It happened again. During the service I saw them come in. I just kept preaching, but inside I groaned a little. I knew they would wait for me.
And they did. After nearly everyone else had shaken my hand and left, they approached me. But I became absorbed in the needs of the last remaining church member, hoping they would lose patience and go away. But they were a patient lot. And they were persistent. They came near me, eyes locked with mine, right hands extended. The overpowering odor of alcohol mingled with even less pleasant smells stifled whatever compassion I had. But I felt trapped. I had to listen.
They had a story. (They always have one.) How they lost their jobs, got sick, were suddenly homeless. Now they were on their way from Chicago to a generous relative in Seattle, but through a series of fantastic events ended up in the San Francisco Bay Area, accompanied, naturally, by the worst luck any human being had ever experienced.
It was a weak story line. To accept the story demanded more faith than I could muster. They gave me little reason to trust them. The tears that accompanied the story didn't help either. I had seen them too often.
I got the distinct feeling that I was watching a little play---one that had been practiced many times, but still wasn't very good. I endured the entire first act, even though I knew how it would end. It always ended the same way.
They asked for money.
"We always work through Urban Ministries of Palo Alto to aid those in need," I replied.
Predictably, they almost spat in anger. Just to be on the safe side, I took a step back. "Those people are no good. They won't help us."
Seeing act two of the drama start, I finally broke in. "I trust the people at Urban Ministries," I said. "If they can't help you, I can't either."
"I'm a Christian," he shouted, pointing one soiled, long-nailed finger a bit too close to my face. "I know what the Bible says about helping those in need."
Ah, there it was. I did expect it. My own material turned against me.
It was their best argument. And what was worse, it never failed to hit hard. The truth is, it is hard to know exactly what Jesus meant when He told us to help those in need.
His example doesn't always clarify. After all, maybe Jesus would simply have healed them, body, mind, and spirit; with a mere touch, or word.
I wished I could do that too.
Also, Jesus seemed often to find people to help who wanted a chance. The "deserving poor." At least, that's what happened in most of the stories that are recorded. Jesus said too little about how to be a genuine help to those who lie to you, who have made indigence a way of life, who waste their money on crack cocaine, and who exercise their intelligence in trying to manipulate you.
But neither did He teach us how to judge motives accurately. In fact, He said we shouldn't judge at all.
Yet I couldn't see what choice I had in this situation. I had to make a judgment.
I sent them away.
As they descended the church steps, they cursed me, and scattered in small pieces across the church lawn the map I gave them to the Urban Ministries food closet.
Looking at my unwelcome visitors, I understood their need. I even sympathized. There was no question that these people were in real need. Were they really sick? Almost certainly. Mentally, if not physically. Couldn't find a job? True too. Who would hire them? I wouldn't. Couldn't help themselves? That too was understandable. Handicapped by alcohol or drugs or mental illness, or by a tragic past and few natural gifts. They were perhaps trapped.
On the one hand, I wanted to do something that would force upon them a more wholesome perspective. I wanted to push them toward responsibility, set things up so that they wouldn't remain where they were.
On the other hand, I didn't believe that life as they lived it was so rewarding anyway, or that they had many resources to help them change.
Perhaps helping some people to continue to exist is all we can do for them. Not because it gives them such a good existence, but because the alter native is cruel.
While it doesn't answer all the biblical questions, working through an agency such as Urban Ministries has given me some peace of mind. Before we started this interdenominational distribution program, indigent people methodically worked every church in the city. For some it was almost a small business. At least now I have the assurance that the means available will be distributed more fairly than I was able to do at the church door.
I also have some assurance that people are getting what they need to live, not merely indulging a harmful addiction. Although I have some qualms about turning people away from the church door empty-handed, I make no apologies for not wanting to see church money support alcohol or illegal drug use.
Unfortunately, though, nothing any of us has done seems to bring us nearer a comprehensive solution. One of the most enduring truths spoken by Jesus is "The poor will always be with you" (see Matt. 26:11). And so they are. It is sad that the best we seem able to do is drive the problem some place where we are not; where our tender eyes don't have to see them as often, or our tender noses smell them.
"There, but for the grace of God, go I," said John Bradford, watching a group of criminals being led to execution. This is truth: the wall between a life of success and a life of failure is very thin. What makes you and me who we are is at least partially a series of apparent coincidences of genetics, birth, and upbringing for which we can take little credit or blame. By the same token, we are but a car accident, a disease, a biochemical change, a market shift, a temptation, away from tragedy.
Perhaps it is to remind us of such things that God sends poor people to our church door.