“How much beer do you drink a day?” It was typical to see Jim with a red Dixie cup filled with beer laying down under the tree where he lived. He had traveled the world and lived a productive life, but a path of addiction led him to this spot under a tree in New Mexico. His social security was sufficient to give him a comfortable living, but his addiction sucked every cent. When my friend asked Jim how much he consumed every day, he looked him in the eye, pointed at an empty thirty-pack container, and said, “That much.”
Working with the homeless was never the end goal. We had prayed to God, “Show us what you are doing in our community, and we will join in.” Soon, the opportunity arose to distribute food and water to a few homeless camps. Not long after, we were hosting an emergency homeless shelter where the homeless could get a hot meal and keep out of the cold on freezing nights. Our church became a vital link in what God was doing, but it was not because of our efforts. God revealed to us what he was already doing; we wanted to join him by loving our community.
James tells us, “You do well when you really fulfill the royal law found in scripture, Love your neighbor as yourself. (2:8)” According to Jesus, loving others is one of the greatest commandments. It was a surprise to find resistance in the Christian community over our work among the homeless. Many of these homeless people lived up to the expectations and took advantage of our compassion. Drugs and alcohol were rampant among our brothers and sisters without shelter. The criticism? “They are not even trying to help themselves.”
Twice a week, we would distribute food, and Jim was always under that tree, drunk, with his red Dixie cup and thirty cans of beer. We would talk and pray with Jim, asking one question, “Are you ready to do something?” It was always the same answer, “Not yet.” Months had passed, and then one day, he said: “I’m ready.” That night he went to detox followed by rehab. After a 40-year active alcohol addiction, Jim stopped drinking, found shelter, and had a church to call home. Most never responded to our hand of love, but Jim was one of the few who said, “Yes.”
The trap is to believe that an act of compassion only benefits the recipient, but the giver receives a higher return. In giving compassion, one is conforming to the pattern of Christ. When we see real poverty, it makes us uncomfortable. The choice before us is to love or to sin because when we do not show compassion, we are rejecting Christ. Our calling is not to fix the problems of this world but to join God as he is restoring his creation. May this be our prayer, “God, show us how we may join you in what you are already doing!”