As minister I am often asked to help those in need. Often the request is personal, over the phone, or face to face. I receive requests from all kinds of people and groups. And I hear all kinds of stories. Most often the stories of need are true, sometimes they're phoney, but I suspect that the real story would be even a sadder tale to tell than the phoney story. I remember some years ago getting a request for aid from a family from Jainsville, Wisconsin, three adults and a child, a little girl, staying at the Washington Park Motel. I bought them some gas for their car and some food from Kentucky Fried Chicken for a meal. Their story had to do with medical bills, car repair expenses, and the welfare check running out. They wanted to know if I could offer them any more help. I decided to check out their name and address in Jainsville, Wisconsin, through the police, and discovered it was a phoney address, in fact it was a vacant lot. I gave them no more money, but my heart went out to them nonetheless. What a way to live, conning your next dollar and your next meal, day to day, hand to mouth, with a vacant lot for an address.
I try to follow Jesus' admonition to give to whomever asks for help. If they ask again or ask for more than seems reasonable I try to check references and get some confirmation of their story. It's not always possible, and the sources or references may not be that reliable. When that happens, I'll risk one for Jesus and err on the side of excess generosity and compassion. Once I loaned a man who had lived with some friends in Norwell (who I knew), recently laid off work, $200 until he could get another job and get back on his feet. He signed an I.O.U. to the church at his request. I was perfectly willing to let him have the money, no questions asked, because the need was genuine, but he insisted that it be a loan. That was 15 years ago. He moved to Maryland and I never heard from him again. I tore up the I.O.U.
Where do I get the money to help these people? Occasionally it comes out of my own pocket, but most of it comes through my Minister's Emergency Fund. I receive about $200 dollars from the South Scituate First Parish Fund Corporation, and close to $2,000 each year from the Christmas Eve service offering, and some contributions from the Fogg Trust Committee, South Shore Singles, and from individual members and friends of First Parish.
Whom do we help? All sorts and conditions of humanity, individual and collective. I usually consult with the First Parish Service Committee on the expenditure of money from the Ministers Emergency Fund, but the final decision is mine to make. I give a detailed report at the end of the year to the Committee with a complete listing of how the fund was disbursed.
I use the money to help individuals and to respond to collective and organizational emergency requests. In the past year I have paid various utilities bills for three different single mothers, money for food for another single mother, a Star Market Certificate for a welfare mother whose money ran out before her next check had arrived, a subscription to the Boston Herald for an incarcerated prisoner, downpayment for car insurance and a couple of weeks rent for a man recently released from jail, and to help sponsor a Transylvanian student in Romania. Some organizations I have given contributions to include: Church World Service for the Mozambique flood, the First UU Church of L.A. following a church fire, the Salvation Army during the holidays, the Norwell Visiting Nurse, MADD, Project Bread, Oxfam America for its global outreach to the hungry, a UU Church in N.C. to aid with flood relief in that area, Amnesty International for its work with prisoners of conscience around the world, the Southern Poverty Law Center for its Teaching Tolerance program, and the Columbine UU Church to help with the response to the terrible shootings in Littleton, CO. a year ago.
Some clergy make it a rule never to give more than $10 or $25 to anyone regardless of the situation. That will pay no one's rent and will barely buy a meal or two in this day and age. I usually give at least $25, frequently $50 or more, depending on the need. Others make it a cardinal rule never to give help to someone more than once. I don't believe in tying my capacity to help to an unbreakable code. Sometimes repeated help is needed and justified and if the people and situation can be corroborated and confirmed then I consider it important to respond affirmatively.
In particular cases and situations the First Parish Service Committee works very closely with your minister in determining who we can help and how much help we can give. Sometimes the Committee and the Ministers Emergency Fund will split the cost as we did recently with the payment of some hefty utility bills for some single mothers. I can tell you thiswe endeavor to be good stewards of your financial resources and expend the funds at our disposal in a responsible manner. We take seriously the phrase from the affirmation we said this morningthat service is our prayer.