The familiar ding rang out from my computer, notifying me of a new email. I went to check it and discovered an email money transfer, sent at an unexpected time from a very unexpected source.

The sender’s name was Shelley, a single mother from our congregation who worked three jobs in order to take care of her son. She was always busy, always juggling her work schedules, and desperately trying to spend time with her child while also providing for him financially. It wasn’t easy to do both, and now she was sending me money that she said was specifically for me, not the church.

Shelley was sending us this generous gift because our family had gone through “a series of unfortunate events” that indeed seemed like it was out of a Lemony Snicket novel. During 2018, I had serious medical struggles, suffering 40 seizures over the course of five months. This meant countless specialist appointments and expensive medications, not to mention the pain and uncertainty that accompanied such a dramatic medical issue. My driver’s license was suspended, so my wife also needed to take time off work to drive me to and from these appointments in neighboring cities.

During this time, our town had a major flood, which affected our home and caused tens of thousands of dollars in damage. We lost many of our belongings, including most of our children’s toys. To top things off, our four-year-old son was scheduled to have surgery to remove his tonsils and adenoids.

While I kept pastoring during this time, there was much uncertainty about my ability to continue. Had things gotten any worse, I would have had to resign from my position and apply for social assistance—or, to use the more common but pejorative term, welfare. I know well the prejudice against people on welfare. Not only were doctors and social workers talking to me about the possibility of needing to stop working, but my denominational leaders were also having conversations with me and our church leadership about planning for this possibility. It was all very heavy, like a bad dream come to life.

Mutual aid

We were struggling. They say that we can taste a bit of heaven on earth, but during this season I thought that I had a small taste of hell. Yet it was during all of this that Shelley gave us a financial gift. It didn’t solve all our problems, but it sure did help at a time when we needed it. We had countless gifts of food, time, and childcare from our congregation, but other than one anonymous contribution in the mail (thanks, whoever you are!), Shelley was the only person who helped by offering us a financial gift. And she did it more than once.

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I must admit that I had a hard time accepting it. This was a person our congregation had aided financially several times in emergency situations. Somehow, it felt backward to accept help from her. The more I examined my hesitation, however, the more it became clear that its source could be summed up in one word: pride.

There, I said it, pride—such a nasty little word, a sin of which I was indeed guilty. I’m a pastor, after all, and my entire profession is largely geared around helping others. I am supposed to be the strong one, the one who has it all together. But I didn’t have it all together, and we really needed that kind of help. That incredible need was a large part of my reason for accepting it, even though doing so was a bit uncomfortable. This act of accepting a gift—from someone in need herself—taught me more than I ever could have imagined.

I knew rejecting the gift would be rude and disrespectful. I knew that Shelley felt that the Lord had asked her to make this sacrifice for us, and she was only trying to be obedient. While her gift was an outflowing of love and care for us, it was also an outflowing of her love and care for God. She was, and is, our dear friend, and she helped us out as we had helped her in the past.

Proverbs 17:17 says, “A friend is always loyal, and a brother is born to help in time of need” (NLT). Shelley was taking her call to be our spiritual family seriously, and had I refused her gift, I would have robbed her of the blessing of giving and rejected the very relationship that connected us in the first place. Shelley was being a spiritual sister to us and wanted to help because that is simply what family does, even though the only blood that connects us is the blood of Jesus.

It turns out that having difficulty receiving from others is a remarkably common but devastating problem. Healthy relationships cannot exist in the absence of a willingness both to give and receive. I have come to love the word mutuality. This word implies cooperation, mutual respect, and an acknowledgment of a shared dignity and common purpose.

As we think about poverty, we should take time to ponder what kinds of relationships we have with those whom we seek to serve. Are they one-sided? Are we viewing ourselves as the ones with all the answers or all the resources, and viewing others as helpless victims? Of course, there are times when tragedy strikes and people are truly helpless in that moment. When the floodwaters come, who is powerful enough to make them stop? Yet even then, there is a difference between offering emergency support in a time of crisis and an ongoing one-sided relationship.

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In their book When Helping Hurts, authors Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett make a helpful distinction between emergency aid and development. When disaster strikes, such as a hurricane or tsunami, long-term development issues are largely ignored for the moment, as there is simply a need for emergency medical attention and basic necessities like food, shelter, and clothing. In such circumstances, aid organizations rush in as fast as they can. When it comes to long-term development, however, there is a helpful rule of thumb: “Do not do things for people that they can do for themselves.”

The basic idea is that doing things for people when they are perfectly capable of doing them for themselves is patronizing. Ignoring this rule has resulted in untold amounts of damage all over the world. This is a very useful general principle, even though there are definite exceptions.

Give and take

In my tight-knit church community, one way that love and care is expressed is through food. For Emily and me, the births of our children were relatively easy ones, and in the weeks afterward we were still capable of making food for ourselves, but it certainly was nice when someone brought us a casserole. When one of the men in our community had a knee-replacement surgery, his wife was also still capable of cooking, but we arranged for people to bring food. Why? Because we love each other and want to show that care in a tangible way.

While everyone has at one time or another been the recipient of such hospitality, everyone is also expected to participate as they are able and as needs arise. There is a give-and-take; there is the blessing of giving and the blessing of receiving. It isn’t done in a way that makes the recipient feel inadequate or undignified. It is simply a spiritual family showing love to one another. If you do something for others that they can do for themselves, just be sure that it is done in the context of mutuality and not in a way that makes them feel inferior.

When there is an unwillingness to receive, relationships break down. This kind of pride can even destroy relationships that were once very close. We cannot have a proper relationship with someone if we only give and never receive. That isn’t much of a relationship at all.

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While giving to others shows them that we care enough to sacrifice something for their sake, receiving from others demonstrates that they are more than a project and that they have something of value to offer this world as well. In giving, we participate in the mission of God for the benefit of others. In receiving, others take part in the mission of God for the benefit of us. And in all things, whether giving or receiving, we can together work for the glory to God.

Kevin Wiebe is senior pastor of New Life Christian Fellowship, a Mennonite congregation in Stevenson, Ontario, as well as the creator of Pov.ology, a small-group curriculum on poverty and the church. This article is excerpted from his book Faithful in Small Things: How to Serve the Needy When You’re One of Them (Herald Press). All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Faithful in Small Things: How to Serve the Needy When You're One of Them
Faithful in Small Things: How to Serve the Needy When You're One of Them
Herald Press (VA)
224 pp., 22.16
Buy Faithful in Small Things: How to Serve the Needy When You're One of Them from Amazon