It was a chilly December night in downtown Chicago, and about a dozen of us from a suburban Christian college were Christmas caroling. My best friend, Uriel, stood next to me as we sang. A few people stopped to listen.
… O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem, Come and behold him …
A black man edged closer as we sang. He seemed to eye me, the only African American in our group. His head nodded in rhythm with the melody.
… O come let us adore him, Christ the Lord!
“Say, brother,” he said, approaching me as the song ended, “would you please help my family? We ain’t got no money and my baby needs formula.”
He was probably in his 20s, but his tired and ragged appearance made him look much older. “Please, man. I need to get us some food.”
I glanced at the others in my group. We knew the safest response was to politely refuse. Yet we were Christians. Weren’t we supposed to help needy people?
“Would you please help me?” the plea came again. “Just a few dollars.”
I looked at Uriel.
“We can’t give you money,” we finally said, “but we can buy you what you need.” If the guy was telling us the truth, it was something we had to do.
“My name is Jerome,” he told us as we hiked toward a nearby convenience store. He lived in a city housing project with his wife and three kids. As we entered the store, I noticed that his eyes seemed to brighten. Maybe we’d brought a little hope into his life.
Soon we’d bought him baby formula, eggs, and milk. This seemed a fitting conclusion to our evening of caroling.
As we handed Jerome the groceries and bus fare, I noticed his eyes had darkened into an frightening stare. “You think you better than me, don’t you?” he said. “You all think you somethin’ ’cause you come out from the suburbs, buyin’ food for the po’ folks, but you ain’t no better than me.”
“No …” I struggled to find more words, but nothing came. I realized there was nothing I could say that would change his mind.
After a moment of awkward silence, Jerome grabbed his bag of groceries and walked away. Then he suddenly turned and said sharply, “Merry Christmas.” It was not a warm wish, but a condemning statement filled with broken pride.
The December air blew colder. No one said a word.
There wasn’t anything to say. Our holiday spirit had suddenly evaporated, and there was no way to bring it back.
We might have resented Jerome and felt justified. But was he wrong? We gave him a gift. He accepted it. Should there have been anything more?
That’s sort of how it was at the first Christmas. Jesus wasn’t born a helpless baby for applause. Years later, he didn’t hang on the cross for the praise and adulation — many of those he died for made fun of him. Still, he gave selflessly and unconditionally. So, why had we expected gratitude and warm fuzzies for our gift to Jerome?
Strangely enough, Jerome gave us something far better than another opportunity to feel good about ourselves. He made us look hard at our motives and gave us a sobering lesson on the real reason for giving.
We were expecting a pat on the back. Jerome reminded us of what the true reward of Christmas is all about.
Count us among the fans of Ted Williams, a homeless man in Ohio who has garnered national attention through a viral video that revealed his incredible radio voice. The video has drawn a slew of online views and ultimately led to the Cleveland Cavaliers and others offering him announcing jobs. We soon discovered Williams’ amazing story, how he had a career in radio before falling prey to drug and alcohol addictions. But he credits his faith in Jesus Christ and the Lord’s miraculous deliverance for getting him off drugs and leading him to these new opportunities to use his God-given gift and to be reunited with his family.
This year we observe the tenth anniversary of September 11th, 2001, a day in our nation’s history that changed everything. Before 9/11, most Americans had never heard of Osama Ben Laden or the Taliban, nor could they easily point to Iraq or Afghanistan on a map. The event was indeed a game changer, not only for the United States and the West, but for the entire world. The tightening of security in air travel, the creation of Homeland Security, and the forced collaboration of once competing agencies like the FBI, CIA, and local agencies are but the tip of the iceberg. Not to mention the “military action” we initiated with other members of the global community in this ongoing “war on terrorism.” The West received a rude awakening: “You cannot continue your dealings with the Arab nations with a ‘business as usual’ attitude.”
Such was the case when a 7.2 earthquake struck the island of Haiti a year ago in January, tragically setting off what some have called the “Haitian 9/11.” Before the earthquake most Americans couldn’t point to Haiti on the map, but the most devastating earthquake in the small nation’s history killed nearly 250,000 people and left more than a million homeless, and countless scores maimed and injured. Like our 9/11, Haiti’s earthquake was a game changer for the hundreds of missions and relief agencies and other NGOs (Non-Government Organizations) on the ground in Port-au-Prince.
NATION IN NEED: Haitians wait for the distribution of emergency supplies following the 2010 earthquake. Photo from Wikipedia.
