When Helping Hurts - A Blanket of Pain
When Helping Hurts was one of the most influential books we read last year in the SOS Academy. It raised some very hard questions about my motives and effectiveness of loving and serving those in poverty. As I’ve transitioned into my full time position with SOS and remained in the Binghampton neighborhood, I’ve been reflecting on the change of perspective that God has led me to in Memphis. When I arrived in Memphis last year, I expected to show up and begin "relief" work. By relief, I mean urgent and temporary provision to aid and reduce immediate suffering in which I am providing relief to a receiver (WHH describes the approaches to poverty alleviation as a spectrum of relief to rehab to development). For example, the Good Samaritan providing relief to the helpless man on the side of the road. What I soon realized is that most people I encountered did not need “relief” but “development.” Development is the process of change that moves all involved people towards right relationship with God, creation, and others. Development is done WITH - not TO or FOR people.
One person in particular really spurred me to reexamine my motives and boundaries in helping those around me. There’s a man in our neighborhood, a veteran, who spent decades living on the street. This cost him immense mental and physical health, many relationships, and most all social skills. He is incredibly friendly, always has a story to tell you, and never hesitates to help you in any way he can. I am convinced he has blessed me immensely more than I ever could him.
My wife, Amanda, and I, naively, were initially very tempted to cook for him, befriend him, and meet every need of his that we could. That is until one night our friend knocked on our door, as we were climbing into bed, sobbing and completely dismantled. I ushered him into the kitchen, got him something to drink, and sat with him while he explained what was eating at him. About an hour later, Amanda joined us in the kitchen to pray and try to help him calm down. It was a very raw, messy, emotional time for him -- and it was about to be that for me as well.
Before he left, our friend asked us for a blanket. He isn’t homeless anymore, but he often still sleeps outside, and he doesn’t have much. Could he have a blanked? Of course! But which blanket? Standing in our home, we looked at an entire trunk full of blankets for our spare bed. We had a basket of throw blankets for the couch. We had blankets in the closet, and of course blankets on our bed. Even in our tiny home, we have incredible excess. But in trying to find a blanket for our ‘impoverished’ friend, our own poverty was harshly exposed.
As When Helping Hurts would describe it, we were learning the depths of our poverty of stewardship. God has blessed us immensely with every need we have ever had. Every need. He calls us then to bless others with what he has given us. But in that moment, Amanda and I suddenly felt attached to every blanket we owned. Even the blankets that hardly get used - we felt we needed them.
After a brief pause after our friends request, we remembered a blanket that we kept in the car for winter emergencies. It was a good blanket, but it wasn’t our favorite.
Immediately after he left, Amanda and I were both overcome with our own selfishness. Our extreme reluctance to let go of a single blanket appalled us both. We had a long conversation about the exchange, and prayed deeply that God would start to soften our broken, fallen hearts in ways that we didn’t even know existed. We don’t want to love our things. We don’t want to hold them with a closed fist. We desire richness of stewardship.
After walking alongside that particular friend for more than a year now, I am starting to learn how to better help ‘develop’ areas in his life, rather than just to do ‘relief’ work. We love providing dinner for friends, and giving them rides when needed. But this relationship beckons so much more. And it’s hard.
Living in our neighborhood as an invested neighbor requires more than the bare minimum. It means being inconvenienced frequently. It means learning when to say yes and when to say no. It means being real and vulnerable with others, accepting and asking things of others. We are here to live life WITH our neighbors.
When Helping Hurts has been one of the most influential books for SOS in recent years. We continue to be challenged by the content we find in its pages and we, the staff and interns, will be posting a series of reflections this year based upon related lessons and stories we are personally experiencing. This reflection has been posted by Jake Wiig, Asst. Construction Director at SOS. You can contact Jake at email@example.com