Having had the privilege of growing up around such men as Dr. John H. Skilton, the late professor of New Testament at Westminster Theological seminary,–who selflessly opened his home in the Vietnamese section of Philadelphia to minister to missionaries, homeless and social outcasts–mercy ministry has been something exemplified and deeply impressed into my thinking from my youth. There is nothing so unfitting as seeing someone who professes faith in Jesus Christ exemplifying an unmerciful attitude to those is need around them. It was for this, and other reasons, that I joyfully accepted a internship, at Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, that had a focus on mercy ministry. Philadelphia has one of the largest homeless populations of any major city in America. You can hardly walk down any street without being confronted with the poverty and helplessness of so many around you. Certainly we are called to help those in need, but does God establish any criteria by which we may know that we are doing what is well pleasing in his sight in this regard?
The first qualification that I see in the Scriptures is that those of the “household of faith” have a priority to the funds of the church over those outside of the Kingdom of Christ. This is a fundamental qualification set by Jesus Himself in Matthew 25, and by the apostle Paul in Galatians 6. We are to care, first and foremost, for our brethren in Christ, the household of faith. We see this exemplified in the earliest days of the New Covenant church when the people of God were selling their lands and houses to meet the needs of those in the body of Christ. We see it on a local church level when we see the Antiochan church giving to the churches of Judea during the days of the famine that was prophesied of by Agabus. If we are not caring for individuals within our churches, and for local sister congregations–in biblically faithful denominations–then how can we, with a good conscience, talk about mercy ministry to those outside the Kingdom?
The second qualification the Scriptures teach has to do with the ability of individuals to work for themselves, and the likelihood of other God-ordained sources of support. Remember that somewhat strange passage in 1 Timothy where Paul is setting out the criteria for widows to be cared for in the church? In that place, Paul explains that a widow is not to be “taken into the number” (lit. cared for financially) if she was under the age of sixty. This was probably because she was more likely to be remarried and provided for. If there is the likelihood of provision from other sources, or jobs to be had, the church is not to expend its resources on that individual. In his commentary on the pastoral epistles George Knight writes:
To be enrolled on the list a women must already be a widow. In accordance with vv. 3 and 4, she must be a “widow indeed” in having no family to care for her (cf. v. 16). She must also be “not less than sixty years old.” “Sixty was the recognized age in antiquity when one became an ‘old’ man or woman” (Kelly. For documentation see Spicq; Str-B III, 653) and would be the age at which remarriage becomes less likely as a general rule (cf. vv. 11-12). Indeed, Paul makes this stipulation because he does not want to exclude or discourage remarriage as the normal, natural course that a widow might follow (vv. 11, 12; cf. v. 14).1
On the surface, this may seem too restrictive until we recognize what Paul says in the preceding verse: “If anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (v. 8). The head of the home (husband or son) is expected to provide for his household. Taking a widow under sixty into the numbers would actually weaken God’s expectations for the head of households to provide. Those who promote indiscriminate mercy ministry may suggest that this sort of argumentation allows us to reason away all mercy ministry altogether, but the burden is upon them to provide an explanation for the apostolic stipulations. There is wisdom involved in the apostles’ doctrine on these matters, and it becomes all the more evident when you are actually engaged in mercy ministry.
One of the things that I learned during my time at Tenth Pres. was that homelessness is big business. It is estimated that the average homeless person “working the system” makes close to $20 an hour tax free. It is common to see the same individual post up at a certain place in the city, day by day, knowing that they will meet enough passerbys to get $150.00-200.00 a day. Now that may not seem like a lot of money to you and me, but consider also that the same homeless man or women goes to the homeless shelters around town every night, stays there for free, and gets a warm meal on top of the income they have gained that day. So, how is a church in the city to handle the needs of the homeless that come to their doors seeking help. Dr. David Apple has come up with the a very helpful outline, by which churches can discern whether a person is qualified for help or not.