One need only take a brief scan of the media outlets to hear pundits express their shock as to how little has been done in the past year in terms of relief, aid, and development. As Reuters reports, “despite billions of dollars of donations and aid pledges from some of the world’s most powerful leaders, a 12,000-strong United Nations peacekeeping presence and an army of relief workers, the debris that clogs much of the city and a million homeless people living in tents are blunt testimony to the unfinished recovery task. Meanwhile, the nation’s cholera epidemic, which began this past fall, continues to run rampant.” Oxfam, the British based charity organization, offered more staggering statistics and an even sharper critique of the relief efforts, saying that various projects had been crippled by lack of leadership and cooperation from the Haitian government and the international community.
“At the anniversary of the earthquake, close to one million Haitians are reportedly still displaced. Less than 5 percent of the rubble has been cleared, only 15 percent of the temporary housing that is needed has been built and relatively few permanent water and sanitation facilities have been constructed,” the report said. According to a Chronicle of Philanthropy survey of 60 major relief organizations, the same dire facts were revealed, stating that of the more than $1.4 billion donated to Haitian relief through such organizations, by Americans alone, only 38 percent of these funds have actually been used to provide recovery aid. But these statistics are faceless until you hear the voices of the Haitians themselves. Mackenzy Jean-Francois, a 25-year-old university student in Port-au-Prince is quoted as saying, “When you go around the country and through the tents (in the survivors’ camps) and you look at the situation people are facing one year after the disaster, it’s hard to see much sign of how that money was spent.”
This seems to be the question at hand, “Where has all the aid money gone?” However, I think this raises an even deeper question: How is it that, prior to the earthquake, thousands of aid organizations from the international community operated in Haiti for decades, spent billions of dollars, and yet failed to transform an island the size of Maryland into a prosperous nation? Despite the best of intentions, Haiti remained the poorest country in the Western hemisphere even before the earthquake.
HOMEGROWN RELIEF: While international efforts received significant media coverage, much of the rescue effort was conducted by Haitians themselves. Photo from Wikipedia.
Before our 9/11, it was commonplace in the U.S. to witness, even in our movies and television shows, the competition and lack of coordination and cooperation between agencies who existed to “protect and serve” — CIA, FBI, and local authorities. It seems to the average citizen, because of the ongoing threat of terrorism, that this has ceased to a large degree. However, it appears in general that “business as usual” continues in Haiti; insufficient coordination, lack of cooperation, exclusion of indigenous input, focus on quick fixes, it is with good reason that Haiti earned the moniker of the “Republic of NGOs.” “It seemed the more NGOs that came to Haiti, the worse off Haiti became,” said Pastor Louis Pierre, a Haitian expatriate living in Chicago. Indeed, Timothy T. Schwartz’s 2008 book, Travesty in Haiti, takes a graphic look into the world of food aid, orphanages, Christian missions, and fraud that is, quite frankly, frightening.
Of course, not all aid work is intended to harm or wreak havoc on those they serve, but sometimes our good intentions can create a “pathway to hell” for those whom we meant to help. Fonkoze.org, Haiti’s alternative bank for the organized poor, and CHFinternational.org, whose goal is to “to build the capacity of local partners, governments and the private sector to create communities who are economically, socially, and environmentally self-sufficient,” are but two NGO’s that need to be modeled. Empowerment, sustainability, and self-sufficiency appear to be the very things they are accomplishing. Every organization will “say” the latter is their goal, but outcomes are what tell us the truth. How many times have we personally made a New Year’s resolution to lose weight and at the end of the year found out that we actually gained? Goals and outcomes are not the same.
When completely unexpected catastrophic events occur, the world reacts in horror, chaos unfolds, and there is a generous outpouring sympathy, not to mention cash. Will we continue to donate funds to aid organizations for whom it is in their best interest to solely “feed” people in crises rather than to, at some point, equip them to feed themselves? Furthermore, will we support “development” organizations that use funds to exclusively fund American-owned and operated “contractors” so as to keep the funds flowing through their organizations and to their own, while under-developing the communities they are claiming to help?
By not calling them to accountability, we are only continuing a state of dependency whereby the beneficiaries are never equipped to build, sustain, or grow their communities and economies independent of Western oversight and funding. This was the state of Haiti before the earthquake, and it seems to be the case a year after this tragedy.
