Faith inaction

Faith inaction
As I closed the door to the prayer room behind me, a rather bold woman approached and asked, “You a member of this church?” I affirmed that I was.

“Oh good,” she replied. “I need help. See, I need some food for my kids.”

My church does have a pretty well-stocked food pantry, and it serves a lot of people pretty generously. I mentioned this to her.

“No, that’s not the kind of food I need. I need some meat. Could you take me to Walmart?”

“I can’t do that right now.” (I was on my way to work.) “If you can wait an hour, the food pantry will be open.”

“How ’bout him?” she looked past me at another member of the prayer group who was emerging from the prayer room. “Is he a member of this church?” I nodded, and the woman left me to see if this man would be any more compassionate than I was being.

Another pray-er—this one a member of the church staff—emerged and seemed familiar with this woman. The staff member explained that the food pantry would open at 9:00am, and that none of us had a key to it.

Feeling some time pressure, I started to leave. The woman called after me, “You’re not going to help me?”

“I tried,” I said. “But you don’t seem to want the only help I can give.”

Ouch. I’ve been processing this interaction ever since it happened, and I don’t like the way it went. But I don’t know exactly what might have made it better.

Mostly, I feel like the conversation reveals me as a hypocrite. This was some kind of opportunity to put my faith in action, and instead my faith inaction was harmful. I probably made this person feel a little bit worse about herself. And about the church. Sigh.

My internal debate

On the one hand:
I’ve read (and reviewed) books like When Helping Hurts, so I know that money is probably not the solution to the root problems in this woman’s life.
But on the other hand:
It is the solution she thinks she needs, and it is a resource I would have been able to give.
Which leads me to wonder:
What would have been the impact of just cheerfully giving her 20 bucks?

On the one hand:
She didn’t actually ask for money; she actually asked for time. (“Could you take me to Walmart?”) Time is what it takes to build relationships. Real life-change happens within the context of relationships. I know this.
But on the other hand:
To be honest, I don’t particularly want a relationship with this woman. And I doubt that she wants a relationship with me either. As members of a busy, transactional culture, we both prefer the easy fix.
Which leads me to wonder:
How might the story have unfolded if I had respectfully spent a little time with her? What if I had asked her name, taken her to Walmart, walked alongside her to fill up a grocery bag, and then brought her to the bus she was eager to catch? Would that have been less demeaning than handing her a 20?

Moreover, it is not lost on me that this exchange happened RIGHT AFTER A PRAYER MEETING! I was with four other Christians praying about other people’s needs! You would think this might be a perfect training ground for actually meeting other people’s needs!

Plus, the reason I felt so pressed for time is that I wanted to get to work early so I could leave early because I was hosting a DISCIPLESHIP MEETING that evening. What do we discuss at these discipleship meetings? How to meet people where they are and enter into respectful relationships with them. Ironic, right? I feel like the busy Levite in the parable of the Good Samaritan.

Advice from my fellow disciples

As it turns out, at the discipleship meeting that night, I confessed my experience and asked questions like:

  • Was there a way for me to really help this woman without making her feel a loss of dignity?
  • If she is an experienced, “professional” beggar—in other words, if she is not interested in changing her life—what should my response be?
  • Is it legitimate for me to say, “I’m too busy to help you right now”?

The resulting discussion was helpful to me, even though we didn’t arrive at any specific answers. Maybe the process of processing is what becoming more like Jesus is all about.

In other words, if this same situation arises again, I still don’t know exactly what I’ll do. But I do believe my response next time will be a little more Christ-like than it was this time.

Do you have any input?

How do you help people when you have more money than time to offer?

Do you ever struggle with faith inaction?

6 thoughts on “Faith inaction”

  1. This woman has been here several times and does not want the help we are able to give. We have given her resources for what she needs, but she does not accept those resources.Some people only want help on their conditions and that is when helping hurts.

  2. What a quandary we’re in when desiring to help those in need. I want to help , not hurt.
    Time is what it takes. I think you did well and that God provided her a ride… And most likely bought her meat.
    In perfection : not in a perfect world where this wouldn’t happen, I’d drop her off at walmart with 20 bucks and before u did that , I would have asked her name , talked to her a bit and prayed for her. Time is what it takes. Cpromise. Sharing your experience gives us so much food for thought. Thank you melanie

  3. Well, let me first say this could of happened to any of us and I am not certain how I would have responded. The fact that you did not have the time to take her to walmart is legimate. You proably did not think to ask her name and or where does she live, I mean when you are focused on getting to work i think it would have thrown anyone off. You also would wonder why she did not want to wait for the food pantry to open and maybe so one would have been available to drive her to Aldi or Walmart to get some food, I assume the food pantry does not have meat. So don’t feel bad and to me you did not fail in any way. Another thing, if we really don’t have how can we be choicy about where we get the food from? God forbid if had been some type of set up. Perhaps Melanie, this happened as a lesson, and I think you learned from this because you said next you would respond different. So don’t be hard on yourself. I hope this helps.

  4. One thing I want to be careful of is the tendency to let an experience like this make me think that “all” people who ask for money are looking for easy answers or trying to take advantage of me. Yes, I want to learn from the interaction, but I also want to give each person a clean chance. Know what I mean? It’s a tough balance. But discussing it in community like this is a big help!

  5. I often get approached at my local store,(money,food,why me?) and I always tell people of the local food pantry’s and a local transport service that is free. I am reminded in these situations by what my preacher once told me, that God did’nt BRING the manna to adam and eve, He will provide for you but you might have to make an effort to go collect what you need.

    • The trick for me is to continue to give people the same respect I give Jesus. It’s not my place to judge them or pity them. Or ignore them. I have to find a genuine way to connect with them. But old habits die hard!

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