I was recently told the story of someone who, while walking through a park, noticed a homeless person sitting on a bench. The homeless person said in a raspy voice, “Sir, I need to talk to you.” This person instinctively plunged his hand into his pocket, searching for some money to give him. Unable to find more than a spare button, he pulled out his hand and appeared somewhat flummoxed. The homeless person repeated, “I need to talk to you.”
It never occurred to the passerby that this man really just needed to talk. The homeless person introduced himself as Matt and explained that he had been homeless for about six years, that he was a Persian Gulf War veteran, and that he had a wife and son who wanted nothing to do with him.
Lowering his voice to a whisper, Matt finally confessed that he had been contemplating suicide. The passerby could barely choke out words, assuring Matt that his life mattered and that things could turn around for him.
A critical error when dealing with those in need is assuming that we know what they need before understanding what their situation is. This is the fallacy of the welfare state: a problem of knowledge. The welfare state is incapable of challenging the poor or those with an abundance to heal human brokenness because it really doesn’t know what has gone wrong. Certainly, Matt could have used money, but a handout, however generous, would not have made him reconsider jumping off a bridge.
Without actually being willing to suffer, to some extent, with a person in need, the superficial response is all that is available. At the Acton Institute we challenge both clergy and business executives to forgo the quick-fix mentality in favor of understanding the actual needs of those whom Scripture refers to as “the least of these my brethren.” Thank you for providing the financial support that allows us to continue this challenge.
Rev. Robert A. Sirico