Is development about the nation being saved, or about the development of the organizations and corporations that are ostensibly there to serve? To many of us watching, it seems they are serving themselves rather than those who are suffering. Just as our extended “war on terror” has dragged on with no assurance that there will ever be victory, the prolonged aide to Haiti that we foresee must also have a definitive exit plan, one in which this nation is not further crippled but truly “aided” and “developed.”
Panhandlers and beggars seem to bombard us in the city. They wash our windshields at stoplights and then come to our windows expecting payment. They cling to ragtag cardboard signs and approach us with forlorn faces. Some are missing limbs. They sit in wheelchairs holding dirty cups. Some are in obvious need. We can tell by looking in their eyes that they truly are blind or hungry or ill.
What should we do?
As the leader of a large organization that specializes in ministry among the homeless, let me give you my expert opinion: I don’t know!
I think God gives us these dilemmas to cause us to rely on the compassion of Christ he has implanted in our hearts. Coming face to face with someone who asks us for money is an opportunity to be led by the Holy Spirit, instead of being driven by guilt or obligation or the desire to bolster our own ego as a “generous person.” There is no simple answer.
Jesus said in Luke 6:30 that we are to give to everyone who asks of us. Most of us are hesitant to do that because we are afraid that we will be taken advantage of. Perhaps the recipient of our charity will use our hard-earned cash for booze or drugs. Surely giving to someone who would use our money for those purposes would not be in anyone’s best interest, would it? Yet, the directive is clear. We are to give without question and without judgment.
While we don’t want to contribute to someone’s addiction, it is helpful to understand that people who are living on the street usually do not have access to appropriate pain medicine, mental health counseling, or the gentle pacifiers such as chocolate and ice cream that we turn to when we need a lift. Who are we to judge them for how they spend money? I certainly have not always made the best decisions with the money that God sends my way. Yet God keeps giving to me.
On the other hand, our gifts do not always have to be cash. I urge people to give financial gifts to organizations that specialize in wise care for the under-resourced — like Sunshine Gospel Ministries, Circle Urban Ministries, or my own Breakthrough Ministries — and then get involved by volunteering to help those ministries. Then, when asked for cash, we can respond like Peter and John did when confronted by the crippled beggar. “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk” (Acts 3:1-10).
A financial gift to a mission or an organization that provides opportunities for the homeless will help men and women who have been crippled by life get back on their feet and — in the name of Jesus Christ — walk a new walk. As stewards of the resources God entrusts to us, we want to make sure our gifts to the poor are invested wisely.
Instead of giving cash to people on the street, we can give directions, or perhaps a ride, to the nearest ministry that provides loving care in the name of Christ. Like the Good Samaritan that Jesus described in Luke 10, we can transport those who are battered and broken to the nearest rehab center and pay for their rehabilitation.
I have a friend who always gives people exactly what they ask for. If they ask for change, he gives them change. If they ask for a couple of dollars, he gives them a couple of dollars. He says that in the grand scheme of things, considering his budget for giving to the poor, the amount of money he hands out is actually relatively small. He thinks we make a bigger deal of being taken advantage of than we should. After all, Jesus let himself be stripped, beaten, and hung on a cross unjustly to show his great love. It is not likely that we will ever experience that much injustice in our giving to the poor.
The June 13th entry in Oswald Chambers’s great My Utmost for His Highest reads, “Never make a principle out of your experience; let God be as original with other people as He is with you.” So, again, we are asked to let the Spirit guide our practices when we come face to face with someone asking us for money.
One thing I am quite certain about is this: When I stand before God in the judgment, I don’t think he is going to drill me about how smart and frugal I was when I was face to face with someone who asked me for money. I doubt that God will point out how proud he is of me that I didn’t let myself get scammed by someone who was lying to get a few bucks out of me.
God is more likely to say something like this: “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me…. I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”
It’s rare that I mention a movie twice, but I would be a total fraud if I didn’t encourage you to at least think about seeing The Soloist. Last week, after getting caught up in Jamie Foxx’s drama with Miley Cyrus, I almost skipped one of the best films released this year. Based on a true story, The Soloist is about Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.), who develops an unlikely friendship with a homeless man on Skid Row named Nathaniel Ayers (Foxx). While walking through the park, Lopez discovers Ayers and eventually learns that the musician is a former student of Juilliard who dropped out due to mental illness. I wouldn’t say the film is Oscar-worthy. Having spent time hanging with the homeless in Los Angeles, I was a bit put off by the film’s one-sided depiction of the people on Skid Row as drugged-out, crazy, and violent characters. However, the movie does spark an interesting question of what it means to unconditionally love a friend and the lengths we must go to help someone in need. Check it out, if only to watch a moving recitation of “The Lord’s Prayer” and sweeping shots of life on the streets.
