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Workshop aims to develop servants, not suckers

A UMNS Report
By Kathy L. Gilbert*

Dec. 18, 2007

Individuals and churches often are conflicted about how to help panhandlers or others seeking assistance.
A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.

The woman looks lost and helpless. Tears run down her face.

There she stands as you look up from your desk in the church's front office. She asks for money to buy food for her children.

Or, a man approaches as you return to your car at the mall loaded with Christmas packages. "I lost my job, my car broke down. I need some money to get home," he says. "Any little bit you can spare would help."

What do you do? Hand over a few dollars? If so, do you walk away feeling like you have just been "taken"?

You are not alone, according to Beth Templeton, who has spent 25 years working with homeless and poor people. She offers a plan to help you be a servant instead of a sucker.

Templeton works with United Ministries in Greenville, S.C., a faith-based organization of about 100 congregations that aids local people who are homeless, experiencing financial crisis or lacking education or employment skills. The ministry began in 1970 by the South Carolina United Methodist Annual (regional) Conference and today involves many faith groups.

"I'm very fortunate in that I get to work both with people who have needs as well as with people who want to help address those needs," Templeton said.

She teaches a workshop called "Servant or Sucker" that grew out of questions from ministers and church staff asking, "What do we do when people just show up? We feel like we are being taken, but we have no idea what to do."

She also started and directs "Our Eyes Were Opened," an outreach program of United Ministries targeting people with resources who want to reach out to those without resources.

"So many times through the years I’ve seen some people really want to help, but they end up making a bad situation worse. Or they get angry at the very people they want to help," she said.

It's OK to say 'no'

"It’s harder to say 'no' in a compassionate way and then help find other resources for somebody," Templeton said. "But sometimes when you’re giving money, you’re helping people to get drugs or to buy alcohol or to do things that are not healthy at all, that could actually end up in death."

In her Servant or Sucker workshop, Templeton offers these mantras:

  • Never do something for somebody that the person can and should do for themselves;
  • Poor planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on mine;
  • Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. (Matthew 10)

She gives practical advice on the dos and don'ts of helping someone directly:

  • Give money to vendors instead of the person;
  • Verify the story before you pay a bill or help with a financial problem;
  • Use a voucher system for food or gas.

Her ABCs of helping are to:

  • Acknowledge the person has a problem;
  • Don't believe everything you hear;
  • Remember that Christianity is not judged by giving people exactly what they want.

She wants people to L.E.A.R.N.:

  • Learn available resources in your area;
  • Explain the reason behind your answer, and do not apologize;
  • Acknowledge the problem;
  • Referrals, make good ones;
  • Never explain what other agencies' policies are unless you are absolutely sure. For example, don't send someone to an agency with the promise of a job, housing, food, etc., unless you know for sure they can provide those things.

Levels of involvement

When working in the midst of poverty, churches must decide how much they can do. There are levels of involvement, according to Templeton.

Most churches are level-one churches. They deal with the symptoms of poverty by providing soup kitchens, clothing closets, night shelters, etc.

Level two is helping families overcome issues and barriers that prevent them from thriving. These could include assisting them with pursuing employment and education.

"It’s harder to say 'no' in a compassionate way and then help find other resources for somebody."
–Beth Templeton

Level three is reviewing systems that are barriers to escaping poverty. Is there adequate, safe, accordable housing? Is there adequate transportation to places of work? Why can't people who work long, hard hours still not afford housing? Is there adequate health care?

"I honestly believe that the justice that the Bible talks about is systems work," Templeton said.

For instance, working to change the system might mean campaigning to raise the minimum wage. A person earning the minimum wage of $5.15 an hour cannot afford a fair-market apartment anywhere in the United States.

In Greenville, a family needs to earn at least $11.50 an hour to afford housing, according to Templeton. That means two people working full-time and earning minimum wage cannot find an affordable place to live.

How churches can help

Churches have numerous options to respond. If they choose to help anyone who walks in the door, church policy needs to address staff safety, designate someone to work with the homeless and allocate money in the budget.

A church may decide to use all of their benevolence money for direct aid and do it through an organization such as United Ministries. They can establish a specific day to take requests for assistance and make appointments throughout the week for that day.

Churches can choose to help by agency referral only. Churches also can staff a crisis ministry such as that of Buncombe Street United Methodist Church in Greenville.

Debbee Gordon, a longtime member of Buncombe, is on the board of United Ministries. She also was part of one of Templeton's poverty simulation workshops, which give participants an experience of what poverty looks and feels like.

"We are people who work everyday, pay taxes, and don't know anything about poverty," said Gordon.

In the workshop, participants are assigned roles and resources and must simulate four weeks in that person's life.

"You go to work, pick up your paycheck, pick up your children, pay bills, everything," said Gordon. "It is a small taste of what people have to go through everyday."

Beth Templeton leads a "Servant or
Sucker" workshop at United Methodist Communications in Nashville, Tenn.
A UMNS photo by Ronny Perry.

Gordon assumed the role of a 14-year-old boy in a family with a 7-year-old sister with ADHD and asthma and a baby brother. Their father had to balance getting them to and from school, going to work, and paying bills on a limited income.

"We came close to getting evicted because the mortgage on our house was not through a bank," she said. "When 'Dad' went to pay the note at the mortgage company, he forgot to get a receipt. When told the mortgage was past due, he had to pay again because he had no receipt."

At the end of the day, all participants come together to discuss their experiences. It is an intense, eye-opening experience, said Gordon.

'God put me here'

Templeton said she was called into ministry at age 9 at a time when women weren't ordained to ministry. She became a math teacher instead. The call tugged at her, however, and she worked in a hospital for a year as a chaplain's assistant. That experience convinced her to go to seminary.

United Ministries contacted her after graduation about a part-time job. She didn't think working with the homeless was what she wanted to do, but 25 years later, she is still there.

"Part of how I survived is I was aware when I was getting to my limit," she said. "I remember days when I thought, 'I don’t want to see another poor person, I don’t want to smell another poor person, I don’t want to have to deal with another poor person.' And so I’d leave the office."

She also believes that sometimes people placed in our paths are messengers of God––angels in disguise.

When confronted with her own limitations or encountering someone who needs help beyond her resources, she says a prayer:

"God, this is your child and I care and so if there is something I can do, then help open that door for me. But at this point I am entrusting this person to your care. Bring the right person into this man’s life so that hopefully he can have a different kind of life if that is what you want."

*Gilbert is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

Video clips: Beth Templeton

"Sometimes the most important word you can say to somebody is the word 'no'"

"To be a person of faith means that we reach out."

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