I had a fairly unusual encounter this December, but the story goes back to last winter. In December of 2012, I was out Christmas shopping. As I pulled into a Walmart packing lot, I saw a homeless man begging for money. He held a cardboard sign on behalf of his family, clearly cold and miserable on a bitter winter afternoon. I try to help the homeless when I am able, and I was particularly filled with compassion after having completed Cedarville’s Poverty Weekend just months early. I decided that as I’d leave Walmart, I’d extend some act of kindness to him. Next to this particular Walmart was a Tim Horton’s; inspired, bought the gentleman a hot cup of coffee.
I walked up to the man but when I approached the man, he seemed a little surprised. Most people, he would later explain, don’t approach him outside of their cars. Few young people approached him at all. Less shook his hand or cared to ask him about himself. So when I did these actions I became somewhat of an anomaly. I offered him the coffee expecting his gratitude. While he had a degree of appreciation, he explained that coffee upset his stomach, particularly on an empty stomach. He hinted that food may have been a better option, though he never outright said that. He drank some coffee to show his thankfulness, but my act of kindness was largely ineffective.
This past December I found myself in a similar scenario. I was out Christmas shopping and on my way to Walmart on another cold winter day. I again saw a man outside Walmart begging on behalf of his family. Again, I decided that I wanted to help the individual and my first thought was again to offer the person coffee. I recalled my encounter with the first gentleman a year prior and decided that I would first inquire whether they would like coffee, or if there was something else I could do for them. The individual stated that they would actually appreciate food if that was something I’d be willing to get for them. So I went to McDonald’s and got two double cheeseburger meals and returned to eat with the man.
As we ate I asked the man his name, what his story was, what his plans were, and so on. What came of light in that time was this was not just a similar occurrence to a year prior–I was talking with the same individual! When I brought up that I had met him before, he too remembered me. The fact that I was both young, approached him from outside the car, shook his hand, and offered him coffee (even though he wasn’t particular fond of it) had made an impression on him. My original encounter with him had made an impression on me, and it continues to impress me that I would run into the same man twice in near identical scenarios.
Why do I share this story? Two takeaways:
1. How you approach someone matters. It is edifying to a person to look them in the eye and shake their hand. I was able to show love to the person by taking time out of my day to eat with them and ask about themselves.
2. Asking what someone needs is important. I was much more effective ministering to and helping the person when I asked him what he needed rather than assuming I knew. Often we spend a lot of time telling people what they need before we ever take time to ask them what they need. They know what they need better than we do.
If we assume we know what someone needs, we may be largely ineffective. And if in helping someone we approach them pridefully or with a sense that we are looking down on them, the material help offered may be overshadowed by the shame imparted to the person. Don’t just do ministry–do ministry well. Be compassionate, edify the person, and let your actions show how valuable they are in the eyes of Christ.