When my dad was a pastor, I’d spend afternoons in his office playing on his computer, making copies of my hands, and coloring with highlighters. People would occasionally walk in and ask for money for gas, food, or a payphone (at least I think there were payphones still around in 2002). The secretary would point them to the nearest food pantry or homeless shelter, unable to do more than direct them to locations that could provide help.
As a kid, I never understood why the church didn't help everyone who came in. I knew that Jesus called us to help others (see Matthew 25:40), so I didn’t understand why the church wasn't helping those who were asking for it. As an adult, I understand that churches are monetarily limited and have to make difficult decisions as to how to best use the gifts God has given them, but I still believe that Jesus calls the church—the earthly body of believers—to help the poor and the needy.
So, what if your church wants to give help to those who come looking for it? Maybe your town has no food pantry, or your city’s homeless shelters are filled to capacity. Your heart aches for those who need help, and it breaks when you have to turn down a husband trying to feed his wife and children.
The good news is that you can help! Without handing out wads of twenties, you can creatively find ways to give help to those who need it most.
Make goodie help bags
These don’t have to be anything fancy; they just need to include items that are truly useful. Recyclable grocery bags are affordable (usually $1 at your local grocery superstore) and sturdy, so the recipients can use them more than once without the worry of the bag ripping like a plastic sack.
Include food that won’t spoil quickly and can be eaten without a microwave or a can opener:
- Granola bars
- Dry cereal
- Peanut butter
- Trail mix
- Small candy bars/hard candy
- Pop-top fruit cups
- Shelf-safe milk
Besides food, these items are some of the most-needed by homeless people:
- Bottles of water (reusable ones if possible!)
- Toilet paper
- Basic first-aid kit (Band-Aids, alcohol wipes, Neosporin, hand sanitizer, etc.)
If you’re able, put in a gas card or McDonald’s gift card to provide a like-cash gift without the worry of misuse. Ask people to donate new or used Bibles, and include these with a notecard with useful addresses and phone numbers in your area, such as a homeless shelter, food pantry, and your church.
Involve your congregation/youth group
Ask your congregation to sign up to donate items to include in the bags. Make the sign-up specific; ask members to bring “5 tubes of Chap-Stick” or “12 rolls of toilet paper” so they know exactly what they’re bringing. Encourage two people to split an item or bring their own additions—maybe they have a connection to get items that aren’t on your list! Gauge how many supplies are needed by how many people come in asking for help—you want to have enough to last you a few months.
Have a “goodie bag making day” on a Saturday afternoon for a few hours. Enlist the youth group to help (teenagers are always looking for volunteer hours) in addition to members of your congregation. Have a potluck dinner afterward to thank volunteers for their help, and keep them updated on the status of the bags.
If your congregation is small or can’t afford to provide all the supplies you need, put on a fundraiser that’s easy to manage, such as a car wash or rummage sale. The money raised can go towards buying supplies for the goodie bags or gift cards to give out!
Offer to pray for the people who come looking for help—either right then and there or after they leave. Pray that they find additional help, peace, and safety. You can gauge their comfort level and whether it’s appropriate to pray with them in that moment, but you can never underestimate the power of prayer! Keep praying for them.
Of course, there are a multitude of other ways besides goodie bags to help people in your community who are in need. Your church could volunteer at the local soup kitchen or work a shift at the food pantry packing boxes (surprisingly, a fun task if you’re working with friends!). Use your church’s gifts and your members’ unique talents to serve your community’s needs.
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