Because WORLD's offices, in God's providence, are located just a city block's stroll from the local Greyhound bus station, it's not at all unusual for our staff to be greeted-as we walk from our parking lot to our entry door-by panhandlers looking for a handout. In the process, over the years, you can't help learning a few things about how welfare works.
To be sure, there are lots of huge differences between the homeless man typically found near a bus station and the tens of thousands of families who in recent weeks have lost their homes and jobs in the Gulf Coast region of the United States. So no one should suppose I'm lumping them all together.
But there are big differences too among the homeless people I encounter almost every day. Indeed, it's the very process of acknowledging and then sorting out those differences that should be dominant in our national thinking as we get ready to spend $200 billion in relief and welfare efforts. It could well be the single biggest such project in our nation's history.
So an early check on my own cynical and distrustful heart is to remind myself that the very next request I get may well come not from a charlatan but from a genuinely needy person. And I have to remember that even while keeping in mind that at least 90 percent of the requests are probably phony. In other words, God wants me-as I approach any welfare opportunity-to keep my heart open and tender even when I know that some of my dollars are going to be fraudulently wasted.
Our parking lot policy here at WORLD is to try never to ignore out-of-hand the request of a homeless or transient person. "Could you spare a dollar?" both men and women ask us fairly often; "I'm really hungry." Or: "I need bus money to get to Memphis." But since I can't see into the pit of that person's stomach or the core of his conscience, I have to assume for the moment that he's telling me the truth. Frankly, that assumption is usually a stretch for me-for experience has taught me that the chances are pretty good that I'm being lied to. But what if he's telling the truth? Do I really want to leave that person hungry or cut off? I've concluded that I can't afford that risk. There are, to be sure, other risks to keep in mind. All I'm saying here is that this first level of involvement includes a risk I don't want to take-and especially when I can hear Jesus in the distance saying, "Inasmuch as you failed to do it for one of the least of these, you failed to do it for me."
So what about the other risks? Now we remember Ronald Reagan's great advice: "Trust, but verify." There are some basic next steps that aren't quite as simple as fishing a dollar out of your pocket, but much more rewarding in the end. "I am really sorry you are hungry," we have disciplined ourselves to say. "Listen. There's a Waffle House right down the street, and I'd be glad to take you down there and get you some breakfast. OK?" That simple sentence is what has taught me that 90 percent of the first requests are phony. But the joy of watching someone eat a breakfast he really needs eclipses the cynicism produced by the liars. And this approach may well involve sitting there for 20 minutes to make sure the breakfast gets eaten, or telling the cashier that no refund for a changed mind is authorized. Or we've bought a few tickets to Memphis, but only after talking by phone to a family member at the other end of the line to confirm that the story really holds water.
You might call this a form of incarnational welfare. It starts with an open heart, undaunted by cynicism and prior bitterness. It resists the temptation to allow the assistance to become a long-distance transaction. It stoops down instead into the nitty-gritty of life and gets involved. It is ready, in the grimy process, to be disappointed-but warmed all over when God makes good things happen. And if that is only one time out of 10, that is still a pretty big reward.
As America undertakes one of its biggest welfare projects ever, Christians have a chance to stand out in the crowd for doing their part of it the right way.