He was new in town, out of money and hungry. He had turned up at my church building, hoping to find me and receive help. A neighbour had directed him to our manse, which is two miles from the church premises. Having walked that distance in the heat, he was now also thirsty.
The gentleman’s opening request was for me to give him work so he could earn money to pay for what he needed. Sadly, I couldn’t offer him that. We had just finished a project on the church hall. But Debbie offered him sandwiches, drinks and a food parcel. All these he gratefully accepted. I Googled details of the local Citizens’ Advice Bureau and printed off details for him. I showed him the map on the print-out, and described how he might find their office from where he lived.
It is part of a minister’s lot to deal time to time with such requests. I have no doubt that this caller was utterly genuine. If he had wanted money for ulterior reasons, he would have been shifty when Debbie offered him food and drink. But of course at other times we are faced with people whose motives are less clear. They may be honest, or they may be feeding something like a drug habit. They may just be common or garden conmen. (And they usually are men, not women.)
Knowing we would face such dilemmas, I remember us discussing it at theological college. We were offered no wisdom by a tutor, we were just left to get on with thrashing out some ideas for ourselves. I felt we could have done with the wisdom of experience, whether we agreed with the tutor’s opinion or not. But we did not receive that privilege.
It is an emotive issue. The Gospel clearly calls us to care for the poor and needy. Jesus himself commands it. Hospitality, too, is a virtue, if not a spiritual gift. Yet at the same time, if we wonder whether the person before us is honest, we are worried about good stewardship of either our own personal resources or a fund which has been built up by contributions from the faithful at communion services. We wonder whether we are being fooled, and whether it matters. We may wonder sometimes about personal or family safety.
My policy has generally been to prefer offering gifts in kind rather than money. Food, a train ticket, whatever. But some would think I am being unreasonable, and that I should grant every request for money, even if I am foolish. They would suggest I was being mean, but that has never washed with me. I think it’s about stewardship.
Even within that policy, there are a few things I don’t feel comfortable with buying for a caller. The obvious one would be cigarettes, and I’d probably add alcohol to that. Again, some would disagree with me and buy these things (or give the caller the money) so they might have something that makes them feel good. I cannot cope with giving something destructive. I can’t see how that is Christian. That may sound patronising, but to me it is about honest conviction.
One old friend of mine would take homeless people she met on the streets in central London where she worked to a café where she would buy them a meal. She would also eat with them. However, she rather made it a condition that they listened to her testimony before eating! Much as I want people to hear the Gospel, I would never make the receipt of practical help conditional. The Gospel is about unconditional love and grace. I would not wish to be shy or ashamed about my faith, but I would hope that my actions were the starting point of witness.
Those are some of my thoughts on the subject. What are yours? You might manage to change my mind.