Benevolence in a recession: Churches help needy, try to screen out greedy
A young father of three told of losing his job and seeing his family — including a newborn — evicted from their apartment.
The church gave him $700 for temporary housing and car repairs, and the family attended a couple of worship assemblies, elder John Free said.
But then the man began approaching a widow in the congregation for money. The elders became more concerned when they learned of the man’s run-ins with a mechanic and a minister at a different church.
“We have come to the conclusion that we need to be … more thorough and organized in doing background checks,” Free said.
Amid the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, many churches across the nation report increasing cases of strangers seeking help with food, rent and utility payments.
At some congregations, requests for benevolence are up 25 percent or more, a survey by The Christian Chronicle found.
“We are also seeing a comparable increase in the number of members needing assistance,” said Patrick Odum, minister of the Northwest church in Chicago.
Benevolence ministry leaders say they are eager to feed, clothe and house “the least of these” — as Jesus described the less fortunate in Matthew 25.
But determining who is truly needy and not simply greedy can be a challenge.
“While you don’t want to see anyone suffer, especially children, you don’t want to waste the Lord’s money either,” said Diane Stephens, office manager at the Livonia, Mich., church.
That congregation, west of Detroit, offers the poor gift cards to a supermarket that does not sell cigarettes.
Members also support God’s Helping Hands, an area-wide ministry that serves the needy.
Stephens and the congregation’s benevolence ministry leader screen people who show up at the church asking for help.
“We know who the regulars are,” she said. “After a while, you get a feel for those who might be abusing things.”
WHO’S A SCAMMER?
“Repeat customers” are a concern for many churches.
“Those who really need help are generally reluctant to ask,” said Jackie Chesnutt, minister and elder at the Southside church in Rogers, Ark., which provides a free community lunch each Thursday. “Many who are quick to ask for help are generally poor money managers, poor decision makers and have become so dependent on agencies, churches and government that they don’t know how to take steps to help themselves.”
Flooded with requests for food and clothing, the Gateway church in Pensacola, Fla., works with other churches and agencies to monitor who receives aid.
“We have had a lot of repeat customers — folks who were using us and other churches regularly,” minister Danny Dodd said. “While we still will help, we do want to be the best stewards of what we have. We use a company called Charity Tracker which connects us with other churches so that together we can keep up with who is getting aid.”
In 19 years in full-time ministry, Roger Woods said he has observed three main categories of people who seek assistance: the scammer, the opportunistic and the truly needy.
“I believe the scammer to be the least common,” said Woods, minister and elder at the Walled Lake, Mich., church, northwest of Detroit. “The most common are those who are in need but are taking advantage of the system. The truly needy are certainly among us, and we need to help them out.”
Woods stressed: “We have found that the largest part of our benevolence budget has been spent on members of our own church due to job loss, death of a spouse, disability and the like. These are definitely not scammers.”
PRAYERS AND POLICIES
If a family seeks food or shelter, the University church in Abilene, Texas, provides it.
It’s that simple, ministry leader Mel Hailey said.
“There are no loopholes for ignoring the poor,” Hailey said. “It is not my responsibility to do a means test.
“In our community, there is a database where one can check to see if the person requesting help is ‘working the system,’” he added. “This is particularly helpful for rent and utility requests. If we err, we choose to do so on the side of helping.”
Asked how he screens those who express needs, Jack Bower, an elder at the King of Prussia, Pa., church, replied: “I pray for God’s wisdom and grace.”
While acknowledging the power of prayer, the Walled Lake church and other congregations have developed policies — and application forms — aimed at screening out those who prey on churches’ goodwill. Typically, these forms require people to provide documentation such as a pay stub, driver’s license or utility bill to verify their address.
“People give money and food with the expectation that it is given to genuinely needy people,” said Steve Mahoney, minister of the Newark, Del., church.
That church’s car care ministry relies on a form designed to verify that recipients make less than $23,000 a year, secretary Carol Sizemore said. The congregation does not turn away anyone requesting food but limits the use of its pantry to once a month.
“Many of the contributors to our food pantry are brothers and sisters of modest means themselves,” Mahoney said. “But in the end, I’d rather get scammed than turn away someone who really needs help.”
Back in California, the Sunny Hills elders are developing a new application form for benevolence and planning to partner with other charitable organizations to help identify those in need.
“While we want to be helpful to people in need, especially childen who may suffer due to the choices of their parents, we do not want to reinforce irresponsible choices,” Free said.
GO TO CHURCH, GET HELP?
Some churches ask that people expressing a need attend church or participate in a Bible study before receiving help.
“If they won’t come to church, this indicates to me they are not completely genuine,” said Bill Mendenhall, a deacon at the Northside church in Jeffersonville, Ind., which operates a food pantry and helps with utility bills and rent. “On the phone, I guarantee assistance if they will attend with us during our worship assemblies.”
Other ministry leaders caution against tying physical aid to spiritual requirements.
“I don’t think mixing benevolence and evangelism is the best way,” said Don Yelton, local benevolence deacon at the Hendersonville, N.C., church. “I think we should just help the needy because they are needy and then get on with evangelizing our communities through other methods.”
In Fort Worth, Texas, the food bank at the Western Hills church opens from 4 to 7 p.m. each Thursday. Last fall, the church started offering a Bible study at 3 p.m. before the pantry opens, minister Ron Buch said.
While not a requirement to receive aid, showing up for the study allows clients to claim an early place in line.
“We have had two baptisms thus far result from that effort,” Buch said.
Carl Jemison Jr., a retired chemist in charge of benevolence at the Overland Park, Kan., church, oversees a pantry stocked with frozen meat and vegetables. He distributes furniture, appliances and other items, from bicycles to infant car seats.
“There are ways of avoiding being scammed and avoiding being used for personal gain,” said Jemison, who works in the ministry with his wife, Brenda.
Most people in real need don’t mind telling their story, he said.
If they balk at simple questions or repeatedly say, “I’m not lying,” they probably are not being completely truthful, he said.
“Scammers want money,” he said. “People who need something tend to be more specific,” although some want the church’s money for food so they can spend theirs on vices.
For Jemison, the reward is in showing Christ’s love.
“People that we help often say, ‘I have been waiting for a message from God,’” he said. “I tell them, ‘The message is already here. It’s the church. The body of Christ is the answer that is available with a phone call.’”