Our pastor was sick. At the last minute, he called up a missionary/social worker in our area and asked him to fill the pulpit. The gentleman didn’t preach so much as tell stories, and the stories he told revolved around his work with the homeless. His primary job was assisting homeless folks who qualified for veterans’ assistance the financial help that they deserved, taking care of the mountain of paperwork and helping them set up budgets, gets jobs, and get off the streets.
A lady in our church had just started collecting backpacks and supplies so members in the church could go downtown and hand them out to the homeless. The idea was to show some kindness and engage with the poor and needy. When the social worker who was filling the pulpit that Sunday heard about the idea, he panned it.
“There are plenty of places in this city where homeless folk can get food. I know personally the charities that hand out breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and provide a roof over people’s head at night for free. The last thing homeless people need is a backpack full of goodies. Chances are that the only thing something like that would do would get them killed, because some other homeless person would want what they had and take it from them by force. And forget about giving those people money! If it seems like a scam, it is.”
It was quite a Sunday message.
It’s been a couple of years since that gentleman filled the pulpit, and since then, my town has seen an explosion of people holding cardboard signs on busy street corners with messages like “Homeless Veteran, Anything Helps. God Bless,” and “Mother of 3, Husband Layed Off”. Usually the signs have at least one (possibly intentional) misspelled word and most invoke God to bless the givers.
But the only thing I think when I see the cardboard sign holders is a scam. If these people wanted help, there are more churches and charities per square foot in my town than in any other place in the world. They don’t need to stand on street corners if what they want is a job and help out of their situation.
Then a friend of mine shared a theory with me. They are part of a social experiment. Some research company has placed these people here in a two-year study (it started as a one-year study, but since the people have been around for longer than one year, it must be a longer study) to measure something. My friend wasn’t sure if the company was measuring the effectiveness of the message on a cardboard sign or whether certain areas in the city are more generous than others or whether the weather affected people’s giving, but it must be something like that.
It all makes sense! And better yet, it means that I really don’t need to feel bad for the people holding the signs. They are just doing their job for the research company. Nor do I have to feel angered with them for taking the lazy way out instead of getting jobs. They do have jobs; they stand on street corners for the purpose of a social experiment!
Of course, it could also be that I am just not a compassionate person.
What do you think when you pass someone holding a cardboard sign, asking for help?