Tuesday, January 29, 2013

On Charity

Most of us who work in churches are faced with the challenge of folks who come to the door looking for financial assistance. We are a logical place for such folks to come, of course. We say over and over again that we are trying to live the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which includes helping those who are in need of help. Feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick, giving water to the thirsty...it's all there in Matthew 25. And we do try to do it.

Sometimes, though, it's hard work, because we have to make some judgment calls about the people whom we help.

Sunday was a prime example. There is a gentleman who comes periodically, looking for help. we've assisted him with a utility bill and with car insurance payments before. He rarely comes more frequently than every couple of months. I've tried to have a conversation about how he might manage his finances so he doesn't get into a bind, but they are not very fruitful conversations, and he often gets frustrated and angry/tearful. He is older and looks like a guy who has lived a hard life.

So on Sunday, he came to the church as the 10:30 service was wrapping up. He sat in the back and asked to speak to me. After attending to a few other things, I had him come to my office and we sat down and talked. He needed help with his car insurance again. He was switching insurers to get a better price - didn't we talk about how he should do this sort of thing? - but he didn't have the money for the down payment. I said, "What is the amount, and where is the bill? I might be able to help you, but you know I won't give you the money without a document that shows what it is for." (This is our practice - we never give cash directly to someone who asks for help like this - we write the check to the utility or insurance agency or such directly.) He wasn't happy with this - he didn't have a bill because they wouldn't write the policy without the down payment. I said, "Here's my card. Have the insurance agent give me a call and we will work something out."

On Monday the agent gave me a call. I told her to email me the billing statement and the Treasurer would cut a check and send it to them. She was appreciative, and so was the gentleman. I opened the email attachment, and the insurance was for a brand-new car. I was steamed.

I don't know why it aggravated me so much - perhaps it is because I drive a 13 year old car that I'm trying to nurse through another couple of years before I have to replace it, perhaps it is because most of my parishioners, whose donations form my discretionary fund, also drive older cars. I called him this morning to confirm that we were taking care of the insurance down payment (a relatively small amount, but still...) and said, " I was a little surprised to see that the insurance was for a brand-new car." He said , "Yes, my mother gave it to me." Frankly, I was surprised that he still had a living mother, since he looks several years older than me and I'm older than dirt, and it raised all sorts of questions about why the mother wasn't helping him out with his other financial needs.

I said, "Listen, there are folks here who are also in need and they don't have mothers to purchase new cars for them. They are struggling, and we try to help them, too. I think this is all we're going to be able to do for you. We need to attend to those whose needs are greater."

He said thanks and hung up. And now I'm struggling with whether I should have given him anything, whether he was scamming me all along, whether I am being ungenerous and judgmental. I'd rather err on the side of generosity, but I also want to be a good steward of the funds given to me to distribute.

So am I Scrooge or am I a sucker?


Lisa Lettau said...

Neither - you are human. You did the best you could with the information you had. I think that is what we are all asked to do.

DLM said...

You are a steward, with responsibilities and finite resources. You did the right thing - which, sadly, can't not be the hard thing. How I pray for our economy. And the best neighbor in the world - now 15 months unemployed and counting. And so many others.