The note my middle-school daughter brought home from her Sunday school class asked parents to help out with a fund-raiser for the poor. They wanted a $20 donation along with two pairs of gloves for needy children living overseas, the focus of the ministry’s Christmas outreach program. I read the note over and over, struggling to respond. I’d been searching all week at thrift stores for gloves I could afford for my own daughters.
At about the same time, my older daughter brought home a flyer advertising an upcoming youth group ski trip over the Christmas school break. The trip would cost more than $500, and that was twice what I made in one week. I had to tell my daughter (again) that she couldn’t go on the trip with her friends.
It was during this season of our life that we had to stop attending the church’s Wednesday night family dinner. We were simply too poor to afford it. I was barely making enough money to pay for our electricity, water, food, and rent. These back-to-back-to-back experiences forced me to wrestle with a heartbreaking question:
[tweet_box design=”default” float=”none”]Are we too poor to go to this church?[/tweet_box]
The congregation was well-established, made up of families with an average household income north of six figures. But maybe the church we loved was just too rich for us. Maybe our income bracket did not qualify us to participate in the normal life of the congregation. Maybe—despite my love for the people and the sermons and the music and all the creative ways my daughters were learning about Jesus—my duct-taped car just didn’t belong next to all the Mercedes and BMW’s in the parking lot. Maybe the Jesus these people prayed to was different from the Jesus we pleaded with to meet our daily needs.
A Rock and a Hard Place
I called the Christian Education Director to explain my predicament. She insisted that everyone should have enough money to buy two pairs of gloves and give $20 to help out. “After all,” she reminded me, “we’re called to help the poor.” I laughed, then replied, “I am the poor!” I asked if there were other options for my children to participate in church activities—maybe an alternative trip that didn’t cost so much, or another way to contribute to the poor. She sharply answered, “No.”
I felt sad. Because of her life experience, this woman lacked compassion and understanding for what it was like to count every penny, hoping you had enough to make ends meet. How could this church help the poor in a far-away place while simultaneously ignoring my struggling family, with parents who struggled to feed their children week-to-week?
When church is too expensive to attend, it ceases to be church. It’s more like a country club with a cross. [tweet_dis]And when a church loses its sense of how poverty impacts average people, including its regular attenders, it cries out for a new ministry vision.[/tweet_dis]
No, my daughter did not go on the ski trip. My youngest daughter brought a new pair of winter gloves to donate. I bought them with money I saved skipping lunch for a week. And I gave her $5 to contribute to the church outreach—an aunt had sent it to me for Christmas. It wasn’t what the church requested, but it was a big sacrifice for us.
Not long after that, my daughters grew more and more uncomfortable with the economic disparity they noticed between themselves and others in the church. It hurt when their friends, who carried around a seemingly endless supply of discretionary dollars, sometimes laughed when they saw my girls’ hand-me-down outfits, or when they couldn’t join everyone else for pizza after Bible study.
And so, we found another church—one whose members fit our income level better. But every week I missed our church, the rich one with the solid-gold cross mounted in the sanctuary.
Jesus and the Poor
How does your church welcome the poor? It’s good to remember the bar Jesus set for the “rich young ruler.” When the wealthy and self-satisfied young man asked him “what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” Jesus answered: “If you want to be perfect, go and sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me” (Matthew 19:21). The poor were always on Jesus’ mind—he spoke about the impact of poverty dozens of times, and made the needy a focal point for many of his teachings.
The poor matter. And life looks very, very different through the eyes of an economically desperate person.
In a past life, I was also a Director of Christian Education. At our church, the Wednesday night fellowship meal cost $7 a plate—well within the means for our well-to-do congregation. One night, a man on welfare came with his two children. I told him he could eat for whatever he could pay that night. He was so grateful, and decided to start attending our church. But when the pastor of that church heard I’d given the man a discount, he chided me: “We aren’t looking for that kind of church member—it’ll hurt our image.” “Really?” I asked. “Well, that’s the kind of person Jesus wants. Maybe you have the wrong impression of what’s important to him.”
What’s your ministry’s response to “the least of these”? I hope it’s radical hospitality. Maybe it’s time to do an inventory of exactly how much it costs to participate in the life of your group. It’s not a guilt thing—it’s a love thing. Jesus told us to consider that everything we do for “the least of these” is just like doing it for him (Matthew 25:40).
Malinda is a mom of two daughters and a freelance writer living in North Carolina.
In God We Trust
By Joe Marinich
The number is $3,429. According to metrics that measure poverty and assistance qualifications, that’s the smallest number a family of six should make in Ohio per month, or you’re considered poor. I don’t want to be judged and classified by a number, but it does scare me a bit—because it would take me about two months to make that number.
I’m a youth pastor who’s married, has four kids, and lives and works in a rural area. The way my family differs from a lot of families in our situation is that we choose this life. I work and serve where I do because I feel that’s the place I’m supposed to serve. I could go to several other churches in our community and make twice what I make currently—but it’s not about the money…except, of course, it is.
