When disaster strikes a friend or neighbor, I’m pretty sure anyone who isn’t dead inside thinks for at least a second, “I wish I could help.” But most of us really don’t know where to start, and we move on in our day.
There were many feel-good stories about free meals being offered to those who were affected by the most recent government shutdown. In times of crisis, we feel the need or calling to help those affected. You may or may not believe in God, but I do, and I believe that desire to help is hard-wired into you by design. We were made to care like this, but often we just don’t know how.
I get paid to help people. I work at a church, and my job includes mobilizing thousands of volunteers to extend crazy, generous acts of kindness as lavishly as we possibly can. Last Thanksgiving, we collected and distributed 4,800 boxes of food to people in need. Last Christmas, we collected and delivered 3,300 Christmas gifts to kids with incarcerated parents.
One of the keys to our success is that we come alongside organizations that are doing the work on a daily basis with folks in need. I get to hear first-hand stories from our partners about the impact that we are having in our city. They know who’s hurting and how to best serve them. We’ve learned a lot—including several humbling surprises about stuff we think helps people but actually doesn’t.
It’s important to know that a check isn’t always the fix that’s needed for folks. More times than not, we can demean folks in need if we assume what they need.
My model for how to respond comes from Jesus. He says this crazy thing once when he was teaching, “When I was hungry, you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty, you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me in.”
He was implying that any time we are helping others, it’s like we helped him, because he placed so much value on each person—regardless of social status, “worthiness,” or situation.
Many of us have the gut instinct: I need to do something to right this wrong. I need to do it now. Our hearts are often in the right place but our perception of the solution may not always be the best solution.
The most important thing you can do when you feel the need to help someone is to ask the person what it is they actually need—to be present with them and listen. Their answer may surprise you. They may not need a hot meal or canned goods at all. They may only need someone to talk to for help processing their current situation. You’ll never know unless you ask and not assume what the fix should be.
The best ways for these types of conversations to happen is to be in community with folks and/or to take the time to stop and be present. That could mean your physical community, like your neighbors on your street. For example, the guy across from me has lived there for almost 10 years, and all I can tell you is his name is Mike. We’ve helped each other shovel, talked smack about the Bengals, and complemented each other on our grass cutting skills. I only know his last name because his mail was accidentally delivered to my house a few times. I gave Mike a ride to the bus one morning, but I’m not sure where he works. He may have changed jobs or was recently laid off.
If that’s the case, then the only way I can truly help Mike is to really get to know him better. That only happens by being intentional about getting to know him beyond his grass cutting skills. Once you get to the point to where you “know” your neighbors, then and only then can you actually serve your neighbors in a way that’s honoring to them. By not trying to be relational and just wanting to fix the thing, you may also run the risk of making the solution about you and “look what I did to solve the problem.”
I know the importance of food and coat drives. Heck, that’s my job. I also know and have seen the importance of relational and transformational serving vs. transactional serving. Transactional serving can solve an immediate need but it’s always a no strings attached thing. Once I drop off my cans, I post a pic about how awesome my church is and then be off to the next thing. When I’m relational with my serving I’m invested in that relationship because I’ve come alongside someone. I know we’re walking the crisis out together.
In fact, maybe jobs like mine wouldn’t be as necessary if we all just learned to take care of our neighbors better. I’d happily give up my role coordinating mass help efforts in exchange for everyone experiencing true relationship that lasts and supports people in deeper ways. That’s the type of Church I believe Jesus came to start. A part of the Bible found in Acts 2:42-47 talks about the fellowship of believers and how they did life together by sharing everything that they had and breaking bread together. That’s the type of Church I want to be a part of and help spread.
The sweet thing about relational serving is that we are together regardless if there is a crisis or not. If we all took this to heart there would be no need to ask how can I help when the next crisis hits, it would just be how we lived our everyday lives.
So, my best advice is, go ask your neighbor his or her last name. That’s a great start.