One of the most challenging parts of being a parish minister is weighing requests for assistance from folks who aren't a part of the congregation. People come to churches because they know that here will be people who care; people come to churches because they know that they're generally "a soft touch." There are people who come desperate; there are people who come deviously. But they come.
When I was an intern in Concord, Massachusetts I was introduced to the system they had developed. No congregation gave out financial assistance. None. But all of the faith communities in town donated toward a common fund . . . which was administered by the police department. If someone came to a church and asked for money the staff person or volunteer who met them would explain that there was no money in the church to give out, but that they'd be very happy to call ahead to the police station to say that someone was coming who was in need. They'd even offer to drive them if getting there would prove to be a problem. Over the years that this system has been in place a fair proportion of folks who'd come asking for help never made it to the police department. It seems that people who have no problem scamming a church are less inclined to scam the police.
We don't have such a system here -- and haven't in any of the other communities in which I've ministered. But here we do have an organization called "Love INC" (Love in the Name of Christ) which, among other things, does help connect one lonely outpost of caring to another. If someone has been making the rounds, or making trouble, Love INC sends out a bulletin to let other churches know.
Still, the decision to help or not to help someone is a difficult one. Even when Love INC has noted that someone has given other congregations a hard time, or seems to be trying to scam the system, it can be hard to sit with someone, hear their story (even if it is only a story), and turn them away unhelped. I've done it, but it's never easy.
There is a man who comes to the congregation I serve with some regularity. He's homeless. He served some time in prison. And as a homeless man with a felony record -- who also happens to be African American -- he's got multiple decks stacked against him. And, yes, I've been warned that he's a guy who's up to no good. But I like him. I've gotten a good feeling about him.
Today he called and asked if I could help him out. He needed some money to pay back the bail bondsman or else he could get picked up and put back in jail. I've helped him before. He even stored his things in my office for a while the last time he was on the street. And, so, the question was not just, "do I help this person?" but, "do I help this person again?" I decided to. Thinking about my sermon about the Good Samaritan a couple of weeks back I found myself asking not "what might happen to me if I do?" but "what might happen to him if I don't?" Besides, as I said, I like this man and have had a sense of his inherent goodness. So i called the bail bond company. The woman who answered the phone seemed relieved. She said that she'd lent him the money for bail a couple of weeks ago because she'd had a good feeling about him, had sense that he was a good person and sincerely wanted to try to work things out. But as the days became weeks without hearing back from him she began to worry. "I'm so glad that someone else saw in him what I saw in him," she said. So was I.
I've said it before, and I'll no doubt say it again. I would much rather be made a fool by believing in someone who doesn't deserve it than to be made mean by not believing someone who does.Pax tecum, RevWik Read more of Reverend Erik Wikstrom on his blog, A Minister's Musings.
The Rev. Erik Wikstrom serves as the Settled Minister at Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist, in Charlotte, Virginia.