‘Godfather of Gospel’ Passes
The Reverend Timothy Wright passed away on Thursday, April 24th at the age of 61, due to injuries sustained during a devastating car crash last July. That crash killed his 58-year-old wife Betty, as well as his 14-year-old grandson. Known to many as the “Godfather of Gospel,” Wright founded Grace Tabernacle Christian Center in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY. The Grammy-nominated singer most recently recorded the live album Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, featuring a song (the title track) written by his late wife. His son David Wright told the New York Daily News he is “glad his suffering is over. He was a great man of God and a great father.” Reverend Al Sharpton, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and Governor David Paterson all expressed kind sentiments, calling Reverend Wright a monument and pillar to the community.
Queen of Soul, Ph.D.
She’s been called a living legend, an original diva, and the Queen of Soul. But now Aretha Franklin can add “Doctor” to her long list of titles. On May 24th, Brown University will present her with an honorary doctorate of music for the phenomenal contributions she has made to the music industry. For nearly 50 years and over 40 albums she has been the sound of soul music, and whether she’s singing “Respect,” “Amazing Grace,” or humming “Happy Birthday” while doing the dishes, her voice is the definition of gospel. Of course this isn’t the first time Franklin’s been recognized. In 2005, Franklin was given the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. And who could forget her hat … I mean, her rendition of “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” at President Barack Obama’s inauguration?
And We Still Can’t Remember the Real Winner’s Name
The Carrie Prejean Watch continues. The tall blond who didn’t win the Miss USA Pageant, but who impressed lots of folks — and infuriated others — when she gave a respectful but politically incorrect answer to a question about gay marriage, is featured in a new television campaign launched this week by the National Organization for Marriage. Pageant officials for the Miss USA competition were quick to express their disappointment over her decision to lend her voice to such a “divisive and polarizing issue” while abandoning her platform of the Special Olympics. If their public disapproval wasn’t bad enough, now pageant directors are selling Prejean out by exposing the cosmetic surgery she had six weeks before the Miss USA competition. It’s getting ugly. Actually, out of all the press about Prejean, I found this post at Christianity Today‘s Her.meneutics blog last week to be particularly thought-provoking. The gist of writer Katelyn Beaty’s argument: With the evangelical media’s rush to celebrate Prejean’s defense of traditional marriage, have they conveniently forgotten that the Miss USA competition (unlike Miss America) is primarily driven by how sexy the contestants’ bodies look in their two-piece bathing suits?
The Clark Sisters Keep Bringing It
After serenading comedian Sherri Shepherd on The View last week for her birthday, the Clark Sisters are coming back to the small screen. The Grammy-winning gospel quartet is set to perform “Higher Ground” on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, airing May 5th. The song appears on the new Oh Happy Day: An All-Star Music Celebration album, an interesting project from EMI Gospel records honoring the impact gospel rhythms have made on all forms of music, from hip-hop to country. The project pairs contemporary artists with popular gospel singers to remake gospel standards like “This Little Light of Mine” and popular radio hits like “A Change is Gonna Come.” Also contributing to the album are Mavis Staples, with singer-songwriter Patty Griffin, and Jon Bon Jovi, who collaborates with the Washington Youth Choir.
The Really Beautiful People
People magazine has released its “Most Beautiful People” list for 2009, and it’s no surprise that Halle Berry is back on the list at #2. Can someone just remove her from the running entirely or give her a lifetime beauty award? She should bow out of every future competition, like when Oprah decided to withdraw her talk show from Emmy consideration after winning every year. Other notable beauties on People‘s list this year are singer Ciara (#4), Slumdog Millionaire star Frieda Pinto (#7), 90210 actor Tristan Wilds (#14), and First Lady Michelle Obama (#12). I’ve always viewed People‘s “Most Beautiful” list as a chance to gauge the world’s current standard of “who’s hot.” But what if the list recognized a higher standard of beauty? Just think, we might get a special issue full of food pantry volunteers or women like sweet Mrs. Winslow from across the street who faithfully prayed for you every day when she saw you jumping rope in your front yard. Ah, but that would be horrible for magazine sales. Anyway, if you were compiling the “Most Beautiful” list, whom would you include?