Through the Eyes of Need

I do not know how many years our family participated in the annual Scouting for Food activity in our town, gathering food door to door, taking it to a central location, sorting it, then taking it out to people in need in our town that same day. The last two years we participated in Scouting for Food, we saw the intake decline dramatically.

Our seven living children are adults now, and they were raised in circumstances that were extremely modest. We fed any child that walked through the door of our double-wide, who happened to still be there at mealtime, and there were many through the years. We were not the only family in the small town we lived in who would do this. We were just the largest. We took loaves of fresh bread to the neighbors, delivered cinnamon rolls to people around town after baking, and brought cookies to people we knew. Our children raked leaves and shoveled walks for many of the elderly without pay, carried in groceries for them, and helped them with lifting and cleanup. If a neighbor moved in, they ran out to help tote boxes from the truck to the house. It was a way of life, and one I never really considered to be unique, or fading.

I can feel the change sweeping over our nation. Especially in the last 10-15 years. Our nation is no longer a nation of givers. It is a nation of takers.

Lest anyone be offended, I realize there are people who still give, and generously. I have personally received much from such people. But I also see, as I never have before, that the native generosity of Americans has changed dramatically in the last decade, or little more. Even those who WANT to give, now find it harder and harder to do so.

Recently on Facebook, an article circled regarding statements made by foreigners about what surprised them most in America. One of the comments was expressing surprise that so many Americans gave to charities. That stunned them. Most nations are far more socialistic than the US, and the more socialistic a nation becomes, the less the citizens give to charities, or personally to their neighbors.

The first thing to go, is personal concern for their neighbors. Then they stop giving to charities. Charitable contributions in the US are now on the decline.

For many people, the lack of connection and concern for their neighbors is an outright abdication of responsibility, but for many it isn’t that at all – many of us still WANT to give.

Part of it is simply an inability to SEE need anymore.

The transients that ask for help in the Wal-Mart driveway are obvious. The homeless people under the bridges and pushing shopping carts are also obvious. But to much of America, those things are NOT visible. The majority of America is made up of smaller towns and rural stretches. And you just do not see those things in rural America, or even in small towns or suburbs.

Need is more often private than public. It hides behind the closed doors of homes where only friends and family see. Many people in need now have NO friends or family who ever enter their homes – their friends are all in remote locations. The needs behind those doors are sometimes every bit as dire as the desperate people we pass in the car, whom we feel are NOT our next door neighbors. Our neighbors do not hang their needs in the street or wear them out of doors.

The internet has replaced personal contact. The face we show the world online is not the face we look at in the mirror each evening. The lines of care and worry, framed by bottles of prescriptions from serious illness, the clothing that is worn, the background of a home sparsely furnished or too few blankets on the bed, the absence of a coat, or an empty fridge, the heaps of despairing unpaid bills. These things simply are not visible online.

To see need, you have to BE there. You have to see what is NOT spoken, and what cannot be broadcast to the world at large. Even caring Christians are simply not THERE where need IS much of the time. We WANT to be involved, to give, to help, to lift up and strengthen. But we are simply not THERE enough to SEE.

Life is so busy sometimes, we get stuck in our routine – those routines all vary from person to person, but they contain a common element of focusing on where we are and where we need to be next, and often not seeing beyond that. Sometimes I feel like I am drowning, coming up for air to gasp on Sunday, when I associate with people in my own area, then plunging back under for a week of slog through business and online interaction (necessary for my business). I am as guilty as anyone else of not being THERE during the week, and have had to make a strong effort to just stop and visit one person on the way home each week. I struggle to connect the people in my community with the daily routine apart from Sundays. It makes it difficult for me to see needs – and though my routine is unique, I do not feel that the difficulty in seeing needs IS unique, nor the reasons why it is so hard.

For the last three years, we have lived in need. Great need, due to things we did not cause, and which we could not stop, and which by their very nature have been very difficult to overcome. Many hands reached out to help. But many did not. Kind people, who simply never came close enough to us to even SEE that the clothing they were taking to the Salvation Army was needed by someone they knew, or the working toaster they were trying to find a home for would have been welcome in ours.

Early in our marriage when we had nothing, and at other times of hardship, we have been on the receiving end of great kindness, of all kinds. Much of it unasked – when you have seven kids in the home, people just assume you always need SOMETHING. A lot of it was mentioned by us, because we knew it was SAFE to mention it. Needs were met time and again, by people who knew us and saw our needs. We likewise filled boxes of groceries to deliver to people out of work, bought gift cards to give anonymously to people in need, and handed bags of food to hungry people passing through. But it really HAS changed recently. On both the giving and receiving end. The receiving end is a topic for another day…

America is more “programs” oriented now than even 10 years ago. When needs present, most people do not open their pockets to help, they refer the people to a program. But programs do not meet the majority of needs. They do not see inside the home, inside the heart, and inside the life of a person in need. They are incapable of perceiving the genuine needs, which are sometimes NOT what a program is designed to meet.

Programs, through the government, or charities, are limited, necessarily, by arbitrary rules. They are not designed to see exceptional circumstances, and a massive percentage of people in need ARE exceptions. We were exceptions – deeply in need, no income, no belongings at all, no transportation, no financial reserves. Our need was very real – yet we did not qualify for assistance through the state, through reasons beyond our control. Fortunately, we belong to a church which has a very successful welfare program, and we were able to receive assistance as we worked to get back on our feet. It was only able to meet some of our needs though – important ones, but leaving many things wanting.

I am NOT complaining about having needs unmet – we SURVIVED only because we had help. I am merely illustrating how my eyes were opened to the complexity of meeting the needs of disadvantaged people. No program in the world can do it. Because it has to be PERSONAL, and only individuals can be personal. Programs cannot be personal.

As I have considered the issue, I have come to the conclusion that there is only one real solution. Those who wish to serve the Lord and be the hands that relieve suffering, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, lift up the infirm and comfort the lonely and grieving, must VISIT people, IN THEIR HOMES – the internet is not enough! They must form bonds of genuine friendship and caring. They must learn to see through the eyes of charity – seeing the limitations in the person, seeing the good in them, and wisely aiding them in ways that help them to be uplifted and made better by the help, not just relieved of a burden temporarily. Help that makes someone better in the long term, and which helps them become less dependent on that assistance, is wrought in the workshop of deeply personal relationships.

For us, the needs that were met, were not met by a single person. They were met by many people – a skirt here, shoes there, a computer from someone else. A friend linked our new business website to her websites, and promoted me through her social media network. Two great ladies suggested a place to look for a house when we needed to move. Another friend sold us a used car, for far less than they could have got elsewhere. Two others helped patch a business back together so we again had the ability to build an income. Someone else invited us to work for three days at a flower shop, giving us some income to tide us over a rough spot, and introduced us to another individual who helped my husband apply for a VA grant for job retraining – the only program we qualified for! Several close friends and family members listened to me cry, and encouraged me when things were at their worst. Each person gave a little thing, and the total added up to survival. It had to be personal, in order to even see those things that we needed, and to understand the extent of our needs, and our limitations.

I have looked at the world through the eyes of need, more than once. This time has been by far the hardest. At the same time, it has truly deepened my appreciation for those who HAVE sincerely befriended us. Many could offer nothing to help us but prayer, because that is all they had to share. But they did that.

I do not know if the tide that seems to be turning America inward can be turned, so that we learn to see outside ourselves again, and to see behind the superficial masks that people wear in casual virtual interactions. I don’t know if that is even the goal. Perhaps the only goal is turning it in OURSELVES.

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