If there’s one thing I hate about being a pastor in an urban setting, it’s having people stop by the church for financial assistance. They need gas, or food, or a place to stay. I never know what to do and I waffle a lot in my response.
For a long time I just went with my gut. But then I learned that my gut wasn’t very reliable. When I helped someone, I often discovered that they were playing me. But if I sent the next person away empty-handed, I felt cold-hearted and judgmental.
The things Jesus taught about the poor don’t help much. I don’t think he had my ministry setting in mind when he said, “I was hungry and you fed me.” Did he? I don’t know.
Back when I began my ministry at Holy Trinity on The Plaza I soon learned that poor people have a network and news travels fast. If I helped one person, within days, another ten would show up at my door.
My general approach now is to tell them that we work with agencies within the community and I refer them to the right place. When I do this, I try to convince myself that I’m off the hook. Occasionally, someone will pull so hard at my heartstrings that I’ll dig into my own wallet and give them some money. Sometimes I also feel compelled to reward people for the sheer creativity of their story. But usually, an encounter with a poor person in my office just leaves me feeling damned if I help them and damned if I don’t.
A woman stopped by the church this week. She told me her story as she sat on the loveseat in my office and cried. As I listened, I was torn in two. The cynical part of me was suspicious of every word that came out of her mouth. But the compassionate part of me wanted to give her a twenty. What should I do? Then I remembered that I hadn’t yet been to the bank and I had $0 in my purse. So that was that. I apologized and sent her on to the neighborhood food cupboard.
Today, I was going to pick up food for my dog and cat and I accidently turned too soon and ended up in the parking lot at the Waffle House. This is the same Waffle House I used to frequent when I first moved to Charlotte. Back then, I was so excited to be living in a state where they had Waffle Houses that I ate there every Friday on my day off. The novelty eventually wore off, and I grew to become more concerned about what I put into my body, so I hadn’t been to a Waffle House in years. And now, today, finding myself in the parking lot, it was more than I could resist. So I went inside.
While I was sitting at the counter, enjoying a crispy waffle, I watched the waitress working away, and I started thinking about what her life must be like. I have no idea what she earns, but surely she is one of the “working poor.” She makes less than minimum wage and depends upon tips. But she’s serving a crappy shift with only a few people in the restaurant. And she’s working in a place where the food is dirt cheap.
There’s something terribly unfair about the way waiters and waitresses are paid. It’s not based on how hard they work, or what they deserve, but on the cost of the meals their customers buy. If I go into a restaurant and have a glass of water to drink with my meal, it costs me nothing, and the waiter gets a percentage of nothing. But if I order a fancy-schmancy martini, I pay through the nose, and the waiter gets a nice tip. Does it require any less work to bring me the water than it does the martini? I was ruminating about the injustice of the whole system as I watched my waitress do her job. Does she think about such things? Is she as outraged by this as I am? Of course, my outrage is over the idea of it all. If she considers the injustice, it’s her reality.
So my waffle was $2.80. A twenty percent tip would come to a walloping 56 cents.
I thought about the woman who cried on my loveseat the day before and how I didn’t know what to do about it. And here was a dear soul standing before me who hadn’t asked me for anything. Instead, she served me cheerfully and efficiently. Just then, I, the waffler, experienced a moment of clarity at the Waffle House. I handed my waitress a twenty and told her to keep the change. The smile on her face was worth every penny.
To be honest, I was feeling pretty damn good about myself. Then I went next door and spent $104.17 on food for my dog and cat.