Charity Rules

by Bob Lupton on

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Matt was volunteering at the church’s food pantry. He was between jobs. He was living with his parents until something opened up. No panic, just mild anxiety until he landed suitable work. But this stretch of unemployment did raise his level of sensitivity to the needs of others. The least he could do was offer some of his idle time to help people much worse-off than himself.

His assigned task for the day was to carry food boxes from the pantry out to the recipients’ cars in the parking lot. It was gratifying work, helping people in need – especially when they smiled and expressed their appreciation. Some of the recipients seemed to know more about the system than he did, taking the initiative to fill their own boxes with the approved allocation of food, then carrying their own provisions out to their cars. They obviously knew the staff and regular volunteers, some of whom they greeted by name. Others, however, appeared to be a bit embarrassed and avoided eye-contact with Matt. Almost everyone thanked him, however, as he carried their boxes out to the parking lot and placed them into their vehicles.

On food distribution Tuesday, the parking lot had a very different appearance from that way it looked on Sundays. Smoke-belching vans with bald tires, tired cars with missing hubcaps, pick-ups with loud rusted-out mufflers – today’s visitors were obviously surviving on the margins. It felt good to Matt to be extending kindness to people so obviously in need – very satisfying. Until… until one of the recipients he was helping led the way to a late model Lexus parked a comfortable distance away from the other well-worn vehicles. As they approached the car, the owner, a well-dressed middle-aged woman, removed a remote key from her purse and popped open the trunk. She was polite enough, Matt thought as he placed the box into her trunk, but she hardly seemed like a person in need of a free handout.

The incident troubled Matt. He tried to dismiss it from his mind. Probably an isolated case. Maybe the lady had problems that he didn’t know about. But then it happened again. A man in a nearly new Mustang GT convertible drove up and came into the food pantry. He was well dressed and sported an expensive watch. Matt could hardly restrain himself from confronting the man as he lugged a full box of food to the convertible and deposited it on the rear seat (leather upholstery, no less!).

“How do you keep people from abusing the system?” Matt asked the pantry director when the last customer had left and most of the shelves were bare. “It’s an honor system,” the director responded. “If people say they have a need for food, we take them at their word.” Matt wondered what need the Lexus and Mustang owners claimed to have. Somehow the system didn’t seem all that honorable to him. Oh well, didn’t Jesus say we should give to anyone who asks? And the church was doing this in Jesus’ name. So it must be OK, Matt told himself.

But why did it continue to bother him? Shouldn’t there be some form of accountability? He finally decided to look it up in the Bible and see if that’s what Scripture really said. Sure enough, there it was, plain as day, in Matthew’s gospel, right there among all the other Kingdom teachings in the sermon on the mount. Nothing about responsible giving, nothing about setting limits, nothing about avoiding dependency. Just simple, straight-forward instructions to give, with no strings attached. “Give to anyone who asks.” Well, his church had it right. Apparently.

It was on a Sunday morning several months later during the 11 o’clock worship service that this free food issue surfaced once again in Matt’s mind. The scripture reading from John’s gospel was the story of Jesus feeding the 5000. The miracle of providing abundant free food for the large crowd seemed to confirm the church’s pantry policy of giving free food for anyone with an out-stretched hand. But John’s account of what happened the following day – the day after the mass feeding – is what arrested Matt’s attention. Word had spread rapidly about the over-abundance of free food Jesus had provided, and folks from all over the region flooded in to get their share. Rumors circulated that this Jesus might actually be the long awaited messiah who would provide a permanent supply of food for everyone – like Moses did for 40 years in the wilderness. But day two turned out to be a colossal disappointment. No more free food, Jesus announced. Only spiritual food, for those who were spiritually hungry. The crowd was obviously displeased. They argued, grumbled and, when it was apparent that no food was forthcoming, reluctantly dispersed. For the handful of close followers that remained, the lesson was clear: a free feeding program is not an optimal method for proclaiming His Kingdom.

Matt couldn’t help wondering if the church’s food pantry crowd would continue to come if spiritual food was the only hand-out being offered. He doubted it. And at that moment the issue that had been confusing him for months came clear in his mind: free food (free anything) indiscriminately distributed, diminishes dignity, encourages dependency, and invites greed. Jesus had cut off these undesirable consequences before they had a chance to become a habit. But wasn’t the church’s food pantry actually perpetuating these very things? The faces of folks Matt had assisted played through his memory – the embarrassment of the first-time visitors, the entitlement of regular recipients, the greed of abusers of the system. Surely there must be a better way to extend compassion.

