A few years ago, I sat down with Tony Casson, founder of Mission Muffins, a ministry of a D.C. men’s homeless shelter called the Central Union Mission. Mission Muffins strives to serve men in the shelter by employing them in a bakery, teaching them marketable skills, and helping them find a full-time job after the program.
During that conversation, Tony gave me insight into the difficulties people face as they strive to help the poor flourish. He was open and honest about the complications that were present in the program, but also communicated his patience, grace, and love for those he’s serving.
It is evident that he is in deep relationship with his employees and has made, and continues to make, adjustments to the program per their needs. He told me that one of the employees loved basketball, so he taught him baking skills in the way that a basketball coach would train his player. He highlighted some of his employees’ best strengths and shared what he had learned from his relationship with them. Though it is not easy, his comments also showed the impact his ministry has already made—those they are helping are proud of baking muffins.
Talking with Tony reminded me that the task of loving our neighbors through service to the poor is tough to do. It is hard to form relationships. It is hard to develop gifts and talents. It is hard to push for sustainable change. It is also hard to hear that many of us have tried tactics that we now realize may have been more hurtful than helpful.
1. Don’t Let Discouragement Stop You
When I read Corbett and Fikkert’s When Helping Hurts for the first time, I was certainly convicted of hurting those I was trying to help. This is tough news to swallow, and it can be discouraging.
But, we cannot stop at discouragement. We are called to serve the poor and to do that, we must do the sometimes-messy work of being in relationship with those we are serving. Let’s be encouraged by the ways we’ve seen organizations at work in this way as well as motivated to continue our own efforts to effect flourishing.
2. Seek Effective Means of Change, but Not Perfection
This said, in the process of striving for sustainable and effective poverty-fighting, we cannot let perfect be the enemy of good. In difficult situations in which we are not sure what to do, we should lean toward mercy and grace. Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, in Helping Without Hurting in Church Benevolence, write,
In those moments when you have done your best to understand the situation and you still simply do not know what to do, our counsel is to err on the side of giving rather than withholding material assistance. And as much as possible, do this in the context of a long-term empowering relationship that seeks to restore the individual or family to God’s design for them as image-bearers.
3. Keep Love as the Ultimate Goal
We should do our best to be effective as we serve the poor, but we cannot get so caught up that we lose sight of the goal—to love our neighbors. In the end, we are striving to improve how we work with the poor. We do not want these ideas to cause people to pull away from fighting poverty. We want our poverty efforts to double; we want people to get in the thick of it, to walk alongside the poor, and display the love of Christ.
4. Be Patient, Change Takes Time
In Romans 13:8-10, we are reminded that love is to do no harm. The type of love Paul is referring to is agape love. This love is the ultimate form of love as described in the Bible, and its qualifying characteristic is self-sacrifice. To truly love the poor, it will take time and effort, and it will not be easy.
My hope is that you are inspired to do what you can to serve the poor in your community. Macro-level changes are sometimes needed to make big changes in our communities; however, we cannot wait until these changes occur. We must go out, love our neighbors, and enact the change we can. Fighting poverty at the personal level, in relationship, is the most effective way to tackle the big problems we see around us, even if it seems like it isn’t enough.
With hundreds of thousands of people serving the poor on an individual level, respecting the poor, and allowing them to have ownership in their own development, we can bring about dramatic changes in macro-level issues. I challenge you to go out and be part of this change!
We will probably not see the end of poverty in our lifetime. But, God is sovereign and all-powerful, and his kingdom will be perfect—without blemish, without poverty, without hunger, without injustice. As we seek to serve our communities and love our neighbors, we must always keep this in mind and rely on Christ to do the work that we are unable to do ourselves.
Editor’s note: This blog has been adapted from the booklet, Love Your Neighbor: Restoring Dignity, Breaking the Cycle of Poverty. Check out the booklet to learn how your church can more effectively serve the poor in your community.
Have you been encouraged by IFWE blogs? Help us spread the word by becoming a monthly IFWE partner.