The Last, the Least, and the Lost – Part Three

I want to warn you that reading this final part three will likely exhaust you. It’s about working to help the seriously poor among us. That is hard work! It is emotionally very exhausting. This is the last article on the last, least, and lost; because unless God calls you to it, it’s overwhelming. Read on if you dare.
I believe that the Christian churches of America ought to be the ones taking care of the poor. We alone have the motivation to help them, and the philosophy of individual responsibility, necessary to bring them out of poverty. Biblically speaking, all welfare is commanded by God, but all of it is voluntary. It ought not to be the business of our government. That is a recent development in America’s history.
A look at America’s past history is instructive. Davy Crockett was born in 1786 and served in the U.S. Congress (1825-31, 1833-35). He died at the Alamo in 1836. While he was in Congress, there was a move to pay money out of the national treasury for widows from the Civil War. It failed, because people believed so strongly that the government ought to stay out of the charity business and leave that to the churches.
Interestingly, those who had tried to get Congressional money and failed reached into their own pockets instead. The rest of Congress joined in giving a large sum of their own private money to the neediest of the widows that had come to their attention. The Congress also listened to Davy Crockett about lessening the tax burden on the poor. I conclude that the idea of voluntary and not governmental help for the poor is the only true American way, and the truly Christian way, to solve the problems of the poor.
Across the highway from Kalem Methodist Church, in south Mississippi, is a trailer park full of very poor people. I spent five years pastoring there, delighting in the love and care of the needy shown by Kalem’s little Methodist church. It is very hard work to help the poor, but Kalem Methodists have been equal to the task. Let me tell you what I mean, and also tell you of the problems with truly helping the poor.
The poor are mostly on welfare. The exceptions to this are few. They work for minimum wage, some of them, and barely keep it together because they have no economic skills. Many women have children by multiple fathers, because if you have a husband you can’t get on welfare. Aside from straight welfare for poor mothers, there are what is called “crazy checks.” If you can convince Health and Human Services that you have mental problems keeping you from working, you get a crazy check. If that is all the income you get, you also qualify for an IRS refund, usually in the range of $4,000 to $10,000 depending on the number of children. Men either get crazy checks and work on the side for cash, or quit their jobs if they are making too much money. Or they deal dope, or steal. You can get a crazy check for being an alcoholic! Then you sit back and receive money to sustain your drinking habit. I kid you not.
It is hard to tell the story of what it is really like to live in these conditions. A high percentage of the poor live in trailers – mobile homes. It is not much different with those who rent cheap rundown houses. When years go by with tenants who don’t take care of these houses or trailer homes, the living quarters become wrecks. Poor people still rent them, because typically they have spent their welfare money on rich food, liquor, vacations, expensive toys, and so on. They wind up with no money to pay the light bill or the gas bill. They don’t fix the holes they punch in the walls when drunk or fighting. They don’t fix the washing machine, dryer, refrigerator, roof, floor, or the furniture. They never heard of painting the walls or making minor repairs. They expect the landlord to fix or replace these things when they tear them up. They tear their yards up and expect the landlord to mow what grass there is left. They get behind in the rent, and when sweet talking the landlord doesn’t work any more, they move and leave their debts behind them. Over and over!
Their children typically run wild. If you give one of these children a school bag, they are bright eyed and thankful, but later that day you will see it left in their yard in the rain. After school, if they go to school, these children go in packs from trailer to trailer looking for junk food, leaving the plastic bags where they drop them. In the winter they drop their new coats and shoes, given to them by the church, on the ground. They don’t care for their own property or the property of others. Their parents beat them, yell at them, and leave them to fend for themselves while the parents go to bars and carouse.
The immorality can be very great. Some parents have sex in front of their children. Explicit sex magazines are everywhere. It is frightening at what age young girls have experienced sex. Young men – white, black, and brown – sweet talk the girls constantly. Husbands cheat on wives, and wives are secretly slipping into town and prostituting themselves or visiting their lovers. Very few are faithful or have a long lasting relationship. Most have been divorced multiple times, and have all different kinds of stepchildren.
The church teaches them about Jesus and about real love. The church teaches them not to trash the church halls or rooms or sanctuary or the yard. Adults become surrogate parents to many of these children, at least for as long as they stay. So often, kids have to move when their parents split apart or move elsewhere because they have run up huge debts. The church teaches them hygiene and morality, giving them the why of it. The church teaches them to sing together, not hog the microphone, and even to try their hand at speaking before the indulgent congregation. The church brings turkey dinners to their families for holidays. The church buys them new clothes for the start of school, and new back packs. The church has a bus to collect the kids for Sunday School. The church can barely pay its bills, because so much of its resources goes to caring for these needy people.
Many of the poor are uneducated and ignorant. Some are downright foolish, or have mental problems due to malnutrition from birth. They don’t know what a budget is. They don’t know how to resist the urge to spend, and don’t know how to save. Many of them have only a few years in school. For example, Hispanics have about two years of schooling on average in my experience. Many whites and blacks are like that also, due to constant moving to flee the people they owe money.
Many are also deeply touched by the church. Churches really do have success stories with many of these children and also with some of the adults. They can learn eventually to stop trying to con church members. They can learn responsibility, goodness, and caring for others. They do get baptized and many times it sticks. However, church members involved in this kind of work can burn out. Whole churches can burn out on the constant demands of working with the poor.
The rewards from this kind of work are eternal. I believe that the treasure in heaven about which Jesus spoke is simply love. When you love and care for these people, all you get back that lasts is love. And that is all you can take with you when you die.
If God has called you to this type of ministry, be sure and listen to the Lord about taking time off so you don’t burn out. Sometimes you might even need to take years off in order to recover. Above all, guard against cynicism and burnout! Even Jesus went off into the mountains to recover, and so can you. “He restoreth my soul.” And if you do hear God’s call to this, may God go with you!

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