How to help those in need

Last week, the ABC ran an article about the Community Development Programme (DCP) of the Australian government. In that article it reported that many people who received funds under this program were slugged with fines for not completing all the jobs and activities required for which they received funding. Around 35,000 people are supported by the program, while since its inception in 2015 more than 340,000 fines have been issued.

The CDP commenced on 1 July 2015 and is the government’s remote employment and community development service, which supports job seekers in remote Australia to build skills, address barriers and contribute to their communities through a range of flexible activities. More information about this program can be found on the government website.

83 per cent of those supported by the program identify as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. ABC reports that they live in regions where unemployment can be as high as 51 per cent. They are required to work 25 hours per week, for about $ 11,20 an hour. 340,000 fines over a total of 35,000 people, that averages about 10 fines per supported person. Some maybe even more, and others less.  That indicates that there must be something wrong. Either with the program itself, or with the administration of the program, or with the motives of those supported.

It is easy, as so often is done in knee-jerk reactions, to point fingers at those who receive the support: they hold up their hands to get money but are not willing to work for it. I can’t judge whether this is true or not, but unless I see unequivocal proof for it, I refuse to believe this. This is for me a matter of the ninth commandment.

It is also easy, as also often happens in same sort of knee-jerk reactions, to blame the government for all that is going wrong. Also that is something I refuse to do, unless there is clear proof. We should not use this sad story as an opportunity to lay blame, either on the government or on indigenous people, or anywhere else.

What I do notice, however, is that this is not the only time that things are going wrong and that complaints are being brought forward about well-intended help given to those in need. And Australia is not the only country where programs to help indigenous people have failed or are burdened by a lot of complaints. I know from experience that the same happened in Canada, and I would not be surprised that the situation is not different in other countries which have to deal with indigenous people. And not only if it comes to indigenous people, also countries which don’t have a specific group of ‘indigenous’ people who need special help, still have certain groups of the weaker in society who cannot make ends meet without the help of society.

The main question here which we do need to address is if the government is the right organisation to address these problems of the poor. Recently, the Australian published an article: ‘Our segregated cities keep rich and poor as far apart as possible’. That teaches us a lot. We have conveniently tasked the governments with the mandate to provide for the poorest among us, so that we don’t have to do it. We can keep them as far away of our rich suburbs as possible and rich and poor in Australia never need to meet or even cross paths. We don’t need to know the poor, we don’t need to see them every day, begging for money. The poor Lazarus is not lying at our gates, as he did in the parable in Luke 16.

The Church is different

Within the church, we believe, that rich and poor live together within the same communion of saints. We have deacons who provide for those who are in need. We look after each other, help out where possible and those who are afflicted by poverty share in the blessings of the rich.

There are some who accuse the Reformed Churches (I mean here the Free Reformed Churches in Australia as well as sister churches in other countries which stand in the same continental Reformed tradition) of focusing only on the middle class. They say that the church is not interested in the poor and is only concerned about people who are of the same standing. However, I don’t believe this is true. We can turn it around: it is thanks to the network of the communion of saints, that those who would otherwise descend into poverty, are now benefiting from the help (financial and other help) of their brothers and sisters, which prevent them from having to live in poor circumstances.

I certainly have seen and worked with families who would have end up in poverty and probably would be living in the poorer suburbs, were it not for the help they received from the communion of saints

In my many years experience in pastoral work, I certainly have seen and worked with families who would have end up in poverty and probably would be living in the poorer suburbs, were it not for the help they received from the communion of saints. Help does not necessarily have to be only money being provided to them by the deacons. I have seen people getting unemployed and unable to find a job, being employed by brothers with their own business, who hired them even though it would economically not always beneficial to their business. I have seen families not being able to manage their own finances, being educated and encouraged by capable members in the church who helped them to get into certain healthy habits of finance managing. I have seen people burdened by debt, not being able to build themselves a better future because of their debts, being helped out, either by deacons or by others. I have seen enough situations which would have ended up in poverty if it were not for the help of the communion of saints. And that within our Reformed communities in different countries and different continents. I strongly believe that being a member of the church and with that part of the communion of saints, helps people to either stay or get out of poverty, and even helps them to get ahead economically, compared to those who are not members. That there are no poor people in the church, is not because the church doesn’t want to associate with poor, but it is because the church is obedient to God’s command (see Deuteronomy 15).

What does the Bible say?

The LORD teaches us in His Word that we shall care about those who are in need. Many of the laws in the Old Testament are about the poor, and their protection. Israel was called to be generous to the poor. Their debts should be cancelled every seven years (Deuteronomy 15). In this same chapter, Israel was told not to harden their hearts for the poor, but to open their hands wide to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever he needs, even if the seventh year of cancelling was coming closer. They should also let their Hebrew brothers or sisters who had to sell themselves as slaves, go free every seventh year. And they should not let them go empty handed.

God constantly directed the attention of Israel to the poor who were dwelling among them.