Thomas Chalmers, the great Glaswegian theologian and philanthropist of the 19th Century, wrote a short–but extremely helpful–set of rules for the deacons at St. George’s Tron. The purpose these rules was to help the Deaconate sort through the needs of the people in the city, so as not to use the Lord’s money in an unwise and unnecessary manner. Chalmers wrote:
When one applies for admittance, through his deacon, upon our funds, the first thing to be inquired into is, if there be any kind of work that he can yet do, so as either to keep him altogether off, or, as to make a partial allowance serve for his necessities. The second, what his relations or friends are willing to do for him. the third, whether he is a hearer in any dissenting place of worship, and whether its session will contribute to his relief. And, if after these previous inquiries, it be found that further relief is necessary, then there must be a strict ascertainment of his terms of residency in Glasgow, and whether he be yet on the funds of the Towne Hospital, or is obtaining relief from any other parish.
If upon all these points being ascertained, the deacon of the proportion where he resides, still conceives him an object for our assistance, he will inquire whether a small temporary aid will meet the occasion, and state this to the first ordinary meeting. But if, instead of this, he conceives him a fit subject for a regular allowance, he will receive the assistance of another deacon to complete and confirm his inquiries, by the next ordinary meeting thereafter,–at which time the applicant, if they still think him a fit subject, is brought before us, and received upon the fund, at such a rate of allowance as, upon all the circumstance of the case, the meeting of deacons shall judge proper. 2
Knowing that so many of the homeless in the city work the church scene as a full-time career (some of them carrying hundreds of church business cards for the towns in which they live), Dr. David Apples article, Setting Limits in Ministry, also proves to be a beneficial guide in sorting through legitimate and illegitimate requests for help. He writes:
Over the fifteen years I have served at Tenth Presbyterian Church’s mercy ministry and years prior to that I have been taken and conned by some very good actors and manipulative persons. Because of that I have developed, with the help of others, a list of do’s and don’ts:
1. Do not give money.
2. Do not give money.
3. Do not enter into a conversation with anyone smelling of beer or alcohol or whose eyes are bloodshot or who smells like crack cocaine.
No list of precautions is ever going to replace the element of compassion and judgment which must enter into every decision. I offer these precautions with the hope that my experience might be helpful to you. Be wary of people whose stories exhibit the following:
4. Be wary of people who volunteer irrelevant information (e.g., hotel receipts, bus ticket stubs, applications, etc.) in order to bolster a story and create an aura of credibility. One man’s story was that he came to Philly for a job, was mugged and everything stolen wallet, money, backpack, Nikon camera. He needed to get home in Pittsburgh. Yet that was the exact story of several people.
5. In the same way, be wary of people who offering an abundance of specific details. One person needed a Kerosene heater and wick and had memorized the serial numbers, prices and where they were on sale.
6. Be wary of people who name drop. Seeming familiarity with highly regarded persons, or with persons remotely known to you. One person gave me a song and dance about being referral by one in the church. When I asked who referred him he said, David Apple.
7. Be wary of people who forget or being otherwise unable to produce a key fact, the missing link necessary to corroborate their story. Someone might say that he is really stressed out because of his circumstances and can’t remember something vitally important. But will say, You’ve got to believe me. Why do I?
8. Be wary of people who partially answer questions. Attempts to shift the subject. Seems not to hear key questions. Or mumbles/pretends to have a speech and hearing problem.
9. Be wary of people who place blocks inhibiting the verification of their story. You may hear the phrases, This is really embarrassing to me, or This must be dealt with in absolute confidentiality, or Don’t say anything about this to anyone.
10. Be wary of people who stress the urgency of the request. Someone might say she has to have help now or by 4:00 today or she will suffer in some way. Others use children as bait.
11. Be wary of people who always manipulate suggested solutions back to their terms. Usually this means that they must have immediate cash and no other solution will do. Once while I was walking to work a man fell in step by step with me and asked for money to buy food. When I offered him my lunch he was quick to tell me of his food allergies. When I offered to go to the neighborhood grocer and buy what he needed he said they didn’t stock what he could eat. So I said, I guess I can’t help you.
9. Be wary of people who attempt to produce a sense of guilt in us for doubting their honesty. Crying, tears flowing: How could you not believe me I thought you were a Christian. The church is supposed to help people.
10. Be aware that all drug addicts are pathological liars. They are totally controlled by the god of heroin or cocaine or ice or PCP.
