Acting as God’s hands in a broken world — that was the theme of one of my pastor’s recent sermons. It got me thinking that here in affluent San Mateo County, it’s easy to forget that there are people who need a helping hand — the woman who was just laid off, an elder who cannot afford utility service, young people aged out of the foster child system and others who are quietly all around us. Even here, there are plenty of people who need a hand up, some over a sustained period.
There are those who would leave all help to faceless government agencies. They are only too happy to leave the least, lost and most vulnerable to the tender mercies of a 9-5 bureaucrat. After all, if one really cares, one can show it by having others pay higher taxes to fund bureaucrats, who then take weeks of vacation, so then hurting people aren’t well served, so they need additional support from caring people, who show it by demanding that the state increase taxes. Right?
In a CNN op-ed, comedian Penn Jillette skewered the idea that requiring others to pay for our “caring” deserves praise. He wrote, “Helping poor and suffering people is compassion. Voting for our government to use guns to give money to help poor and suffering people is immoral self-righteous bullying laziness. People need to be fed, medicated, educated, clothed and sheltered, and if we’re compassionate we’ll help them, but you get no moral credit for forcing other people to do what you think is right.”
That’s not to say that there isn’t a role for government in helping the most vulnerable. Government programs can provide a much-needed basic safety net of support. However, it doesn’t take much investigating to find that the effectiveness of these programs usually starts, and ends, with a floor of services. They rarely provide the personalized help and long-term incentives needed to bring people into the mainstream.
Filling these gaps are local charities and nonprofits, where those who are compassionate can show it through volunteer action, servant leadership and freewill giving. San Mateo County is blessed to have several large organizations providing opportunities for citizens to actively engage in supporting and caring for the marginalized.
For 40 years, Samaritan House has provided services to meet needs for food, clothing, shelter, health care, worker resources and counseling services. InnVision Shelter Network provides a “beyond the bed” model that combines shelter and housing with comprehensive services that enable homeless families and individuals to return to permanent housing and self-sufficiency. And Silicon Valley’s Second Harvest Food Bank is one of the largest food banks in the nation, providing food to more than one quarter of a million people each month.
Moreover, there are other smaller, under the radar, faith-based charities deserving of support as well. Providing more than 5,200 shelter bed nights per year, Home and Hope is an interfaith network providing a safe haven to San Mateo County’s homeless families, breaking the cycle of homelessness, and helping families re-establish long-term self-sufficiency. Its model depends on significant volunteer support from more than 30 houses of worship across the county.
Located in East Palo Alto, New Creation Home Ministries is a comprehensive, Christian ministry serving young mothers and their children, located in East Palo Alto. It offers residential services for homeless mothers and children, weekly parenting classes, bible studies, as well as educational, vocational, emotional and spiritual support services. Many of those they serve were forced out of their previous living situations due to domestic violence, addiction or other issues.
A joint venture of the First Presbyterian and United Methodist churches of Burlingame, the CALL Primrose Center is a nonprofit agency serving the North County. It operates as a drop-in site to assist with emergency direct aid and referrals. Clients include low-income singles, families, seniors and the homeless.
What these organizations, big and small, have in common is an ongoing need for volunteers, donations and active support of the community. They offer opportunities for those who claim to care to show by their actions that they really do. Moreover, they offer opportunities for those who are skeptical of government programs to “walk their talk” and reach out to those in need.
While working together to help those who need it, all sides may find that they have more in common then they think as they act — possibly unwittingly — as God’s hands in a broken world.
John McDowell is a longtime county resident having first moved to San Carlos in 1963. In the intervening years, he has worked as a political volunteer and staff member in local, state and federal government, including time spent as a press secretary on Capitol Hill and in the George W. Bush administration.