Chapter 8 of When Helping Hurts begins to look at how we can effectively engage with people who are experiencing poverty in North America. Fikkert points out:
For the first time in history, more poor people live in the suburbs than in cities…Hence, many suburban churches now find themselves on the front lines of America’s war on poverty without even realizing it. (page 169)
Once we stop assuming that everyone is doing just fine, it’s not that hard to spot people who are struggling in our neighborhoods, our schools, our grocery stores… A lot of us suburbanites are, maybe for the first time ever, pondering how to respond to the problems of poverty right where we live.
In summary, poor people in North America could benefit from all of the following: (1) the ability to work at jobs with living wages, (2) the capacity to manage their money, (3) the opportunity to accumulate wealth, and (4) a greater supply of quality education, housing, and health care at affordable rates. Moreover, like all of us, poor people need highly relational ministries—delivered through the body of Jesus Christ—that help them to overcome the effects of the fall on their individual hearts, minds and behaviors. (page 175)
But that is all too academic for me. I mean, this is heavy stuff. I can’t give poor people all those things, so I might as well go make a sandwich or something.
So I asked my friend Mary to tell her story. She knows something about poverty, because she has lived through it. God used many broken and ordinary people in Mary’s process of overcoming. As you read her story, I pray that the Holy Spirit will show you ways He wants to use you in the life of someone who’s struggling.
I got off on the wrong foot because I got in with the wrong crowd of people. I was raised in the church, so I knew better. But I got in with the outlaws and started doing drugs to be cool. Eventually, it turned into addiction.
Then my mom died when I was 19, and I totally went off the deep end. The next 25 years was a blur of partying, even though I had a kid and a job. I ended up in prison. That is probably the thing that helped me the most. Actually, I was in jail three times for drugs. I was just starting to get my life together when Arizona brought me in on an old charge, but, you know, that’s what needed to happen for God to do what He needed to do in me.
I picked up the Bible when I was in that jail cell and started reading. I was scared, you know, thinking maybe I’d be in for 10 years this time. Reading the Bible, I got instant comfort. I started attending church services while I was in jail. I kept to myself in prison. But let me tell you, if you think you want to be an outlaw, think again. There ain’t nothing nice that happens on the other side of those bars.
When I got out, I went to the halfway house. The woman who ran the house, Cheryl, got me a job cleaning house for a woman named Susan. If Cheryl hadn’t got me the job with Susan, I don’t know where I would be right now. I probably would have done what I knew to do to make money—cook some meth.
Most people, when they get out of prison, go right back to what they know. Or a lot of people would get a job in telemarketing or at Walmart. There is a tax break for hiring felons. But those jobs don’t pay much, so most people end up living in the ghetto. But what else can they do? Most of them have no skill sets. They’ve been on the street most of their lives. They were raised by drug addicts. There’s not a lot of people that make it. It’s really sad. But I’m thankful I didn’t have any setbacks.
Eventually I became the manager of the halfway house. I met Priscilla when she came to live there. One of the best things ever was witnessing Priscilla’s transformation. Then there was the church here and everybody loving us—if it hadn’t been for that, I don’t know if Priscilla or I would have made it.
There was a group of women that came around us. Robin, Midge, Joyce, Vicky… Man, I love those women. They took turns picking us up for church and taking us home. They just loved us. They invited us out to lunch. This one lady, Joyce, took us to lunch, and while we were sitting there, she said she felt blessed to be with us. I was thinking, “This nice church lady feels blessed to be sitting here having lunch with a dope cook and a prostitute?” We were really impressed that we never felt looked down on by anybody at this church—ever. They didn’t judge us for our past, just focused on our future.
After the halfway house, there was a three-quarters house. But if you wanted to stay there, you had to go to a meeting every day. Cheryll said that Bible study could count as a meeting, so those church ladies jumped right on that. The women from the church led the Bible study at the house, and so many women came just to get their card signed. And we’d invite people to church. There was a time when there was a whole row of us outlaws in church. It was great! Some girls it helped. Others are gonna do what their gonna do. We just tried to take care of everybody.
Susan decided to move away and she let me buy her cleaning business in monthly payments. In the beginning, I would hire a halfway house girl to work with me, cuz I know people need a chance. I have to be careful who I take in people’s houses, though. One girl I hired stole about $1000 from somebody. The girl went to jail for 4 months, and I returned all I could and then cleaned the lady’s house for 6 months for free. But that girl was the only one I had real problems with.
I hired one of my sisters-n-law. She had just got out of prison and she was pregnant. But she got back on drugs after a while. She just got unreliable, so she couldn’t keep working for me.
Then I hired a gal, Lisa, that was down on her luck. She couldn’t get a job, didn’t have a car, lived in Apache Junction (the buses don’t come out there). I picked her up, took her kid to school, and dropped her off at the end of the day. She worked for me for three years. After a while, she stopped appreciating the things I was doing for her, so she quit. I don’t know where she is now or what she’s doing.
I hired another sister-in-law, Lori, and her son’s girlfriend Athena (her son is in prison). Athena was living in her car. I let them live with me for 9 months and work with me. And for them, I think it really helped. Athena is doing well now; she’s been working at circle K for over a year and has her own place. She’s also gone back to school and stopped cutting.
Then I let another gal come live with me. She and her boyfriend had just moved from Oklahoma and were trying to start over. That didn’t work out. She was one of those people that felt entitled to things without having to work for it. They trashed my house. She called me a tacky Christian because I wouldn’t give her what she wanted. So we had to ask them to leave. You can only do so much for people.
Most people just get burned out on cleaning after a while. It’s my business, and I get a little burned out now and then. I can tell when someone is about to quit. They just get tired of cleaning toilets. A lot of girls don’t look at it like a real job, and it’s only part-time, so it’s not enough to pay for rent and a car and everything. So eventually, people move on. I’ve got a great helper now, so I’m praying she stays with me.
I said to my husband, “Is my calling really supposed to be to help all these people who don’t even appreciate it?”
God has blessed us, but people don’t see how much I put back into the business. I’m behind on all the taxes, plus now I can’t afford the Obamacare so I have to pay the penalty. I can’t afford to pay my helpers more than $10 an hour. But at least I can try to get people away from the madness of their past situations and decisions.
I think you have to take chances on people and see how it comes out. Rely on your instincts and hope for the best. Pray really hard! If you’re thinking about hiring someone or trying to help them, just talk to them a lot. Try to see where their character is at. People on drugs aren’t bad people. They have a sickness. Some people you can still trust, even if they aren’t cleaned up yet.
Mary lives, works and ministers in the metro Phoenix area. She attends Wonderful Mercy Church in Gilbert, Arizona. If you’d like to patronize her business, you can contact her at Mbedford613@cox.netImage courtesy of Collin Anderson/ flickr.com