The prophets in later time in the Old Testament had to prophesy against Israel, because of their sins against the LORD. Several of the psalms speak about God defending the poor (Psalm 12,  Psalm 14, Psalm 22, Psalm 34, Psalm 35, Psalm 40, Psalm 41, Psalm 69, Psalm 72, and many more).  Isaiah prophesies that the people had plundered the poor (Isaiah 3, 10), and that God will defend the poor (Isaiah 11, 14, 25, 26, 29, 32 and more). Also the other prophets mentioned this (Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Amos, Habakkuk, Zechariah). The LORD accused Israel mainly of two things: they committed spiritual adultery by following other gods, and they neglected the poor.

God constantly directed the attention of Israel to the poor who were dwelling among them. Once every three years, the Israelites had to bring their tithes to the gates of their towns, so that the poor could share in their blessings. The other two years they had to take it with them to Jerusalem, to share it with the priests, the Levites and the poor, so that they all could celebrate the feasts of the LORD and share in His blessings.

They dwell in their towns, they lie at their gates. They see them, they hear them, they know them

What is remarkable in all this, is that God speaks about the poor among them. Their own brothers, sisters. They dwell in their towns, they lie at their gates. They see them, they hear them, they know them. There is a personal connection.

Also in the New Testament we see that there was a connection between the giver and the receiver. Alms were given by the rich to the poor, not by transferring it into their bank account or by mediation of governments, but directly. The poor were begging in the gates  and the rich saw them. Within the congregation in Jerusalem, all those who had possessions, sold them and brought the proceeds of it to the apostles, who distributed it according to the needs (Acts 4:32-37). There is a direct connection between the needs and the sale of properties there. In James 2:14-17, James shows that if anyone sees another who is in need, then he has a responsibility towards the one in need, and cannot just say: ‘Depart in peace, be warmed and filled‘.

James 1:26-27 speaks about pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father. That is to visit orphans and widows in their trouble. This visit was intended to encourage them and provide them with help. It is remarkable that James writes here about visiting them and not just giving them money. Here also we see that there is a personal connection between the giver and the receiver.

This personal connection is important to determine what the need is and how to help. The needy don’t fill in a form, preferably online and send it in electronic format to the deacons. The deacons do not, as their response, transfer the money to the needy into their bank account. The deacons will visit the members of the congregation to determine where there is need and what the need is. And if they provide help, they will do it while opening the Word of God and with prayer. Individuals who help out, do it because they know the need.

This, on the other hand, also prevents help from being given to those who are too lazy to work. Those who are able to work have the responsibility to provide for their own needs and that of their families. Paul writes in 2 Thessalonians 3:10, that if anyone will not work, neither shall he eat.

A Better Way

We believe that the government is ordained to restrain the lawlessness of man (article 36 of the Belgic Confession, Romans 13:1-7, 1 Peter 2:13-17). The Bible teaches us that even among God’s own people both in the Old Testament and in the New Testament (1 Corinthians 11:17-22), the poor were being neglected. In the history of the Church, the churches have not always been faithful in their task. And especially in the time after the ‘Enlightenment’, where so many gave up the light of God’s Word and turned away from the church, churches were often not able to look after the poor, other than those among themselves. For several reasons we see that also in recent history the poor were being neglected. Over the past century we see that the task of society is more and more taken over by the government.

However, reports as the one I mentioned at the beginning of this article, show that the government is often not the best institution to provide help in situations where there is need. The government, necessarily, has to work with a format in which one size fits all. Because everyone is different and everyone’s needs are different, this ‘one size fits all’ is often not the most effective way of helping.

The best way forward is not that we start telling the government to back off. The best way is not either that we criticise the government for what goes wrong or point fingers at ‘indigenous people’ and others who live in poverty, as if they are lazy and not willing to work for their money.

The best way forward is that we as Christians, each one of us on our own place, look after those around us who are in need. Help them out, with whatever is needed and whatever we can offer. Whether it is good advice, or with money, food, clothing, or helping them find a job, or whatever we can do for them. Whether these people are church members or not, that should not matter. The church would give a huge testimony to the world if she would were active in this society and shows that she really cares about the well being of those in need. If we care about their spiritual well being and want to preach the gospel to them, then we also care about their material well being and make sure they are able to receive the gospel with joy, instead of being occupied with worries about their daily food.

Does this solve the problems as being described in the beginning of this article? Probably not.  But complaining and pointing fingers don’t do that either. But we do show to the world that we care and want them to share in our blessings, spiritual and material. It does show to the world that the church has a message for our society and should no longer be ignored. Let us start small, and let us pray that under the blessing of the LORD, this may grow out to something big. The Christian church also started small, with the disciples, gathered together in one place, when the Holy Spirit was poured out. And from there it spread rapidly, over the Roman Empire, and beyond. It is not about changing our society in our lifetime. It is about small beginnings, which will change the world in God’s time. Let us all be faithful, each on the place and in the task assigned him or her by God. All to the glory of God.