For caring, compassionate Christians there are few things that are as unsettling as being asked for help by someone in need and not having a satisfying, faithful response. Whether it is the homeless mother at the stoplight with a cardboard sign or the gentleman approaching you in the parking lot after church, there is an instinct in God’s people that says, “I should help.”
Years ago a wise laywoman who ran a food bank introduced one of us to a way of reaching out that may be helpful for you to consider. She called it the Peanut Butter Test. It was pretty straight-forward. When a person approached her with an emergency that only cash could satisfy, she would simply tell them, “I can’t give you money, but I’d be happy to supply you with a jar of peanut butter and a loaf of bread.” Her report was that this simple gesture of hospitality was 100% successful for her. The person either stormed away in anger because they didn’t get the cash (or the bus ticket, or the fill in the blank) that they were specifically asking for, or they received the gift in gratitude for the grace she offered. If the latter was the case, she was pretty certain that she could offer further help in the assurance that she was not being taken advantage of.
One of our abiding standards at PRLC is that we never under any circumstances give cash. Cash is too easily turned into alcohol, a drug deal, or used in some other destructive way that really does not help the person who comes with a short-term need, but rather exacerbates their problems in the long run. Instead, we offer our own version of The Peanut Butter Test.
Because of our staff configuration, we have the luxury at our church of being able to engage those in need in a conversation about the bigger picture. Beyond the immediate need “for cash so I can get this prescription,” or “money for a bus that will take me to Phoenix” we can, through our ministry of outreach, take a look at the bigger issues that may have led to this immediate need and help those who come to us develop a more long-term plan that is sustainable. We begin by offering what we can give. “We can supply you with all the food that you can carry with you.” Or, “I can go to the pharmacy with you to get that prescription filled.” We typically accompany a person to the 7-11 to pay for gasoline, or meet them at a hotel where a night’s lodging is provided. But we never give cash. And we advise you not too, either.
If you find yourself, for example, approached by someone with a need in the parking lot or at the front door anytime that you are at church, your first response should be, “Have you talked with our pastors or social worker?” If the response is “no”, then please, by all means, bring them to us so that we can offer the love of Christ in the forms of assistance that are available to us. If the person responds, “Yes, and they wouldn’t help us, can you?” you can be pretty certain that there was a really good reason why the help they were seeking – usually cash – was denied. “If you spoke with our leaders and they couldn’t help you, then I trust their judgment,” is a possible response that you could graciously offer.
From our experience, we have found that those truly in need are grateful to accept what we can offer, and eagerly respond to the next steps we might suggest for further help – either through our congregation or at some other agency or institution. Those denied the cash that is “the only thing that will help” often turn angry, abusive, and will likely refer to us as “the poorest excuse for a Christian they have ever seen” —another affirmation that we made the right decision. Our hope is that just the opposite is true: we are doing our best to offer what we believe Christ commands – a first step in a long-term relationship of trust rather than an instantaneous quick fix that may feel better for a moment but will be unsatisfying for both the giver and the receiver in the long run.
About those folks at the grocery store or on the exit ramp with a sign, you can always feel free to let them know about our Food Bank and our Ministry of Outreach. You could also travel with a box of granola bars or some other nutritious food so that you truly have an appropriate gift to offer. This small gift and an invitation to use our Food Bank can be a God-send to those who need it.
What we have settled on these days as a way of offering Jesus’ loving touch to others is not the perfect solution. People and needs are more complicated than a Peanut Butter Test. But the guidelines above have proven helpful in addressing the cries for assistance that we observe in our ministries almost every day. We are grateful to you that we serve in a congregation that takes these needs seriously and allows us the opportunity to reach out with the open arms of Christ in a way that is authentic, compassionate, and inviting.
Sincerely yours in Christ,
Patrick Meagher, Minister of Outreach
Paul E. Hoffman, Lead Pastor