I have noticed that in many organizations that minister to the poor, the facilities are old, worn and generally lousy looking. That has always rubbed me the wrong way, because I don’t think it reflects how God really cares about the down and out. I think it sends the opposite message-that they don’t deserve any better. It may be that these places are doing the best they can with what they have, but it’s still sad for those who are already on the ropes to endure yet another environment that is depressing and grim.
A good friend of mine, Shawn Small, who leads an organization called Wonder Voyage which leads spiritual pilgrimages around the world, told me an interesting story. He brought a team of volunteers from out of state to work with The Relief Bus, our mobile soup kitchen and resource center for the homeless. A young woman was happily handing out delicious soup and bread to people when one man asked where the subway sandwiches were. She said that there were no sandwiches and that all they had to give out was soup, bread and hot chocolate. She followed up by lightheartedly saying, “Beggars can’t be choosers.” Immediately, realizing what she had said, the young woman was mortified and began to weep. The homeless man actually came inside of The Relief Bus to console and comfort her. Ironically, he ministered grace and forgiveness to the one who had come to help him.
In the kingdom of God, beggars can be choosers. Even if they are unemployed, addicted or suffering from their own bad decisions, their likes and dislikes matter. They don’t lose an ounce of value to God. Having preferences is part of what makes us human. To lose the ability to choose is degrading. I’m not talking about entitlement. Let someone else choose what you will eat and wear for a week and you will see what I mean. If you really want to test yourself, let someone else hold the remote control.
Poverty is not just a lack of funds or material goods. Poverty is also a lack of choices. Education, social connection and money give you more options in life. These things give us power to choose our preferred destiny. Some are born into families who have these resources, while others are born into generational poverty. Children are born into families that have not had jobs for generations. They are raised in an environment where they don’t know anyone who has ever finished high school, gone to college and become profitably employed. Never having been exposed to these opportunities, they are shaped by their environment and trapped in these pockets. This is unacceptable to God, so he intervenes by sending us, the body of Christ.
This is illustrated in a lesson that Jesus gave in Luke 14:12-14:
Then he turned to the host. “The next time you put on a dinner, don’t just invite your friends and family and rich neighbors, the kind of people who will return the favor. Invite some people who never get invited out, the misfits from the wrong side of the tracks. You’ll be—and experience—a blessing. They won’t be able to return the favor, but the favor will be returned—oh, how it will be returned!—at the resurrection of God’s people.”
Jesus told the dinner party that the social misfits in town should be the ones who get to choose the best dishes and wine being served. This lesson was pretty intense. When Jesus spoke about the type of people the host shouldn’t invite to the banquet: rich friends and neighbors, those were the very people were sitting around the table listening to his lesson. I’m sure it made them a little red in the face.
This wasn’t just a philosophical teaching that Jesus gave. He practiced what he preached. He fed thousands of hungry people and was himself publicly criticized for eating with the riff raff: “And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”” Luke 15:2
Right after the lesson to the party host, Jesus doesn’t let up even a little. He continues by telling a parable about a master who invited people to a wonderful feast. The invitees turned down the invitation because they were tied up with their success and material possessions, which they considered more important. This made the master angry, so he sent his servants out to bring in the poor and handicapped. They gladly accepted the generous invitation, but this still wasn’t enough for the master. He ordered the servants to go out to the streets to compel complete strangers and commoners to also join the party.
We are all just beggars showing other beggars where to find the bread.
This is what New York City Relief does every week. We go to the streets and bring a feast to those who would never be invited to a high society event or dinner. We prepare a place for those who have no place and give the very best that we can offer. We treat them like royalty and guests of honor by coming to serve. We call these people struggling with homelessness, addiction, mental illness and poverty our friends.
A great example of this is when we sometimes celebrate one of our homeless friend’s birthdays. Recently, all-star volunteer Jan Conklin brought a birthday cake for our friend Keith. He is a Marines veteran who is a good friend. Jan didn’t just go out and get any cake. She baked his favorite kind with vanilla icing. Keith’s birthday wish upon blowing out his candles: “I wish that this joy would never end.” Watch this video (left) to see Keith blow out the candles.
We give our best because it is one of our core values at NYCR:
Excellence: Consistent and reliable in always giving our best for the broken, to instill dignity.
Excellence can be a weird thing, because in striving for excellence it is possible to fall into the trap of doing great work to impress others and puff ourselves up. That kind of excellence isn’t very excellent at all. It’s self-serving. It reminds me of the verse that says,
“If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.” 1 Corinthians 13:3-7
So being excellent for excellence’s sake or to feel good about ourselves is worthless. When we do our best out of true concern for those we serve, it builds up others up without causing them to feel bad for having received help. If they see that love is our true motivation, there is no shame in receiving, only comfort, healing and safety.
We aim to be consistent and reliable, because in the life of a person challenged with homelessness, they need a place where they can find refuge from the chaos around them. They need to know that if they show up at this one place, the staff and volunteers will treat them well and care about them as a person. Having people they can really count on brings great comfort and stability. Knowing they are loved just for being themselves is powerful and helps stave off despair and hopelessness. Like Keith’s Marines who have the motto, Semper Fi, we can learn that to be excellent is to be ALWAYS FAITHFUL.
How about you? Are you someone’s port in a storm? Have you let people around you know that you are there for them? Have you nurtured the relationships at work or school so that others know they are important to you? Are you a safe place for the broken and failed?
Love that is truly excellent never gives at someone else’s expense. Love instills dignity and value. Jesus gave us the choice to enter into everything he offers us. Love is humble and realizes that we are all just beggars showing other beggars where to find the bread. We can choose to love like Jesus did. Beggars CAN be choosers.
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