The Emma Dilemma

Who deserves grace?  In this season of giving and goodwill, who should be helped and who warrants disdain?  I listened to a table-full of pastors lament this time of year when some unfortunate few attempt to exploit the system of charity for their own benefit.

I won’t let anyone have anything until I talk to them.  I can tell if they’re pulling a fast one.  If I even think they are trying to take advantage of us, I will show them the door — empty-handed!

We only give to people we know.  We don’t offer assistance to strangers.

 We used to give food and clothes away all the time, but I put my foot down when I got here.  We hardly even have people stop at the church any more.

One courageous young pastor said,

We try to help everyone who asks…

This was met with stony silence.  The consensus around the table was three-fold: you can’t trust people who come to the church for help, you can’t help everyone, so you need to have some standard by which to decide who deserves help and who does not.  It was only a couple of weeks ago that I attended a church where the preacher confessed that he helps appreciative people much more than those who act like they are entitled to assistance.  Apparently, generosity is conditional — we give to those who earn our approval.

Years ago I ran into this odd way of thinking.  The church I served embraced a 45-year-old single mother — Emma — who’d been abandoned by her husband and lost her job and lived in a squalid little apartment on the edge of town.  A core group of the congregation adopted her and her family and pledged to help them in any way they could.  This worked fine as long as Emma obediently accepted their charity, but there was a problem with Emma.  Emma was the absolutely most kind and generous woman in the whole church.  One woman in our church gave Emma a quality cloth coat — which Emma turned around and gave to a homeless woman in town.  The congregation provided a lavish Thanksgiving feast for Emma — which she divided with a welfare family living temporarily in a roadside motel.  Toys that were given to her kids were shared with poor children in town.  The response of my congregation to Emma’s generosity?  They were furious.  How could Emma be so ungrateful?  How could she be so disrespectful?  The few people who defended Emma did so by saying, “Well, she just doesn’t know any better.”

My solution to the Emma Dilemma was to make her the chair of our missions committee.  She worked with a small group of people to do for others what the chosen few had wanted to do for her.  Under her guidance, our local missions exploded — we were actively engaged with the poor, marginalized, imprisoned, homebound, and unemployed in hands-on, meaningful ways.  The one commitment we made as a congregation was simple: we would help whoever we could, whenever we could, wherever we could — whether they deserved it or not.  It made our job a whole lot easier.  When you don’t have to judge people, you can actually help them.  Oh, sure, there were some who tried to take advantage — and we pointed it out and let them know we knew, and it all worked out fine.  Being generous doesn’t mean being a doormat, and it doesn’t mean you don’t follow some guidelines.  But a person in need is a person in need, and we chose to serve the Jesus in each one we met instead of looking for the devil in the few.

Christmas is a time of giving.  Yet, we find ways to make it conditional.  How an undeserving people who have received God’s grace and blessing have the audacity to withhold a small blessing from those less blessed seems the worst kind of sin.  May we all resolve the Emma Dilemma by giving until it feels good, then finding a way to give a little more.

25 replies

  1. I was burned the very first day I moved into my very first church parsonage. The lesson I learned was that I have to leave the responsibility to God.

    I don’t lead our people to give everyone whatever they ask for. But we try to meet the needs around us pretty indiscriminately.

  2. Most of the congregations I’ve served have had limited resources if they had anything at all from which to help others. One church hosted a food pantry that I, as the associate pastor, had to “manage.” I’ll never forget the day that I walked out of the church after helping someone to hear them telling another person walking down the street, “Hey, you’d better get to that church… they’re giving out food today!” The other person said, “Yeah, that’s a great idea. It’ll make my paycheck go further.”

    How do you balance the requests with the resources available? Is that appropriate? I appreciate the need to be extravagantly generous, but also understand that we must be good stewards of the resources we have.

    I’ve found that giving folks a voucher for food, hotel stay, and having an arrangement with the local thrift store for clothes to be a good way to handle the requests and resources rather than giving out money or checks.

    Be a blessing…

  3. In light of my experience yesterday, this is a very interesting post.

    Some background – some 80% or so of the children in the school system where my church is located receive breakfast and lunch at school during the school year. But this is only during the school year – when school is not in session, these children do not recieve such meals. We discovered this during our Vacation Bible School last summer.

    As a result, my wife started a feeding ministry where the children of the neighborhood can receive a hot and filling breakfast on Saturdays and Sundays. If they want to stay for Sunday school on Sundays they can but it is not part of the the program. But the rule is that anyone who comes to the breakfast, no matter how old they are, will receive breakfast. This includes members of the congregation and anyone else who may enter. (Further information about this program is at “Seeing the Trees for the Forest” –

    Anyway, yesterday while I was manning the serving table, a member of the congregation came up to me and asked if this was the food for the “poor” people. I will admit that I was shocked by that statement but I hope I didn’t show it when I responded that “No, it is for all the people.”

    We have heard second-hand comments questioning letting homeless and hungry people into the church, especially on Sunday, and I sometimes wonder how real the Christianity of such people might be.

    On a second note, I have a policy of responding to any person who asks for aid. But I will not give cash; rather, if you are hungry, I will buy you a meal, if you need gas for your car, I will go to the station and even fill up the tank for you. Very, very rarely will I give someone any sort of cash. This is the policy of my pastor and the pastor under whom I began my lay speaking.

    I have also been accused of not being a Christian because I was not willing to “help” an individual. He accused me of being hypocritical because I could not provide the sum of funds that he insisted that he needed. It turned out that he called every single minister in the area with the same story and said the same thing to each of them that he had said to me.

