This article was written for the front page of this week’s bulletin.
One Saturday morning, in the middle of an Abilene summer, I found Gary lying in my yard. We lived on a rather busy boulevard, and at some point the city had claimed ten square feet from the front of the property for a bus stop. It wasn’t a proper stop; there was no bench, only an aluminum sign affixed to a pole. Gary was waiting for the bus, and his feet were tired from walking, so he lay down on the bristly West Texas grass.
It’s not every day I find a man lying in my yard, so I went out to talk with him and ask did he need anything. He was thirsty, and hungry, and the bus wouldn’t arrive for a while and besides he didn’t have money for fare, so would I give him a ride to the emergency room? I could, so I did, and on the way I found out several things about Gary. First, he was very ill. He had suffered some injury and was likely bleeding internally and needed medical attention. Second, his physical ailments were matched by some mental illness (my guess was schizophrenia). Third, Gary lived on the street, and yes he knew where the local shelter was and no he didn’t think they could help him.
While sitting in the emergency center waiting room, I made a call to a friend who has worked with homeless people. I was hoping he could point me to some organization I could take Gary to, someone with the resources and expertise to help him. All I knew is that I was out of my element. My friend told me about a couple organizations in town, but then he said something to me that struck me and continues to challenge me. He said, “Look, the best thing that you can offer Gary is your friendship. But real friendship—not charity packaged to look like love. Commit to being his friend not just today, but indefinitely, just like you’re committed to me.” After a few seconds, he correctly interpreted my silence and continued, “Big order, right? It sounds hard because it is. Helping the poor means loving people who are poor, being friends with them, doing life with them. Letting them help you for goodness sakes. Sharing your table and sitting down with them at theirs. Like Jesus did.”
I often like to think that by dropping money in the collection plate and handing a buck or two out my car window that I am doing my part to alleviate poverty. I’m “doing justice” and helping set the world to rights and feeling magnanimous because of it. Such giving, however, would have made little difference in Gary’s life. Instead, helping someone often means developing a relationship with them, getting involved and committing to walking alongside them as a friend. Isaiah 58:10 says, “If you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will shine in the darkness, and your night will be come like noonday” (Italics added). Frankly, the idea of spending myself is much more challenging than spending my spare change. But such is God’s challenge to his people. We are called not to spare a buck, but to love our neighbors as ourselves.