Walking a Mile: How We Help Matters

Walking a Mile: How We Help Matters

November 27, 2013 by

Earlier this year First Baptist Church of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., collected 700 pairs of shoes for a local homeless shelter. People came forward and placed their shoes on the altar, with many going home in socks or bare feet.

What an incredible outpouring of generosity from a church working to make a difference in their community. High fives all around.

It’s great to hear stories like this, but sometimes you start to ask questions:

  • That’s a lot of shoes. I wonder if the homeless shelter was equipped to handle the storage and distribution of that many shoes?
  • How would you distribute that many shoes?
  • Did they have the right sizes?
  • What kind of shoes do you buy for a homeless person? Sturdy, comfortable walking shoes for being on your feet all day, or dress shoes to complete an interview outfit?
  • Are shoes really what the shelter needed most? What if instead of shoes, those 700 people donated $20 each. $14,000 could go a long way. Or what if all 700 people volunteered? What does that shelter really need?

I’m not asking these questions to discredit this church or their pastor in any way. They’re simply an example to help us think through this issue. Seeing churches take bold steps like this is exactly what we need to work toward changing the world, but we can’t stop there. A willingness to take action is only the first phase. Just because a church is doing something doesn’t mean it’s always the right something. The next phase requires a refinement of actions, making the most of the efforts. That’s true in marketing and it’s just as true with outreach efforts. One of the first steps to effective action is asking the right questions.

Focusing on the People We Help
We need to make sure our help is actually helpful. It’s something we’re not very good at asking. We’re quick to give a high five and support the cause, but only later do we ask the questions. It’s not just the church either—people are now questioning the effectiveness of causes from the pink ribbons for breast cancer to Tom’s Shoes.

Often the marketing of a cause campaign puts more emphasis on our giving than those receiving. Sometimes efficiency is sacrificed for the sake of greater effectiveness. By focusing on engaging people in a personal way, you can get more people to give. That’s kind of how short-term missions work. Sending a small team to a remote location for a few weeks isn’t a very efficient way to serve, but it can become effective as that small group is mobilized to support the cause.

But the overriding factor in all these efforts needs to be the person receiving our help. We need to care more about serving them than how it feels for us to give.

How to Help
Here are some things your church can do to ensure their “help” is really going to serve those in need in the best way possible:

  • Ask questions. Lots of questions. The best need your church can meet is the most important one, not the need that has the cleverest slogan. Whether it is an organization or individual, find out what is needed most—even if it is not sexy—and work toward fulfilling that need.
  • Walk a mile in their shoes. How would you like to be helped? How would you help a close friend or family member? Are you helping in a way that preserves their dignity and respect?
  • Actions speak louder than words. At the end of the day, actions speak louder than words. What does your church’s action communicate? It isn’t always about reaching the goal, it’s about how you reach it.

Helping During the Holidays
This is especially important as we enter the holiday volunteer season. Many of you may be spending time at shelters and soup kitchens. Take a moment and visit InvisiblePeople.tv and watch how Mark Horvath interacts with the homeless among us. He gets to know them as people. It’s because Mark knows what it’s like to be homeless that he passes out socks, something many homeless people truly need.

The most powerful way to communicate our love for the world is through our actions. The websites, promotional posters and slogans are great, but it’s how we love our neighbor that makes the lasting impression. Let’s make sure our helpfulness fits the need in the best way possible and try to remember what it might be like to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.

Post By:

Eric Dye

Eric is a professional blogger and human rights activist. He spends most of his time as editor-in-chief for ChurchMag and Finding Justice while sipping espresso in Italy.
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5 Responses to “Walking a Mile: How We Help Matters”

  • John
    November 27, 2013

    This is a great post! Sure, we all want to help others but we must put ourselves in the receiver’s shoes (no pun intended!). We need to think “outside-in” to be effective in ministry, business, or writing: consider the “customer” first, then work back towards your goals or focus.

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  • John
    November 27, 2013

    I think this is a fair post but I do think there are some potential pitfalls of this way of thinking if it runs amuck.

    1. It’s slightly different but my experience with church giving is that people who do not give often have developed a series of rationales about why things in the church aren’t being handled right procedurally and so they aren’t comfortable supporting it. My experience is the most generous givers just enjoy the experience of giving. That’s not a vanity and it doesn’t mean they haven’t taken the time to understand the needy. It might actually mean they are less judgmental about the needy, feel that they are not that unlike them.

    2. When my wife and I volunteer and interact with people who would be considered “needy” she is not analytical at all about it and I am more inclined to want to understand more about a person’s needs. Invariably, the recipients of generosity connect much more easily with my wife. I think it’s very easy to slip from “let me walk a mile in your shoes” into condescension. It’s possible that well-meaning inquiry will be silently be received as “listen buddy, the problem is not that my needs are different than yours – it’s simply that you’ve benefited a lot more than I have in life.”

    3. I like how you frame the analytical part as a next step because it addresses one of my pet peeves. We’ve probably all had situations in work or in volunteering where a kick-off meeting is held to launch an initiative and in that meeting one person asks a lot of great questions and makes a lot of great points. Everybody walks away from that meeting chatting about the brilliant observations made. Then meetings two and three happen, and by meeting four people are practically meeting in secret without Mr. Brilliant just to get things moving because somewhere along the way Mr. Brilliant became Mr. “Poke holes in every idea” guy. I think you have to be careful not to let that happen.

    The bottom line is that people who are not overly analytical get a lot done so I applaud your giving credence to that and encouraging the analytical assessment to come along side as a next step.

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  • Mike Jeffries
    December 12, 2013

    Thanks, Eric, for picking up on the story. We were quite surprised that so many in the national media covered our shoe collection. You’ll be glad to know that in advance of this effort we asked all the questions you asked (and many more, much more specific to the unique homeless situation in South Florida.) The way we approached this initiative took into account a deep and lasting approach to a significant issue in our community. What we did was a direct response to the detailed request of the homeless center director. Our partnership with this shelter and the local government agencies is constant and continuous and we have full-time staff (and many volunteers) who make sure this isn’t a once-in-a-while commitment. Fort Lauderdale (not just our church, but the city) is a model of churches and agencies working together to alleviate the injustices of homelessness. Like every church, we don’t do everything right all the time — but this initiative in particular was an example of good intentions and good implementation.

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