Wise Compassion

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
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Several Sundays ago, at a church picnic, I noticed a woman sitting by herself, eating at a picnic table. I’d seen her before, at services, always alone and forlorn-looking. We’d just heard a sermon about compassion for needy people, so I filled my paper plate with the good potluck food, and sat down to talk to her. Turns out she was a Christian, seemingly intelligent, but homeless; she’d been sleeping on park benches and was sleep-deprived because she couldn’t relax at night.

I checked with my husband, then suggested we take her home for a meal and bed for the night, making clear that that was all I could offer her. (I told our rector, who had had some conversations with her and was pretty sure she wasn’t “dangerous.” Even so, I had some misgivings.) After picking her up later in the day with about 15 large plastic bags of her “belongings,” I gave her some dinner and spent another hour talking further with her. She refused to give any personal information and seemed highly offended when I suggested several resources for needy people in our town. She clearly had delusional problems.

Before she went to bed in our guest room, I invited her to use our laundry facilities as well as taking a hot shower; but I told her that as we had other guests arriving, I’d have to drop her off back at the church by 11:00 a.m. the next morning.

And that was the difficulty. In the morning the guest room door was locked, she had done no laundry, and didn’t want to leave. She became abusive and was only persuaded to get into my car after we reluctantly said we’d have to call the police if she didn’t.

In the following days, she hung around our church and made further demands whenever she saw me, also calling me at 6:00 a.m. to ask for rides, food, or accommodation. I wasn’t the only one. Many other parishioners offered help, but it turned out she’d exhausted the charity of every church and every other facility in town over several years. I continued to greet her at church, but her response was always to turn her back. I hadn’t given her what she demanded, but I continue to pray for her.

How do we help such people? How do we demonstrate the compassion Christ asks of us without being taken advantage of and further enabling unhealthy behavior? How are we to respond wisely and responsibly in the face of human need? Until we take action, we don’t really know what the cost is. In our church, we are learning to listen for God’s call and search our hearts before making commitments that are hard to live up to. When Jesus offered loving help, he also required accountability from those he healed or blessed. Our rector is now organizing classes to train us in practical ways to reach out to people less fortunate than ourselves, not an easy calling, but one in which we need God’s wisdom and courage.