We should be looking to point people to where they can get help. That is first to Jesus and his gospel and second to whatever agencies might be able to work with them to address their physical needs. Can the church be a part of supplying those needs? Of course it can. It may even be right to do them. But we have to think carefully about the help that we give remembering that it is Jesus on whom folk need to depend, not us.
Need is all around us. In towns like mine, you don’t have to look very far to see needy people who want you to help them with stuff. Our community is full of it, our church is replete with it and it is obviously and evidently all around us.
When there are such deep and complex needs all around, the temptation is to want to fix them all. Someone is without food, no problem, let’s give them something to eat. Someone has no money for the gas meter, no worries, let’s top up a card for them. Someone needs access to this, that or the other – no trouble – we’ll sort it out for them and make sure they’re looked after. It seems the obvious thing to do.
The problems with this should be obvious even as I am saying it. None of us are equipped to meet all those needs ourselves. I neither have the resources nor the hours in the day to deal with even one of those on its own in my town, let alone all of them. The other major problem with this is that we end up getting people to depend on us. We end up creating dependency as people come to us to get their problems fixed rather than learning how to resolve issues themselves.
As Mez McConnell has rightly said a number of times, we should never do for people what they can do for themselves. It may seem like a good idea, or make us feel good, but in the end if we do for people what they can do themselves we aren’t really helping them. We are creating a culture of dependency likely to keep them exactly where they are. There are ways to help, but doing for people what they can do for themselves is not one of them.
In our context, we frequently meet asylum seekers who want support. Generally speaking, it is our practice to point them in the direction of different agencies who can help them. We could go chasing it all for them and present them with a complete package, but they ultimately need to learn how to navigate the system. If they don’t know how to do that, we’re happy to tell them what they need to do and where to go and do it. But we don’t tend to do it for them. We are yet to meet a single case where the things that need to happen don’t happen because of this.
Does that mean it is wrong to dole out free food to people who need it? Not necessarily. But we need to think through carefully what we’re doing. If we’re just throwing out free goodies so that money which should be spent on food is actually funding other less profitable habits (let the reader understand), then we haven’t really helped. But if we are helping somebody because they’ve been forced to choose between the rent, the gas meter, school uniform for their kids and food for the family, and the money they’ve got just isn’t going to cover it that month, there might be a case for handing out a free food parcel that week. It isn’t quite as simple as ‘don’t give out free food’ but nor are these things as straightforward as ‘let’s start a food bank and just hand it out’. We need to ask, is our help actually helping. Sometimes the same act that genuinely helps one person might hurt the very next that comes along.