New Horizons

The Challenge of Helping Needy People

John W. Belden

It's hard to reach out to needy people in our area (Letcher County, Kentucky) without being confronted with certain challenges. Through the years, we've tried to focus on types of assistance that are most consistent with our goals as a church. This is why we decided to focus on young men. We wanted to promote strong leadership in families, churches, and the community.

The million-dollar question is, How do you reach young men? One of the families in our church opened a door for one way to reach them. They raised two of their nephews, Paul and Jeremy, from the time they were little. Sadly, as the boys grew up, so did their sins. Eventually they ended up in jail. Like so many young men in our county, their problems were drug related. This family wanted to help them in a way that would be best for everyone.

Shortly before Paul was released, we came up with a plan to help him. We soon found ourselves also helping Jeremy and another nephew, Joe. Each of these men seemed to want to change. They agreed that they needed structure and accountability. They also agreed that they needed Christ.

We wanted to avoid the common approach of just giving handouts. We also wanted to avoid doing anything for them that they could do for themselves. So we drew up a contract to clarify what we expected from them and what they could expect from us. We made it clear that the program would include random drug tests. If we found any illegal activity, we would contact their parole officers immediately.

We began by providing a place to live at a reasonable rate and helping them to become employed. For two of the men, this included helping to purchase reliable transportation and insurance. The short-term goal was to get them to the point where they were responsible and self-supporting. The long-term hope was to see them established in the gospel and supporting the work of the church.

We knew that their deepest problems were spiritual in nature. Therefore, we insisted on church attendance, morning and evening. We made it clear that we didn't want to pressure them to become Christians in order to please us. But we did want them to sit under the means of grace. Anything less would be inconsistent with our belief that their ultimate problem was spiritual.

We also required them to meet with me once a week for counseling and accountability. In every meeting, I focused mainly on the gospel. I also addressed issues like addiction, finances, and sexual purity, always with the understanding that the gospel was necessary for lasting change.

We rented one of the small apartments above the church to Paul. Once he found a job, we started working on a budget. He soon found a decent car he could afford.

One of the challenges a young man will face when buying a car is the issue of insurance. Getting them legal can be extremely expensive, especially to someone working at minimum wage. This is often compounded by a bad driving record. Even basic insurance can easily exceed two thousand dollars a year.

The temptation for many young men is to acquire the initial policy, so they can get their registration and plates, and then let the insurance lapse by not making any more payments. Inevitably they get pulled over for some unrelated violation and find themselves in legal trouble for not having insurance. At this point, they usually lose their license and a downward spiral begins.

We wanted to make sure Paul saved for insurance, so we required him to give me a record of his earnings, expenses, and savings. We hoped this would get him into the practice of putting money away for expenses that would come up.

This marked the beginning of Paul's decline. The budget restraints and insurance payments proved too much for a young man with a car who wanted his freedom. His true spiritual condition began to surface.

Jeremy came into the program shortly after Paul. We set him up in an apartment with the understanding that he would be responsible for the rent. We also began to help him look for transportation and work.

Joe came in around the same time Jeremy did. Joe needed a lot of help. I took him to training classes to obtain his coal mining card, helped him with his mining test (twice), helped him get his driver's license (for the first time at age 21), made arrangements with the district court to do community service for outstanding fines, and helped him get his car payments up to date. We also loaned him money to purchase mining equipment when he got a mining job.

When it was all done, I felt like I had just raised a child. But we were soon disappointed. Joe lasted only a few days in the mines. He smoked a cigarette while underground—something you just don't do.

Eventually, all three men dropped out of our program. Paul found the restrictions too burdensome. Jeremy left after failing a drug test. Joe simply couldn't handle the responsibility of keeping his commitments.

I still see and hear from them from time to time. Paul is in prison. He has two children. He wrote to me recently and said he realized that he had not taken our help seriously. This is a good sign. He also claims to be more serious about Christ. Time will tell.

Jeremy came to church a while back. He has managed to stay out of prison so far. But drugs are still a problem. He also has two children. I recently heard that Joe was moving to Tennessee with his girlfriend and children to find work. I don't expect him to stay there long.

We have learned a lot through all this. We have learned that it's hard for most people to submit to a program that requires change when there is some other support system to fall back on. This problem is common in places where family ties are close. There is always some relative who will take them in.

The other main obstacle to this kind of work is simply a lack of resources, particularly manpower. Budgets, drug testing, counseling, job training, dealing with legal issues, confronting sin, and providing accountability all take enormous amounts of time and emotional energy. This can quickly take its toll on a small church.

We have also struggled with the best way to begin. Do you preach the gospel until you see evidence of genuine change and then address physical needs? Or do you begin to address the needs, hoping that God will use your efforts to open their hearts to the gospel? What do you do when someone professes to be a believer and asks for help to obey God's command to work? What do you do when you can't even get people to listen to the gospel without meeting a need?

This experience confirmed our belief that man's deepest problem is sin. We made it clear to these men from the beginning that we could only provide the structure. They had to provide the desire and the labor. Their natures determined what they would ultimately desire and work for.

We also emphasized that while some people can turn their lives around without Christ, they needed him. They needed him not just to fix their lives, but to save their lives. There is no profit to gaining the whole world, if you lose your soul.

Did we fail? I guess it depends on what we wanted to accomplish the most. We wanted to be faithful in proclaiming the gospel. We wanted to be helpful in a way that adorned the doctrine we profess. In that, we succeeded. These men heard the gospel. They heard it from people who loved them in word and deed. And who knows what God will yet do?

The author is pastor of Neon Reformed Presbyterian Church in Neon, Ky., and a member of the Committee on Diaconal Ministries. Reprinted from New Horizons, March 2010.

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