Poverty at my doorstep

By B.J. Funk

As a girl, my mother thought nothing about bringing people off the street to her kitchen for a hot meal. I remember the rancid odor from their bodies, the dirty clothes, and the toothless smiles of gratitude. There was no reason to be afraid. My sister and I ran around barefooted on the dirt, catching lightning bugs way into the night, without ever a care. Andy Griffith and Barney Fife were characters we could understand. Mayberry could have been my hometown, and everybody had a church group with an Aunt Bea. Safety was not a concern.

If there was poverty “on the other side of the tracks,” then Mama saw it as if it were right at her doorstep. She lived in a comfortable home, but she made no distinction between people in nice, clean homes and people in run-down, insect-infected houses.

I never knew how my mother met the sad lady with her four even sadder children, but I learned quickly that Mother took her for keeps. Her family lived in a one-bedroom apartment. I had never seen so many beds crammed into one room. The apartment had a strong smell of Clorox. Maybe she was trying to cover the dirt, the hurts, or the unbearable pain. Maybe she could pretend it wasn’t actually so bad, at least during our visits. As a child, many times I sat in the backseat of Mother’s car as she drove this woman around for errands, stopping to buy her ice cream at the Dairy Queen. She was always crying.

“Mama, why does she hurt so much?” “Shhh. You don’t need to ask those kind of questions.” Mama didn’t dwell on the questions, just on answers.

Mother lived to be 94. It’s better that she’s in heaven now. She would not know how to deal with today’s doorstep poverty. Her tender nature would become victim to another’s addiction. How do I take her lessons and incorporate wisdom and discernment into my decisions? Where do I draw the line? What would my mother have me do in this world of crime and drugs? Do I simply ignore the poverty at my doorstep because of fear? Do I wrap my grandchildren in a cocoon of safety, never teaching them about compassion? Gone forever are the days of Mayberry.

In Matthew 10:16, Jesus warned us that there are wolves out in this world. He said we were to be as wise as a serpent. Therefore, we are not to be gullible pawns, but rather sensible and prudent. There must be a balance between wisdom and compassion. How do we find it?

Last week, a loud knock came to our church’s front door. A victim of the clutches of crack cocaine, this young man wanted food from our kitchen. He would likely barter it on the street, for the drug need was more important to him than his stomach need. We gave him something to eat anyway.

The next day, his mother came to see me. “I want to apologize for my son. I’m so sorry he came begging. He was hungry. He has been on crack for two years. He steals from me. He takes all of my food and sells it.” Her scant clothing attested to the fact that she was in need. My heart broke. The problem was so large. What could be done to help this family?

Jesus claimed to be the Anointed One who had come to preach to the poor, free the prisoners, recover sight for the blind, and cancel debts. At the synagogue, he stood and boldly declared that Isaiah’s words were at this very moment being fulfilled.

So, what do we do with this national problem that has robbed our young men and women and thrust itself at our church’s door? What would Jesus do with this broken world of 2010? How would Jesus deal with poverty at the church’s doorstep? I imagine he would do the very same thing he did with the broken world he found at the temple doorsteps. He loved them and did something about their pain.

When Jesus spoke of welcoming the blessed into their inheritance, he spoke in terms of their entrance being determined by their hearts. He spoke in first person. “I was hungry; you fed me. I was thirsty; you gave me a drink. I needed clothes; you gave them to me.”

Excuse me, Jesus, but we have never seen you in any of those difficult places.

“Oh yes you have. That was me. I was the hungry beggar. I was the outcast cocaine addict. I was the crying mother whose son stole her food. I was poverty at your doorstep.”

“Mama, why do they all hurt so much?”

“Shhh. You don’t need to dwell on the questions. Just on the answers.”
The church has to figure it out. We have got to figure this one out. God help us.

B.J. Funk (bjfunk@bellsouth.net) is associate pastor of Central United Methodist Church in Fitzgerald, Georgia. She is the author of The Dance of Life: Invitation to a Father Daughter Dance, a regular contributor to the South Georgia Advocate, and a frequent speaker at women’s retreats.

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