Matt had never worn a WWJD wristband, but at this moment it seemed like an important question – what would Jesus do? More digging into the Gospels. Yes, Jesus did treat the crowds to a feast on one, maybe two, occasions but He certainly didn’t make a practice of it. His compassion was expressed more often in personal, hands-on ways, like touching sick and blind and crippled and diseased (even dead!) people and restoring their health. And He explained what His Kingdom was like by telling lots of colorful illustrations. He seemed to value fellowship a great deal – sharing meals with all sorts of interesting people and spending quality time with His close friends. And children – He enjoyed children. What would it look like, Matt wondered, if the church modelled its compassion ministries after Jesus’ example?

A health clinic maybe? Shared meals? Story-time for children so their mom’s could have a morning out? An occasional party or feast? What about measuring compassion by the level of healthy relationships established between church folk and the people they serve? Of course, changes like this would require Herculean effort… and expense… and time… and lots of personal involvement in people’s lives. Probably best to stick with the food pantry.

Thanks anyway, Matt.

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Spring Reflections on Healthy Neighboring

by Jim Wehner on

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Last night I sat in my front room watching a documentary. It was Memorial Day, and I was thinking about the cost of freedom and the damages of war. I have a son that is currently deployed in Afghanistan, and the holiday felt very personal this year.

That moment was interrupted by a loud knock on my front door. My 100 year-old house usually warns me with creaks and groans when someone crosses my front porch. But I was too deep in thought to notice.

One of my neighbors was at the door. I often see her pushing a  grocery cart through the neighborhood as she collects materials to trade in at one of the local recycling centers. Until this moment, we had not spoken in person. When I opened the door, she blurted out “I need three dollars to pay for a bus ride to go see my daughter.”

I often feel unprepared for these opportunities that are an easy way to display the gospel. Prior to working at FCS, I didn’t interact with this level of need very often. Even as a pastor, my context did not involve a regular connection to material poverty. But in my current context, where this type of need shows up more often, I am learning to respond more carefully. I am learning to discern when it is wise to give and when it is wise to wait and listen more. I am learning to base my responses on relationship so that I can say, “I am happy to help” or “not this time.”

Some of Christ’s final words to his disciples involved the charge to love one another as he loved them. “This is how the world will know you are my disciples, by how you love one another.” The ability to apply loving discernment to the requests of my neighbors is a hard-won skill. I am often quick to gloss over this learning process, but it takes repetition and practice to become more skillful. Even, as in my case, if that skill involves learning to be a more loving and kind person.

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We Have Two New Team Members!

by FCS on

We recently grew our team! In the past two months, we added Kaci and Chanta to our staff family as the Development and Communications Coordinator and the Development and Executive Administrator, respectively. Both of these dynamic women bring energy and vision to the behind-the-scenes work of FCS. Each of them grew up in the Atlanta metro area. Combined, they bring experiences from the corporate, non-profit, and education world. Together, they form a powerful engine for development and communications.

“In a prior opportunity, I learned a lot about how much money it takes to make things work. Organizations have a lot of needs for resources, and I learned where the holes were,” Kaci shares. “In this role, I’m learning what it takes to fill those holes, learning who to reach out to.”

Chanta echoes the sentiment. She’s looking forward to helping FCS achieve its greater goal. “I wanted to work for an organization that had a strong purpose,” she says. As she reflects on the systemic issues FCS’ seeks to tackle, she muses, “I can’t do much to change everything, but I can make change with my work and even with the smallest part of my day-to-day. Growing up, it was instilled in me to give back. I’m glad I can do that here.”

Each of them relishes the opportunity to work with people and to interact. Kaci remembers that in a prior position, she learned a lot about databases and numbers, but missed getting to speak with real people day in and day out.

“It’s a lot of fun seeing people’s eyes light up when they talk about something important to them.

Monica of the Lupton Center told me about a client who is working hard to improve their neighborhood and her eyes just shone.” Kaci shares with a smile, relaying a recent conversation. “As I’m collecting these stories, I’m not only asking people to give, I’m finding the compelling stories that show why someone should give, and where those resources go.”

As an organization that is centered around stories, it’s been a huge encouragement to watch Chanta and Kaci receive stories from the neighborhood and to learn our organization’s story. Even before she came to work for FCS, Chanta had watched FCS collaborate with other neighborhoods and saw the resulting impact.

“I can actually see their accomplishments. Every community FCS has partnered with is flourishing. Being in the community makes a difference, and being in this community makes a huge difference,” Chanta notes.

Chanta’s observation points out a difference between the two women: they had vastly different levels of familiarity with FCS before applying.

When asked what she knew about FCS when first applying, Kaci remarks, “I knew some, but I didn’t want to get too attached. When I got invited to a second interview, that’s when I did a deep dive to learn more about the organization.”

Chanta approached the attachment very differently. “I saw a position for FCS open a year before I started working here. I started researching FCS and got as much information as I could. I went to the website and looked through all the pages. I tried to learn about the team members. I watched and waited until I found a position that fit my qualifications.” Chanta pauses and laughs.

“I truly did stalk FCS,” she says, smiling.

We’re so glad to have these two amazing new team members!

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