I was talking with a good friend and faithful church member about our church’s benevolence gifts the other day. I was lamenting the fact that the church seems to spend most of its benevolence money on foreign missions while meeting needs in our own community and especially in our own church with some reluctance. My friend seemed somewhat surprised that there were “marginal” folks in our midst. I think that my friend assumed that those are people who live or go to church elsewhere.
What’s going on here? Are those “worthy” of our church’s benevolence being painted with the same ideological brushes as our national media paints recipients of government entitlements and need-based assistance?
Perhaps a part of the problem is our criteria of “need”. As individuals, we can think of the words needy, marginal, deprived, disadvantaged, or poor with some degree of clarity in our own mind. We may “know” who those people are and what they look like – disheveled perhaps, or without transportation, or strange, or sick, or old. Everybody else, we may think, can get by just fine on their own, like we do.
But “need” is a subjective phenomenon. “Marginal” has very different descriptive criteria for different people. So to focus our 10% benevolence money on foreign mission work, for instance, can miss the needs closer to home that would make both church and community stronger and more vital.
Perhaps a part of the problem is our divergent understandings of issues such as the meaning of benevolence, the instructions from the Gospel and the components of our well-being.
Benevolence is defined in the dictionary as good will or disposition to do good for others; an act of kindness; a generous gift. There is nothing here to suggest that the recipient of benevolence must be the poorest of the poor in a foreign country. Even the Synonyms listed in the dictionary (favor, boon, courtesy, grace, indulgence, kindness, mercy, service) only note one possibility, “mercy” that suggests that benevolence is related to a form of pity for others.
The Bible discusses many ways that help us better understand benevolence:
In Acts: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.”
In Galatians: , “…let us do good to everyone...”
In Romans: “Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up.”
And especially in Mark: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Nothing here suggests we share our benevolence only with the most downtrodden in the world.
And then there is the whole confusion around issues of giving vs. receiving. Certainly most of us know from our personal experience that we feel good about ourselves when we contribute to life in meaningful ways, and that we actually begin to feel down and somewhat helpless when we are just recipients of other people’s benevolence’s over time. So to love our neighbor and build her or him up, we need to be open to receiving his or her offers of help to us so that he or she gains in their sense of well-being and health.
But perhaps the problem is that we don’t really know how to empower people in order to enable them to build a better life. We know how to give money, and cans of food, and old clothes, and used furniture. But do we know how to make our church a place where if people come, they feel they are built up, that they find a sense of well-being, and that people pay attention to them and ask for ways that they are able to contribute to life in our midst?