No strings attached
Help the homeless without judgment
Picture this: You’re enjoying a day of golf, chatting up a kindly stranger and good-naturedly swearing at the holes. Around the fourth hole, you ask your comrade what she does for a living: “I’m a reverend,” she replies. Suddenly, a lightning bolt flashes through your mind. How many times did you drop the F-bomb in the last hour? For the rest of the afternoon you’re silent as a church mouse, plagued with a sense of guilt you haven’t felt since grade school.
Or how about this: You’re seated next to a distinguished gentleman at the opening of a new piece of architecture. After some sidelong glances and witty banter, you drop a friendly line: “Are you the architect?” “No,” he says, “I’m a Presbyterian minister.” Legs crossed; about face. End of conversation.
Why are clergy such conversation killers? Does a professional belief in God render one as obsolete as a rotary telephone in modern secular society?
“I don’t think there’s any pastor who doesn’t experience stigma,” says Pastor Les Shelton of the First Church of the Nazarene, who was raised by missionaries and returned to the ministry in 1990 after a “checkered career” in business. “You always get the same cliché: ‘The church’d fall down if I ever went into it.’ And you get it from people who up until that point have been remarkably articulate and intelligent.” Until encountering those who are professionally involved with the church, that is. “Probably the best thing to do is lie.” Laughing, he tries it out: “‘I work for the state.’”
To avoid further incidents like the aforementioned golf scenario, Reverend Georgia Prescott, founder of Sacramento’s Center for Spiritual Awareness, now tells people she teaches adults. A lesbian and recovering alcoholic, she uses her own life experiences as teaching points to “level the playing field” between minister and parishioner.
Reverend Dr. David Thompson of Westminster Presbyterian Church relies on his erudite credentials to counteract the kind of cold-shoulder treatment he received from an actress at the architecture event previously described. He deliberately chose a Ph.D. in ethics, rather than a doctorate in divinity, to command credibility outside the religious community. “I want to be treated the same as everyone else,” he says, “for my gifts and my mind and my insights, without getting labeled.”
Over lunch at Brew It Up, SN&R gave these ministers an opportunity to speak outside the pulpit about another oft-misunderstood population: the numerous homeless living on Sacramento’s streets.
I’m confused about giving money to the homeless. Many of my friends say it’s counterproductive because they use it to buy drugs and alcohol. How can I help people in need?
Shelton: My wife taught me about this: When confronted with this very issue, she said, “It’s not up to me to decide how they use it; it’s up to me to give it.” I found that to be really liberating and profound. I am to respond to what I believe is the spirit of Christ within me that says, “Help.” Sometimes the spirit of Christ tells me, “Don’t do that anymore,” and so I don’t. I think you have to look to your own heart. And if you do give it, you let it go. You do it unto the Lord, you don’t worry that you’re enabling. Most people who talk about enabling are really just too cheap and looking for an out. [Laughter]
Prescott: I don’t give money to homeless people. I’ve done some panhandling in my life [while addicted to alcohol]. So I do believe that’s what they use the money for. On the rare occasion that I do, I give it freely. But here’s how I challenge myself and my friends: When have you given money to a homeless organization within the last year, and how much money was it? If it’s anything less than $100, I don’t want to hear any more about it. I do believe that most of the homeless people are mentally ill. I don’t think they’re lazy. And we need to keep those people alive until the miracle can happen. And if it means giving them some money, do that. If it means providing resources to organizations, do that.
At our church we have a homeless pantry. We won’t ask for any references or ID. Anybody who’s hungry can get food from us. And they’re also going to get a lecture from me.
Shelton: They get a testimony from you.
Prescott: They don’t think of it that way. [Laughter]
Thompson: You know what? I really like homeless people. I admire their guts. I admire their survival instincts. I admire their humor and laughter. Stand around Loaves & Fishes for awhile—the mood is not pessimism. It’s laughter. It’s jokes. It’s gratitude for small things.
Each situation that falls in front of you, as a Christian, needs to be assessed not in terms of stereotypes. You need to feel the spirit of Christ in you saying, “Will I respond to this or will I not?” Change is done by compassion, not by, “Are you going to spend that on alcohol?” Christ told us not to judge. I take that very seriously. Don’t get into the judgment and condemnation business.
Shelton: You never know the whole story. There was a lady sleeping on our front porch—no explanation. Then every few months we’d get a thank-you card and a check for $30. I’ve never been able to find out her story. Just a lady who prefers to live outdoors, I guess. It shows the light of the stereotype. You don’t know what’s going on.
Thompson: We’re not called to make that kind of judgment.
Shelton: We’re in sales, we’re not in management. [Laughter]