Do you know who Barley MacTavish is? I’ll be honest, the name was unfamiliar to me until I saw it in an article from the Midland Daily News the other day. Barley MacTavish, as it turns out, is not the name of a real person. Instead, the Barley MacTavish Fund seeks to help people from Midland County with their financial needs. This fund is supported by anonymous private individuals, and the names of all applications for financial support are kept anonymous, too.
Last week’s article in the Midland Daily News gave an example of the kind of letter that Barley MacTavish often receives:
“Dear Barley, I have contacted a number of churches to aid me, but they cannot help for a number of reasons. My neighbor suggested that I write to you with my request. I am a single woman and am disabled. I live on a fixed income. All of my family members have passed, so I do not have any relatives to count on. My biggest concern is with my well pump. […]”
Read that first sentence again. Read it a couple of times.
People contact churches for financial help all the time. Here at Mt. Haley, we usually get one or two phone calls a month from people who are asking for help to pay a propane bill, prevent an electric shutoff, or cover the cost of a hotel room and a meal. I welcome these calls, and I make a point to empathize with the life situations facing the folks who call for help. I usually ask about what other resources they have explored for help so far. Often, they say they have called 211, which usually has told them to call area churches for help. But the churches they’ve called either don’t help at all or have an application/interview process they have to go through. Occasionally someone will tell me they have had some success receiving help from a few different churches in the area – occasionally, but not often.
“I have contacted a number of churches to aid me, but they cannot help for a number of reasons.”
There are lots of reasons why a church might not help people. Maybe the church has been “burned” by people in the past – they’ve offered help but that help has somehow been misused or abused by its recipient. Maybe the church has given help with strings attached – “we’ll help you if you come to our service!” – and that has resulted in no help given at all. Maybe the church only helps people in its immediate community. (Did you know that’s how our congregation used to function? Our benevolence was essentially limited to people who lived within Mt. Haley Township.)
Something about this strikes me the wrong way. We are supposed to be the hands and feet of Jesus in our community. But if we make a habit of refusing to help people when they are in need, we are doing something wrong. Can you imagine people saying, “I have contacted Jesus to help me, but he cannot help for a number of reasons”? Yeah, me neither.
From beginning to end, scripture calls the people of God to live generously, with open hands and open hearts. Jesus himself instructed us to “give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you” (Matthew 5:42 NIV). James gives a powerful example: “Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, ‘Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it?” (James 2:15-16 NIV). Our faith in God is shown to be real through the way we serve people in need. That’s one huge reason why “acts of service in Jesus’s name” is one of our goals as a congregation this year.
Our congregation has money set aside in our budget for showing this kind of mercy to people. We contribute $50 to whatever situation people are facing, without any requirements about where they live or what they do for us in return. We do our best to pay the vendor directly (Consumers Energy, the propane company, the hospital, the hotel, etc.) whenever possible. And we do this to let people know that God loves them, that we love them, and that they are not alone.
Churches need to do a better job of helping people in need. I’m thankful for Barley MacTavish, but I hope that people’s letters to Barley start having a different flavor to them:
“I have contacted a number of churches to help me, and they have helped a lot, but I am still coming up short. Can you help too?”
(If you would like to make a donation to the Barley MacTavish Fund, or if you want to request assistance, you can write to Barley care of the Midland Area Community Foundation, 76 Ashman Circle, Midland, MI 48640 or call 989-839-9661.)