My family recently relocated to Louisville, KY and we are in the process of finding a new church home. At one particular church we visited, we happened to attend on a Sunday when the church was hosting a fifth Sunday brunch. While we were eating our pancakes, a handful of children had made their way to a table, where they appeared to be doing some sort of craft project. When we finished breakfast, someone from the church invited my children to the “craft” table to design a bag.
What had appeared to be a craft project, was actually an ongoing project of the church in which children decorated paper bags with hopeful messages and then added snacks and a bottle of water. The children then gave the paper bags to their parents to keep in their vehicles for homeless persons or other persons who might be in need.
When I approached the table with my children, there was still one young girl, no older than 4 or 5 years old, finishing her care sack. As I was applauding the church in my mind for engaging children so young in the act of supporting those in need, the little girl looked up at me and said, “We make these sacks with food and water and stuff, because you NEVER know what the people will do if you give them money!”
After I chuckled to myself about the gusto with which this little one mimicked an adult – likely a parent – I began to reflect on what the little girl had said and the predicament it seems to leave many of us in: We want to help, but we don’t want to be enablers of alcoholism or addiction, laziness, or any other behaviors we deem to be bad or inappropriate. For many, care packages or gift cards seem to be the moral middle ground between the desire to be charitable and the desire not to enable.
And yet, the Gospels tell us to take care of those in need; period. The Gospels tell us to take care of those in need – whatever that need might be – regardless of their past (Zacchaeus, Mary Magdalene, Centurion), regardless of their present (Good Samaritan, Feeding of the Multitudes, Matthew 25, anyone who was/is physically or mentally disabled), and regardless of where their decisions are leading them (Peter’s denial, Judas’ betrayal). It seems to me the most important thing to Jesus is not that we are charitable, but that we are loving; and there is a big difference between the two. If we are merely being charitable, it’s much easier to make our generosity conditional. However, if we lean into love, then being charitable nearly always means erring on the side of compassion; whether it’s food or forgiveness, clothing or comfort.
For five years, I was the manager of a large food pantry that served anywhere from 200-400 families a day in need of assistance. While we required some form of ID and proof of current address (if the person was not homeless) in order for someone to access the food pantry, we did not have income guidelines. Occasionally, one of the volunteers or one of our donors would say to me, “If you don’t have income guidelines, how do you know that people aren’t cheating the system; aren’t accessing the pantry when they don’t really need it?” While it was and is a very good question, over the years I found myself saying, “We’re not giving away steak and eggs. We’re giving away peanut butter and bread to feed hungry families. If there are a handful of people who really don’t need the food, that isn’t my concern. Our role is erring on the side of compassion and doing our level best to make sure that hungry people are fed.”
I’ll admit this response may be somewhat naive, as there were many days when erring on the side of compassion was very, very difficult and I desperately wanted to trust my own judgements and lean into my assumptions. Instead, my faith compelled me then – and continues to compel me today – to care for the poor and support those in need, period; to let go of my desire to write the ending to other people’s stories, and instead turn the pen back over to God.