11. Be wary of people who appeal to our desire to play an important role in a significant story. I have been to every church. No one will help me. I know you understand my dilemma and you look like I can trust you to help me. People-pleasers will generally want to help rather than have the con artist not like them.Usually people whose needs are legitimate will rarely exhibit any of these characteristics, while con artists will show signs of all or most of them. Ministers and other workers can take some precautions from becoming a victim to the con artist by following these principles:
12. What was rule #1? Don’t give money.
13. Determine what the need is. Is it spiritual? Material? We offer this letter to those who come in off the street:Dear Friend,Thank you for coming to Tenth Presbyterian Church. We welcome you in the name of Jesus Christ. Whoever you are and whatever your life’s experience may be, know that we open our doors to whoever seeks God and the peace he provides through Jesus Christ. Our ministers gladly serve those who come in need. Often they are involved with the needs of others and may not be free to see you when you walk in, but they will set up a time when they are able to. Our ministers can share Scripture, pray and give spiritual counsel. Tenth Church has ministries and groups that may be of further help to you, and the ministers may refer you to them. However, our ministers are not able to provide money, tokens, food, clothing or other physical services. Attached is a list of places which may be able to help with those needs.
14. Seek to set up appointments with people. Those with real needs will return.
15. Don’t act impulsively. Wait. Don’t do anything without thinking. Delay your response. Think about the story. Is it plausible? Does it sound manipulative to you? Do you feel that the requester has an ulterior motive another use for the money? Also determine what resources are already available to help your guest. Make sure public and private agencies are being good stewards of God’s resources. Don’t duplicate what is out there already. Don’t re-invent the wheel. Provide a Christ-centered alternative.
16. Determine what the person has done to help him/herself in the last day? Week? Month? What resources has he made use of? Why did this person come to you? At this time?
17. Don’t work harder than the person who has come for help. You don’t want to develop another dependency.
18. Remember, No is not a dirty word. Most people who come to our church for help are drug addicted or need immediate cash for some other illicit purpose. After years of being soft we are now up-front with requesters, stating very clearly what we will and will not do.
19. Don’t duplicate services that others provide. Several neighborhood churches had a food and clothing closet. We found that the same people were hitting all the churches and some were selling our food to a grocer to support their drug habits. Since our food and clothing closet was redundant we stopped providing that service.
9. Check with other churches in your area. Have they received similar or identical requests? Con artists usually make the rounds going from church to church until someone says no.
10. Be wary of people who want to get out of town. Transportation tickets can be exchanged for cash even when we ask that they be stamped non-refundable. Travelers Aid is the appropriate agency for legitimate requests of this kind.
11. Pursue every means to avoid using cash. Make prior arrangements with local grocers and other merchants to use pre-paid church vouchers or use a check made out to the appropriate vender.
12. Learn to say No. Practice saying, I’m sorry, I am not able to do that. By doing so, you will save yourself time (and if you are dealing with a con artist, s/he will appreciate their time not being wasted, too). If the requester knows that your answer is an emphatic no, that person will leave.
13. Experience is a great teacher. We want to show compassion. We also want to protect out time, the church’s money and resources, and hold people accountable for their actions. We have learned to do what we do best becoming involved, providing hospitality and offering hope so we specialize in that.
14. Try not to rescue people. There are natural consequences to people’s actions. We can’t save people but we can bring people into contact with the Savior.
15. Do not take too much responsibility for solving other people’s problems. The Lord has given people a lot of resources to deal with their problem, therefore explore what resources they have and ask the person what they can do to mobilize those resources. Sometimes people get themselves into problem situations because they are acting irresponsibly and want someone to come in and make everything okay. Your job in these cases is to listen graciously and then insist that these people take responsibility for themselves.
16. Remember that you cannot change anyone. That is the business of the Holy Spirit. The only person you can change is you. If your efforts to aid someone appear to be unsuccessful in that he or she has not changed, remember that God is not done working in that person’s life. Mary was a drug addict who attended our Bible studies for ten years. We never saw her cooperate, never saw any fruit. All she wanted from us was material goods. All we got from her was grief. We finally asked her not to come back. A few years later I met her clean and sober and a new person in Christ. God hadn’t given up.
1.George Knight The Pastoral Epistles (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdman’s, 1992) p. 223
Thomas Chalmers The Works The Parochial System Edinburgh: Sutherland & Knox, 1848 (pp. 293-ff.)