday morning back in December, a couple walked into our church and requested assistance. They had driven in for the holidays from Texas in order to see family. They came by way of Florida, where they said they had family as well. They had run out of money on their way up to Georgia, and were in need of a place to stay.
I feel fairly strongly that there is only one way to approach mercy ministry - with relationship in view. Everyone who comes to us does so because they don't have a strong community. If Catalina or I died, the living spouse would have immediate family, extended family, friends, co-workers, and a church to support them. Those who seek our help have little to none of those supports in place. If the couple who came to see us truly had a need for lodging despite all the relatives they had in the area, then how sad that their support network was so dysfunctional. How sad that their support network couldn't help them to see the foolishness of the journey they decided to undertake. How sad that they felt the need to play up their jargon and loss to us in order to gain our approval. And if they were scamming us, then how sad that their support network most likely approves of such behavior, or at least fails to confront them on that which is wrong. How sad that their lives and actions have brought them to a place where they feel like using people is the best way to make a living. I wonder how they have been used. I wonder what their childhood was like. I wonder if anyone has ever loved them before they chose this path, or if anyone loves them now. I bet they wonder the same thing - "could anyone love us now?" Everyone who seeks mercy and grace from us, needs it - whether a scammer or not. They need a community who will love them and support them. We may not become the community for any who come to us for help, but hopefully we at least plant the seeds of hope for them.
Conclusion: I'm sure that throughout some of these posts, it seems like I advocate unwise use of resources. I am by no means saying that we should just hand out resources without discretion. If you think that, please go and read my posts on "When Helping Hurts," which hopefully helps you to balance out your judgment on me. My goal in these posts was to highlight my tendency towards one extreme - selfishness and judgment - and the other extreme - unquestioning grace and mercy. I think the balance often falls somewhere in the middle, though I think that it should probably be a bit heavier on the grace and mercy side, especially given our Western tendency towards materialism.
Mercy ministry is not easy. It is very hard to do well, and we're still trying to figure out how to even get close to good at it. It's hard to know the difference between assisting and enabling. It's hard to know the difference between sincere and scamming. It's hard to encourage others in areas that I feel should be normal competencies. It is draining emotionally, physically, financially, and spiritually. And in the end, no matter how shady the character, there is almost always a nugget of truth and a glimmer of light that makes you wonder, "what if they really do need assistance?" And in the end, we almost always help. But I'm not so sure we're being wasteful with our resources when we err on the side of mercy. It seems to me that we Americans have a one track mind on material resources. If we took that mindset, certainly we would withhold material resources in all cases but the most certain ones. But then what of the opportunity for grace and mercy - the intangible resources? It seems to me that we would be wasting those resources by giving up the opportunity to use them. The seeds that could have been sown in a life weren't sown, and may never be. What a waste of good seed. I'd much rather waste material, fleeting resources, than those of infinite value and eternal worth.
In the end, I've learned a lot about mercy ministry. I have learned first and foremost that I am the neediest soul when it comes to being ministered to with mercy. Much of the strategies and discernment about others can be gained from books like "When Helping Hurts." But there is a level of self-reflection that is needed to implement those strategies effectively. Because we are not solvers dealing with problems, we are the ministered who are ministering to people.