For years I ignored the homeless panhandlers I passed on the street. I had convinced myself that they didn't really want to work, and any money they collected was probably used for alcohol or drugs.
Not that I was unwilling to help those in need. Every Christmas I gave toys for the children in homeless shelters. I felt I was helping as much as could be expected. Aside from working at a soup kitchen or homeless shelter, I saw few options for getting more involved?especially with my young children in tow. I was doing my part and that's what mattered, right?
But my kids saw things differently. When we passed a homeless person on the street, I saw people beyond help. They saw people in need and knew that we had the means to help. When they'd ask why we didn't help that man on the sidewalk, I'd explain that we didn't want to give him money because we didn't want to encourage his lifestyle.
That answer only worked for a while. Before long, they became relentless about finding a way to help the homeless people they saw. The soup kitchen wasn't an option, since most wouldn't allow young children to help. And while they were great participants in the annual toy drive, my kids felt a real need to do some thing more often than once a year.
As if my kids' prodding wasn't enough of a nudge, within the course of two weeks, I heard two pastors mention their change in attitude toward the homeless.
One of the pastors confessed that he used to feel the way that I did, but that God had challenged him to care for these people as souls in need and to let the need for lifestyle change come later. This pastor believed that change would come through the power and love of Jesus.
He translated this calling into practical action. When he saw a homeless person, he'd stop and talk for a while. He'd find a need they had?new shoes, food, a hot shower?then offer to fill that need. If it was shoes, he took them to a shoe store and bought the shoes. If it was food, he'd take them to a restaurant and buy the meal, talking with them while they ate. If it was a hot shower and warm bed they needed, he took them to a motel and paid for the room.
This struck me as what Jesus would do, but the caution lights were still blinking in my brain. It was one thing for this pastor to reach out in an incarnational way. But how could a woman and two children minister alone to a man (most of the homeless people we met were men), especially a stranger?
So I began to pray for ideas. Soon, God gave me the answer. The kids and I could put together a "Needs Bag." We sat down and talked about the type of needs we could fill for the people we met. First, we'd meet the physical needs of food and drink with non-perishable food and a drink box. Then we'd offer help for spiritual needs by adding a booklet of the Gospels or a New Testament in an easy-to-understand translation (these sell for less than a dollar at most Christian bookstores). We'd also include a map and list of local soup kitchens, job training sites and shelters in case they were unaware of the locations.