Surely you have seen the picture to the left, posted by Jennifer Foster on Facebook. Jennifer, a tourist from Arizona, snapped an impromptu photo of an NYPD police officer giving a homeless man, barefoot in the cold, a pair of boots. She posted it on Facebook, and the picture of the policeman’s kindness went viral on the internet. Major newspapers covered the story of this picture.
The officer, Lawrence DePrimo, had no idea he was being photographed. He has been shocked by the attention the picture received. Jennifer is also in law enforcement and shared why she posted it:
It is important, I think, for all of us to remember the real reason we are in this line of work. The reminder this officer gave to our profession in his presentation of human kindness has not been lost on myself or any of the Arizona law enforcement officials with whom this story has been shared.
On the surface, the scene of an officer acting with compassion does warm your heart, especially at this time of year. Yet the hard reality behind the picture reminds us of the need for wisdom in dealing with the poor.
As the link to the story above reveals, one person’s name is missing in the original story that went out. That is the homeless man’s. His name is Jeffrey Hillman. As a follow-up article a week later in The New York Times explains, they went looking for him to see what he thought. When they found him, they discovered a sad fact. Jeffrey was once again barefoot.
Those who work with the poor in an ongoing way would not necessarily be surprised. Jeffrey explained that, though he was thankful for Officer DiPrimo’s generosity, he was hiding the boots. Why? According to him, they were too expensive for him to wear. You see, they would make him a target for robbery and he feared for his life on the streets. That very well may be true. Or, like so many in his situation, perhaps the boots have already been bartered for a fraction of their worth for drugs or money for alcohol. After all, as the article reveals, others have bought him shoes in the past and his family has tried to help him. Jeffrey prefers the streets to dealing with the issues before him, though he did think it unfair his picture was used without compensation to him.
Sadly, this story emphasizes the title of the book When Helping Hurts. Too much of our nation’s work with the poor, from government agencies to church ministries, is fueled by a liberal theology that ignores basic Scriptural truths regarding human nature and God’s kingdom. The resulting misplaced compassion fails to see the true need of souls, results in the waste of vast resources, creates greater dependency, shames the ones supposedly being helped, and further blinds the givers to truth. This type of compassion has more to do with playing Santa Claus than representing Jesus Christ to a broken world.
Why not take the opportunity this story brings to be trained in restorative compassion? For an excellent short message from Brian Fikkert, co-author of the above book, go to How to Help a Beggar. Based on the story from Acts 14 about Paul and Barnabas, where they help not just a shoe-less man but a crippled one, Dr. Fikkert masterfully explains how they did so in such a way as not to further cripple him, those watching, or themselves. Rather, their holistic approach brought forth the kingdom of God in such a way that both body and soul were healed.
For what’s the true secret to helping the poor? As Fikkert says toward the end, “To help a beggar, you must first become a beggar.”