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 have a question. There is a very poor family in my town and the church is constantly trying to help them — give them food, blankets, pay their bills, whatever. Mostly they refuse. I don’t know whether their pride gets in the way of taking food from the church. Sometimes if we leave food at their doorstep and run off, they will keep it, but if we knock on the door, they refuse it. They don’t want “charity” but are in pretty dire straights. What can I do? What can I do differently? I’ve thought of just going to the utility company and paying their bills for a year but part of me feels this is intrusive and condescending.

    • Matthew,
      There are some people who, for whatever reason, will not accept direct help no matter what.

      It might be pride; it might be shame. We are not always able to know what the reason might be.

      I don’t think you can do anymore than you are already doing. But you must also keep doing what you are doing and keep this family in your prayers. One day, the Spirit will shine in their hearts and they will open up to the efforts of the church.

      In peace,
      Dr. Tony

    • Dear Matthew, here refusals have been 1) Their beliefs do not allow them to accept help. One of the church groups at the islas near Matamoros will not allow their members to accept donations. 2) There is an expectation on the part of the donor. This has different forms. Just this week a good friend said that he does not give anything to anyone until they have heard the Word. One of the community volunteers who provided delivery of food insisted the community clean his vehicle several times a week. Both of these drive people away, especially if you are so hungry that you cannot pay attention to someome talking. 3) There is an anger with the person in need. There is a young man suffering so from cerebral palsy. He is on the streets and screams at people when they try to help him. He is so angry that his body will not function and perhaps at the ridicule he receives daily from people who do not understand. and 4) There is a mental illness, in particular, schizophrenia. I have not seen pride as a reason, but here may be a much different context than where you are. Nevertheless, the advice by Dr. Tony about praying for this family helps. It may be a possibility that going to the family with nothing more than a willingess to listen could help. At times it can be difficult to understand the invitation given by the one who suffers. It could take a while. Adelante.

    • Have you asked them for help? Doing so equalizes the perceived power relationship and preserves dignity. And, doing ministry WITH people opens the door to deeper conversation.

  2. Hey Dan, would you pay my rent this month? I spent my paycheck at the liquor store on Friday.

    But seriously… I serve a poor community in a large city. Poverty is high, education is low; responsibility is even lower. The need here far outweighs our resources to help. To simply “give to everyone who asks”, as Jesus taught, would completely deplete our resources in a matter of hours. It would make only a small dent in the immediate need and leave us nothing with which to help others later. And boy do they get mad when I tell them we are out of funds!

    So, right or wrong, we attempt to discern and assist with emergency situations only, starting with our own members, several of whom also live at or below the poverty level.

    And right or wrong, I have little patience with those who claim poverty while talking on their iPhone and driving a better car than I do. Or the woman who called recently asking for help. When asked what kind of help she needed, she replied, “What you got?”

    My question to you is, how does it really help to constantly give away free food and clothing, fill up empty gas tanks, pay past-due rent and utilities, for the same people over and over again, simply because they ask?

    We have offered to help them find a job, budget their money, learn to shop cheaper, etc., but they’re not interested. They just want the hand-out.


  3. Some years ago I worked for a parachurch ministry and we were holding a large evangelistic outreach in a major city in Florida. Each morning we would send out teams from the church we used as our home base. One morning I sent my team out ahead of me to our vehicle while I finished getting some instructions for the day. When I came out, my team was being accosted in the parking lot by a homeless man, who was screaming and ranting that he had been sent to the church for help and no one would help him.

    I asked him what help he needed, and he said he was hungry. Without a second thought, I reached into my bag and gave him the sack lunch which had been packed for me that day, and gave it to him. He looked at me in puzzlement and asked what I was going to eat, and I simply told him not to worry about it, that it was of more concern to me that he had something to eat. His whole attitude immediately changed, and he began profusely apologizing and thanking me, over and over.

    I wonder sometimes if our legitimate desire to be discerning when it comes to people who ask for help doesn’t go so far that it sends the message that the Church really doesn’t care. At the same time, I echo the sentiments of those who caution against giving money. Many times I have bought a burger or a cup of coffee for someone that was hungry or cold. Very few times I have opened my wallet and simply taken cash out. The Holy Spirit has to lead in this, in my opinion, but we should err on the side of generosity.

  4. A personal experience – I was a student at Garrett Evangelical in the mid-80’s. I was in a suit going to a special sort of meeting (I don’t even remember what the meeting was about) and walking the streets of Evanston, IL when I was approached by a man who appeared homeless. He was dirty, rough looking – all the stereotypical looks. In his hand, he held a cup of coffee.

    As I passed by, he asked me if I wanted a sip of his coffee. I politely declined and walked on by – but not very far. I felt convicted by the Holy Spirit. “Why did you just walk by this man?” I stopped and looked back. “He’s a person I love. Talk to him.”

    I turned around and told him (he hadn’t walked very far) that, on second thought, I would like a sip. He offered it with a smile. When I finished with the sip, I asked if there was anything I could do for him. He thought for a moment, and then said, “Why, yes. Yes, there is.” I thought, “Great! Here comes the request for money!” I had none on me.

    He surprised me, however. He said, “It’s been a long time since anyone has hugged me. Would you give me a hug?”

    So, on the street of Evanston, IL, a young preacher-to-be in a suit and a homeless man hugged. Talk about out of my comfort zone!

  5. Dan, I took note of that in my own reading but was responding to other thoughts expressed in the other writings – John’s, Zuhleika’s, and Rex seemed to be pointing more to giving without the common sense that I would want to have.

    I am not willing to judge a person as not having a real need merely because I’m inconvenienced or unwilling to meet their need. While I have not written nor thought about them as clearly as Richard H., my practice follows his operating assumptions pretty well.

    • Jeff – I am certainly not suggesting that you give money to anyone who asks for it. My comment was simply that people are more concerned about their own egos than they are about people who may be in need. Discernment is always needed; stepping outside your comfort zone is one thing, but putting your own safety in jeopardy is not.

  6. “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?”

    God has blessed most of us with finite resources. The needs we find almost always outstrip out resources. Here are some of my operating assumptions:
    1. I’m biased toward meeting a need I know of now over one that MAY appear later.
    2. I’m not looking forward to facing Jesus on judgment day with a large bank account full of resources he entrusted to me.
    3. Not everything presented as a need is a need.
    4. Somethings not presented as needs (or even mentioned) ARE needs.
    5. Since I have finite resources – and am responsible for finite resources in church – I have to exercise discernment. Discernment happens through prayer, consultation, and getting to know people as more than bundles of needs.

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