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Being an Advocate for the Poor

Two decades ago a man I deeply admire asked this penetrating question of me, “Is there anyone right now praising God for you because without your advocacy for them they would be hopeless?”

My mind instantly swung into justification mode, and I began adding up the money I’d given and boards on which I’d served that assist the poor in some way. But, that wasn’t what he was asking. What he was getting at is this, “Are you personally engaged in the life of a person who is powerless or poor and had no other place to turn before you came along?” My honest answer was “yes”. I had been just such an advocate for a number of people in the past, but not presently.

Ever since that conversation, I’ve made it one of my personal goals to pray for and have my spiritual antenna up for people in need of an advocate. They’re all around me if I’ll simply open my eyes. But, even if one doesn’t cross our path, I believe we have an obligation to seek them out. I’ll share a few stories shortly just how that works in real life.

You only have to read the story of the Sheep and Goats (Matthew 25:31-46) to get a feel for how serious Jesus is about us caring for “the least of these”. If you read that story, you’ll also notice that in almost every case he instructs us to go to them, not wait for them to ask us for help.

And Jesus’ teaching mirrors God’s repeated warning to Israel in the Old Testament about their lack of concern for the poor and the teaching in Proverbs regarding his heart for the poor.

“Whoever shuts their ears to the cry of the poor will also cry out and not be answered. When justice is done, it brings joy to the righteous but terror to evildoers.” Proverbs 21:13 and 15

“Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will reward them for what they have done.” Proverbs 19:17

“He has shown you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Micah 6:8

Just do a Bible word search for the words poor, alien or widow and you’ll see how often God admonishes Israel to care for the powerless.

What does it mean to be an advocate for the poor?

The term “advocate for the poor” isn’t found in the Bible. However, it is a term which captures the primary ideas in the Bible regarding our responsibilities toward the poor. The main idea is that the poor, the hopeless and the helpless are so often powerless or overwhelmed by their circumstances that they may need a person to advise, speak or act on their behalf – an advocate.

• David read a story in the local newspaper about a man who served 12 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit and was recently released. He wasn’t sure exactly how to get in touch with him, so began with a call to the man’s lawyer. David asked the attorney how he could help and left his phone number if his client was willing to meet with him. Within an hour the ex-con called and they met for lunch.

To his surprise, the man wasn’t bitter about his experience and he wasn’t a Christian. He just wanted to move on with his life, but didn’t know how. David offered to try finding him a job and a place to stay until he got back on his feet and David did both. They met several times after that and David presented the gospel to him, but there wasn’t much interest. They still touch base occasionally and David simply tries to be a friend and encourage him, and is still praying for his salvation.

• A few years ago, a stranger visited our church and halfway through the service left, visibly upset and disturbed. An elder in our church observed this, got up and followed him to the back of church. The man was from a local facility for people struggling with a variety of mental disorders. The elder took him to lunch that day where the man shared that what was really frightening him was his belief that his court appointed legal guardian was robbing him of his life savings and someday he’d be homeless.

Although skeptical at first, his new found friend checked it out and discovered it was true. He confronted the embezzler who denied everything of course. So he hired an attorney at his own expense went to court and got himself appointed legal guardian and served him faithfully until the man died a few years later.

• While getting her driver’s license, a fine Christian woman I know observed a clerk being less than helpful with another woman who barely spoke English. So, she stepped to the side of the stranger and offered her assistance. Apparently, she was missing one piece of information, which was at home leaving no time to take the bus home and return before the Secretary of State’s office closed.

So, the Good Samaritan offered to drive her home, get what she needed and bring her back in time to get her license. Then, literally going the second mile, the woman drove her new found friend to work so she wouldn’t be late. It turns out that the woman was a Christian and thanked both my friend and Jesus for going out of her way to help.

Equipping yourself to be an Advocate

• Begin praying daily for Jesus to use you to minister to another person.  Ask the Holy Spirit to give you radar for the poor and helpless in your life, church and city.

• Read Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, by Ronald J. Sider, and The Tragedy of American Compassion by Marvin Olasky, to get a good biblical and practical overview of the problem and some creative solutions to both poverty and consumption, personally and globally.

• Meditate on why you might be hesitant to help a stranger or someone you see on the street.  What do you fear?  What do you think they want?  What kept you from getting involved the last time you saw or heard of a person in need?

• Another excellent book (non-Christian) for understanding the mindset of those in poverty is A Framework for Understanding Poverty, Ruby K. Payne.

• I’m acquainted with a great ministry that helps train churches in wise benevolence. If you’re interested, go to:

Finding the Poor

• Watch the newspapers, TV and the web for stories of people being treated unjustly, suffering a tragic loss, experiencing job losses, or losses of much needed services.

• Go to your pastor or the deacons in your church and ask if there is anyone in the church who really needs help or needs someone to help then navigate life.

• Volunteer at a local homeless mission, an urban church, retirement home, Habitat for Humanity, food bank, or other ministry which regularly intersects with the poor. But, do more than simply volunteer. Get to know personally some of the poor they serve and look for ways you might serve as their advocate.

• Look for people right in your local church who appear to be struggling.  Often times they drive older cars, sit by themselves, leave as soon as church is over, or wait at the bus stop because they lack personal transportation.

• Take a slow walk through the urban areas of your city with a friend.  Make attempts to strike up conversations with people of the same sex.  Invite them to have a cup of coffee.  Just show interest in them and get to know them personally.

Determining their Needs

Often the poor have immediate needs which often need to be met to allay their fears and give them a sense of security and safety.  A wise advocate will try to discern an immediate need from a primary need.  An immediate need is the assistance required to make sure a person is not hungry, unsafe, without shelter, cold, medically unstable, or about lose a much needed asset in which they have equity.  To the extent we are able, the Bible says we are to meet those immediate needs to stabilize their lives.

“Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to act.” Proverbs 3:27

Primary needs on the other hand, are the underlying needs that all humans have – love, hope, understanding, a sense of belonging and most importantly the security of knowing Jesus personally.  One homeless man I met with for years was simply scared and lonely at times, usually at night, and needed right then to hear a friend’s voice. I bought him a cell phone with limited minutes on it, so he could call me or his family in another state whenever he felt overwhelmed. He simply needed the assurance that someone cared. Meeting these primary needs isn’t rocket science, but it does take some time and thought.

One word of warning and here’s a quote from my book, The 10-Second Rule, “I was once ripped off by a “Nigerian seminary student” standing in the back of church looking for his next mark. In fact, I’ve been taken advantage of more than once by people with legitimate needs who keep needing more. More money, more time, more whatever – just more. You’ll learn over time to establish some boundaries, but the risk-adverse will rarely follow Jesus. Being taken advantage of occasionally is the occupational hazard of a servant.

“If someone takes unfair advantage of you, use the occasion to practice the servant life… Live generously.” (Luke 6:30, MSG)

Don’t let the occasionally abuse of your grace and generosity discourage you from being Jesus’ stand-in and an advocate for the poor.

Question: Share with us your experiences of being an advocate for the poor, or poor in spirit.

Following Jesus in Real Life

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