We’ve made other decisions as a family that have compounded our situation. My wife, who has a degree in Early Childhood Education, decided to use her degree to stay at home and raise our children. We felt strongly about going in that direction.
Choosing this type of lifestyle brings a lot of criticism, but it also brings along some collateral damage and casualties. We get pressure from friends and family alike. We’ve had to deal with the struggle of not having any extra money, as well as our mental baggage and insecurities. I understand that some people reading my story may think we’re flat-out wrong to do this—or maybe even think we’re hurting our family under the guise of “God’s will.” Well, I’d like to give you a glimpse into our world, and how we make things work.
Would you be surprised to know that we religiously take a vacation every summer, or that we have a pass to our local museum, zoo, and a local amusement park? No, we’re not professional thieves; we’re just strategic and resourceful—timing is extremely important.
How We Do It
I’d like to explore some of the ways we make it, and offer some tips on how you can alleviate some of the money pressures you face—regardless of your financial situation.
- We agreed that I would be the only one dealing with the bills. I handle any mail we get about them, all the calls we get from collectors, and the juggling act we must go through to pay them. This in no way reflects my wife’s spending habits—in fact, she’s better with saving and spending than I am. The reason we made this decision is that I’m pretty stoic and laid-back; the stress of dealing with the bills would simply make my wife crazy and afraid. So we’re strategic in who pays the bills and who is willing to handle the extra stress. The most important thing to remember is that although my wife doesn’t want to directly be harassed by bill collectors, she does want to be informed.
- The greatest gift we can give our family is time together. Both my wife and I are close with both sets of parents. When we got married our parents and siblings still wanted to buy us Christmas and birthday presents. When people asked about ideas for gifts, we would tell them we wanted a museum pass or a zoo pass. Most local museums and zoos offer family passes for around $150, but the benefit is that it’s a one-time payment. So we think strategically when others ask us for gift ideas, and that translates to unlimited visits to fun places at no charge to us. You may be able to use a tax return, a bonus check, or simply by sacrificing other expenses to get the gifts that keep on giving.
- We seldom eat out. When we do splurge, we’ll head to a restaurant like Applebee’s for half-off appetizers. Did you know that boneless buffalo wings with no sauce and ranch on the side look just like chicken fingers? We also go to certain restaurant chains on certain days, because many offer a “Kids Eat Free” night. Pizza places not only offer coupons, but also a reward system for ordering online or through an app. For example, a few weeks ago we used an offer for one large one-topping pizza, breadsticks, and a two-liter bottle of soda for around $11—we added a sandwich to the order and paid about $18 for dinner. If you’ve ever bought food for six people, you know this is an amazing deal.
- We use the six-to-eight-hour rule for vacations. We live about 40 miles north of Cincinnati, so we can go to Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Gatlinburg, Virginia, and Michigan’s Great Lakes, all within a day’s drive. If you keep the drive to one day, that’s one less hotel room. We went to Pittsburgh one year for vacation and stayed with some friends for a day or two, and not only did it save us money, but they knew some cheap local things we could do. Our friends took us to a local wave pool, which translated to one day of entertainment. Then we took a day and went to the Pittsburgh Zoo/Aquarium, which was free because our Cincinnati Zoo pass offered a reciprocating entry into certain zoos. If you remember, we didn’t even buy our original zoo passes—they were a Christmas gift. We took another day and went to the Pittsburgh Children’s Museum, which has a great art center and a life-sized replica of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Again, the museum entry was free because we had annual passes for the Cincinnati Museum Center (given to us as gifts), and the Pittsburgh museum had a reciprocal arrangement with them. So I bought gas cards ahead of time when I had the money, researched a bunch of information online, paid for hotel stays more than a year in advance, and my wife contacted her friends to set up all of our excursions. We also bought lunchmeat, bread, fruit snacks, and so forth—when we needed to eat lunch we pulled off at a rest stop and had a picnic. Our whole vacation cost less than $500.
- We think DIY. There are many ways to do the things we like and save money at the same time—it simply takes time and effort. For instance, I built a rain barrel out of a trash can, and my wife makes laundry and hand soaps. These projects are both money-saving and fun.
- We plan ahead for future expenses. Some surprises are fun, but financial surprises are not—that’s why we plan ahead for them. Let’s say you get a big tax return, a bonus at work, or some kind of “extra” money at a certain time every year. We look ahead to the upcoming year and set that money aside for those little things we have to pay for, but sometimes forget about. We do this for things like school fees, school pictures, youth sports, oil changes, school clothes, school supplies, shoes, and so forth. These are all little things that are maybe $20 a pop, but if they catch you by surprise, they can cause a lot of stress.
This way of life is challenging, hard, and at times seems unbearable. If you’re like me, you’re constantly fighting insecurity and feelings of worthlessness. I often wrestle with the voices that make me feel like less of a dad, husband, and provider. This can translate over into my spiritual life, which then creates problems with my vocation. But through this wrestling match I’ve learned how to rely on God.
Joe is a longtime youth pastor in Pennsylvania.