Monday, December 17, 2012

When Ministry Gets Complicated

This post is mainly about glitches in our neighborhood ministry endeavors, so if you are here from Ann's Multitude Monday link-up, I should say up front that we are about to begin a neighborhood ministry involving first the children, and then as relationships with the adults grow, my husband would offer Bible Study and biblical counseling to them.

How did this endeavor begin?

We live in a working-class neighborhood with an average household income of $45,000, with many of the homes inhabited by elderly couples who also raised their children here. Our income is actually lower than that and because of our experiences we've been able to sympathize with the hurting families around us. While this neighborhood previously didn't have many children in this corner, in the past eight months our children have had neighborhood children over for play, and we've noticed deep spiritual needs in the families. Our contact has mainly been with the children so far, and with their parents mostly through notes only.

Several weeks ago God put it on our hearts to begin a neighborhood ministry. We approached our church for the start-up money, involving the purchase of Jesus Storybook Bibles and the curriculum kit that accompanies it, so that I could work with the elementary-age children, teaching them about God's rescue plan (Jesus), and about prayer and a personal relationship with the Lord.

Now that I've given some background, on to the dilemma I'm contemplating and praying about today.

One of my neighbors, the one with the four children, continues to ask for gas money after the initial time I voluntarily gave it. What a stress this has proven to be! I use a debit card and rarely carry cash, so the last three times I've had to say no (access to our bank requires a 16-mile round trip). Secondly, only rarely can I spare the money.

There are other concerns, including that we occasionally hear of ice skating trips and new toys, and we know that both parents smoke. It's hard to know how to proceed, when we have too little information about them. When the father lost his job several weeks ago, I expected them to move out of their rental unit within a month or two if he didn't obtain one. If you are let go because of poor job attendance, I doubt if you qualify for unemployment.

When he didn't begin working and there was no word of them moving, I did a little research and learned of a program called Section 8, which allows very low-income people to rent units using only 30% of their monthly income plus 10% for utilities. A housing authority pays the rest of the rent to the unit owner, from 80% to 100% of the fair market rent value of the unit, minus the 30% the family pays. If you lose your job or your income lowers, the housing authority just adjusts your monthly payment to reflect 30% of your current income.

The minimum rental payment a family can get away with and still remain in the program is $50, and you can't have a criminal record or any drug use to qualify, or allow any new persons to reside with you (though no one physically checks up on you while you reside in the unit). You have to notify the housing authority of income changes within 10 days, however.

You have to stay in your unit for a whole year to be eligible and then your voucher goes with you if you decide to move. So, since this family moved in last summer, they will be here until at least next summer, no matter how their income changes. They probably chose this area because it was halfway between both their job locations.

Since they'll be here until at least the summer, our problems with them will not go away anytime soon.

I drove their kids to and from school for a couple weeks after they lost their last vehicle. When they obtained a new used van, I stopped. But yesterday I received a note asking if I could drive the kids to school Monday (today) because they had no gas money and wouldn't receive any pay until Friday (kids have school until Friday). My Beth had just received her first dose of the chemo drug and the nausea, if it happened, could potentially last 24 hours, so I didn't want to make any plans to travel the next day. I declined to take them to school.

My husband wants to ask them to come and talk with us about their budgeting issues and prayer needs if they ask for money. Helping someone without some accountability usually only hurts. We don't smoke or drink and never have, and while we can sympathize with a cigarette addiction, we want to make sure we're not contributing to one financially.

Until they agree to a face-to-face meeting, and honestly I think they would never agree, we're to say no to all monetary requests. I admire my husband for the ability to talk with anyone about anything, but I'm his opposite with regard to assertiveness, except that with children I am more assertive and him less so (though he doesn't spoil children or neglect their discipline). In counseling you have to be willing to say things gently that might be ill-received, and that's where my husband excels, especially using biblical rationale. We'll still give cups of milk and used clothes when we have them available, and occasionally take them to school, with the intent of reducing their children's stress levels.

Another issue that would be far harder to address than cigarettes, it that we believe if you have a low income and your budget doesn't allow for entertainment, you shouldn't take your kids ice skating or buy them toys. One of our responsibilities as parents is to teach our children how to live within their means, whatever those means are. Saying yes to kids' requests because yes seems more loving, is a disservice to them in the long run. We all learn our money habits from our parents and when they fail to teach us properly we have our own problems when we move out. For example, parents who keep a balance on their credit cards will probably raise children who'll do the same someday.

This family probably receives child-support payments coming in from at least one source and maybe social security as well (one father is deceased since last year). The children are from three fathers. The mother is still working and their food is covered by a food program and with part of their rent covered as well, they should have enough gas money if they budget well. Or at least with the little information the mother's given me, we think so.

While doing neighborhood ministry with the lost and the hurting we'll encounter similar circumstances and I feel the need to ask for prayer. I know how to work with children and my everyday skills don't extend far beyond this. This is the tip of the iceberg and obviously God's way of teaching me assertiveness, since I'm usually alone when they send their notes. God is stretching my comfort zone so I'm more useful to Him, I believe.

It bothers me that they embarrass their older children by sending their monetary requests through them--never in person. Perhaps because of the children's embarrassment, we rarely see their children any more for play time. I can only pray that when we give out the Jesus Storybook Bibles next weekend, along with the weekly Bible Study invitation, their two elementary children will participate.

Those of us not in such dire straights? We need to remain thankful for all that God has provided, remembering this humbling truth: There but for the grace of God go I.

We need to pray for the hurting, for those with addictions, for those without jobs. We need to pray for people to come alongside them who will love them and teach them, gently but still firmly, preserving their dignity the whole while through mercy. And remembering that love is what makes the world a level playing field, not our talents and intellects or family backgrounds.

Love--the Lord's love expressed through Believers--fills in the gaps and fills up empty hearts and empty bellies. We can express this love horizontally because He's first been gracious enough to pour it out on us vertically. 

Thank God for my partnership with my husband in this, because maybe between the two of us through our Lord, we can bless both the children and the adults? I must trust God for our safety should someone react angrily, though most on this street are responsible, safe people. The rental population is 40% of the neighborhood, but the Section 8 population who might potentially be over-stressed and unpredictable, is presumably far smaller.

Giving Thanks Today:

~ No nausea for Beth so far, thank you Lord. What a huge relief!

~ Some beautiful Christmas books from the library.

~ A turkey in the freezer for Christmas dinner.

~ Paul playing so nicely on the piano.

~ All the doubts about doing ministry, and our shortcomings while we do it, are covered by his Grace.

~ Few car repairs recently.

~ The assurance that if you do something for Him, you essentially do it through Him. So really, when we do something for ourselves, the stakes are higher? All the more reason to live for Him?

~ Church praying together after Sunday service yesterday.

~ A beautiful choir performance by the children at church with both my boys shining at the microphone with their Christmas Bible verses. (Sorry for that brag--I was proud!)

~ All of us enjoying learning more about the Civil War and the years following.

~ Another choir for our girls at the AWANA church on Christmas Eve.

Giving thanks with Ann today.

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