    I will not turn anyone away but I will also make sure that the story has some validity. There are times when I wonder if I have done the right thing but I also wonder if there have been times when I walked right by Jesus and didn’t even see Him.

  4. “Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back.”

    -Luke 6:30

    • So many people are more concerned about being taken advantage of rather than being concerned about the person asking for help. I’d rather err in being generous. If I were in need of help, I would hope the person I asked for aid would feel the same.

    • This is key. In context the command to give is not about the people who need or don’t need, but it is about us. “Wrong” intentions on the part of those who ask don’t alter the command to give one bit.

  5. This summer I was at a local pizza-by-the-slice place when I was asked by a man for money to buy food. I said “I don’t have any cash, but you can have half of this.” He declined and left. Had I the cash, I probably still would have given it to him. Just because I don’t know why he really needs it, doesn’t make his need any less. Or my desire and joy serving Christ, even His presence in the people around me.

  6. Thanks so much for this reminder! We so often feel torn between being generous and being wise…This year my little church, aware of the hardship in our community and the many who are alone for Thanksgiving, decided to open our doors and serve Thanksgiving at our church to any who wanted to come. Now keep in mind that we have only about 65 members, and like many small churches, we are struggling to pay the bills. Many of our own are unemployed and in deep need. Perhaps that is what made them realize how important it was.

    Even as we invited donations for the food, we had no idea how many people would come or how we would pay for it. We had many an honest discussion about how to do this in a responsible way. And there were many questions of “what if.” What if no one comes? What if too many come, and there’s not enough food? What if people just come to score a free meal?

    But we felt compelled to step out in faith, and trust that God would bring those who needed to be there, and provide what was needed. We contacted the various social service agencies and asked them to help spread the word. We offered rides. We tried to plan and prepare with the same loving care we would use if we were cooking for our own families. No paper plates or plastic silverware, though it meant washing dishes. Tablecloths and decorations at the tables. Fresh vegetables and homemade cranberry sauce.

    We had an outpouring of volunteers that day (25!), which was wonderful, because we didn’t want to serve just food, but to also offer warm hospitality. So, as folks came in, volunteers went to sit and eat with them, to make them feel like “family.” Our guests included a couple who brought their mother who suffers from Alzheimer’s; a woman with a sister who is fearful of crowds; a young man with half his body paralyzed from several strokes; a crippled father with his autistic teenaged son who are current guests in our ministry to homeless families…

    Some of the volunteers admitted that being there that day moved them “out of their comfort zone,” but they did it anyway. Later, one came up beaming, saying “I’m so happy I could cry!” Another excitedly introduced me to a guest saying, “Can you believe it? We grew up in the same area, and he even knows the name of the hill where I used to sled as a kid!”

    The day before, out of nowhere, a big batch of gently-used coats were donated and these were offered to guests who needed them. We had enough food to not only feed everyone, but to send extra food home with our guests. Some also took food for home-bound neighbors. There was much laughter and joy that day, and as our guests left, hugs were exchanged just like family.

    Some of them have come back since then for worship and other events, and just the other day a woman who was with us took me aside to tell me with her wide toothless grin, “I have been getting so many compliments on my beautiful new coat! THANK YOU!”

    And for all the worry about how we could afford it? Amazingly, God provided so abundantly that we even had money left over, which will also go toward helping others. We do need to be wise, but “hunger” can come in many forms, and can we really know who is in need, or how our generosity can “feed” others? If we are to be mistaken, let it be on the side of generosity!

    • I like the point you make about people stepping out of their comfort zones. In a world where we go out of way to build such zones, to leave them takes much effort and faith that it will work.

      Those who served are as blessed as those who came.

    • I like the acknowledgment that there is hunger other than for food. I wonder how many of those who attended were starving for friendship and companionship. Well done!

  7. A question – are we to enable folks with drug and alcohol abuse?

    Many of the folks I’ve encountered asking for money for food declined when I offered the food. The reason? Because they wanted the money for drugs and alcohol. How do I know? Because another pastor gave them the money and they went and purchased the drugs and alcohol.

    Some of what I’m reading here, while focusing on the ideal and the call of Christ to give, would also have us enabling such behavior.

    One pastor I spoke with tried to suggest that what a person does with what we’ve given them is out of our hands and not our responsibility. What do you think?

    • Jeff, If you reread the post you will note that I never once suggest giving people money. That is where many people’s heads take them — we have abdicated true assistance in favor of throwing money at our problems — but my story and suggestions are about giving aid, help, and assistance — and I do note that discernment is essential. Giving people what they need is not always the same as giving them what they ask for. Many of the other comments caught this — offering to feed the hungry or house the homeless is not simply a matter of giving them some cash. Using common sense is a part of faith, not its opponent.

    • Jeff,
      There are times when you are absolutely correct. That’s why the pastors whose lead I follow always bought the food or the gas and why I do the same. Very seldom do I give the cash though I did on one occasion. This individual was trying to buy groceries and we were right outside the grocery store. I took a chance and provided the help he was requesting.

      Could he have sold the food later? Maybe, I wasn’t in a position to help him buy the food or stick around to see what he did.

      But we have a network in place and those who seek our aid know that they if they abuse the help that is provided, they will not get any help later. I don’t see that as enabling – it perhaps forces the individual to think through where they are and where they are going. They did come to a church and the offer is always there to help the soul as well as the body.

      The call to faith oftens creates the dilemma – how do we answer the call and how do we help others answer the call? And how do we get a person to the point where they can answer the call?

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