Pitfalls to avoid in Mercy Ministry #2

Dr. David Apple, Director of Mercy Ministry at Tenth Presbyterian Church in Phildelphia, has come up with some helpful guidelines for avoiding con-artists on the street. These tips are especially useful for deacons who are dealing with a lot of requests for financial help. My first response to these pointers was somewhat negative (I thought “Shouldn’t we be less cautious and more generous) but having worked with quite a few homeless/drug addicts in Philadelpia now I understand why David has written these down. Give them some careful consideration but remember that they are guidelines to avoid being taken by con-artists–not reasons to avoid mercy ministry. Some of these need more parsing out and defining (for example the statement”don’t work harder than the person you are ministering to” is somewhat vague. The idea is not to do everything if the person is not wanting help or showing signs of willingness to change). Here is part of the full article:

Do Not be Taken in by the Con Artist. Many people come to me for help in my capacity as ACTS Ministries Director. Ninety-five percent of these men and women I have never seen before (and I have had contact with thousands of homeless and addicted men and women). The word “on the street” is that Tenth Presbyterian Church is an easy mark. Most requests are tyranny of the urgent cries which sound like, “You are my last hope. If you don’t help me I’m going to die.” Some people use “shock” value to turn us to helping them (one person dropped his pants to show me an area which needed medical attention). My job is to discern which needs are legitimate and which are “con jobs.”Over the fifteen years I have served at Tenth Presbyterian Church’s mercy ministry—and years prior to that—I have been “taken” and “conned” by some very good actors and manipulative persons. Because of that I have developed, with the help of others, a list of do’s and don’ts:

1. Do not give money.
2. Do not give money.
3. Do not enter into a conversation with anyone smelling of beer or alcohol or whose eyes are bloodshot or who smells like crack cocaine.

No list of precautions is ever going to replace the element of compassion and judgment which must enter into every decision. I offer these precautions with the hope that my experience might be helpful to you. Be wary of people whose “stories” exhibit the following:

1. Be wary of people who volunteer irrelevant information (e.g., hotel receipts, bus ticket stubs, applications, etc.) in order to bolster a story and create an aura of credibility. One man’s story was that he came to Philly for a job, was mugged and everything stolen—wallet, money, backpack, Nikon camera. He needed to get home in Pittsburgh. Yet that was the exact story of several people.
2. In the same way, be wary of people who offering an abundance of specific details. One person needed a Kerosene heater and wick and had memorized the serial numbers, prices and where they were on sale.
3. Be wary of people who name drop. Seeming familiarity with highly regarded persons, or with persons remotely known to you. One person gave me a song and dance about being referral by one in the church. When I asked who referred him he said, “David Apple.”
4. Be wary of people who forget or being otherwise unable to produce a “key” fact, the missing link necessary to corroborate their story. Someone might say that he is really stressed out because of his circumstances and can’t remember something vitally important. But will say, “You’ve got to believe me.” Why do I?
5. Be wary of people who partially answer questions. Attempts to shift the subject. Seems not to hear key questions. Or mumbles/pretends to have a speech and hearing problem.
6. Be wary of people who place blocks inhibiting the verification of their story. You may hear the phrases, “This is really embarrassing to me,” or “This must be dealt with in absolute confidentiality,” or “Don’t say anything about this to anyone.”
7. Be wary of people who stress the urgency of the request. Someone might say she has to have help now or by 4:00 today or she will suffer in some way.” Others use children as bait.
8. Be wary of people who always manipulate suggested solutions back to their terms. Usually this means that they must have immediate cash and no other solution will do. Once while I was walking to work a man fell in step by step with me and asked for money to buy food. When I offered him my lunch he was quick to tell me of his food allergies. When I offered to go to the neighborhood grocer and buy what he needed he said they didn’t stock what he could eat. So I said, “I guess I can’t help you.”
9. Be wary of people who attempt to produce a sense of guilt in us for doubting their honesty. Crying, tears flowing: How could you not believe me I thought you were a Christian. The church is supposed to help people.
10. Be aware that all drug addicts are pathological liars. They are totally controlled by the god of heroin or cocaine or ice or PCP.
11. Be wary of people who appeal to our desire to play an important role in a significant story. I have been to every church. No one will help me. I know you understand my dilemma and you look like I can trust you to help me. People-pleasers will generally want to “help” rather than have the con artist not like them.Usually people whose needs are legitimate will rarely exhibit any of these characteristics, while con artists will show signs of all or most of them. Ministers and other workers can take some precautions from becoming a victim to the con artist by following these principles:

1. What was rule #1? Don’t give money.
2. Determine what the need is. Is it spiritual? Material? We offer this letter to those who come in off the street:Dear Friend,Thank you for coming to Tenth Presbyterian Church. We welcome you in the name of Jesus Christ. Whoever you are and whatever your life’s experience may be, know that we open our doors to whoever seeks God and the peace he provides through Jesus Christ. Our ministers gladly serve those who come in need. Often they are involved with the needs of others and may not be free to see you when you walk in, but they will set up a time when they are able to. Our ministers can share Scripture, pray and give spiritual counsel. Tenth Church has ministries and groups that may be of further help to you, and the ministers may refer you to them. However, our ministers are not able to provide money, tokens, food, clothing or other physical services. Attached is a list of places which may be able to help with those needs.

3. Seek to set up appointments with people. Those with real needs will return.
4. Don’t act impulsively. Wait. Don’t do anything without thinking. Delay your response. Think about the story. Is it plausible? Does it sound manipulative to you? Do you feel that the requester has an ulterior motive—another use for the money? Also determine what resources are already available to help your guest. Make sure public and private agencies are being good stewards of God’s resources. Don’t duplicate what is out there already. Don’t re-invent the wheel. Provide a Christ-centered alternative.
5. Determine what the person has done to help him/herself in the last day? Week? Month? What resources has he made use of? Why did this person come to you? At this time?
6. Don’t work harder than the person who has come for help. You don’t want to develop another dependency.
7. Remember, “No” is not a dirty word. Most people who come to our church “for help” are drug addicted or need immediate cash for some other illicit purpose. After years of being “soft” we are now up-front with requesters, stating very clearly what we will and will not do.
8. Don’t duplicate services that others provide. Several neighborhood churches had a food and clothing closet. We found that the same people were hitting all the churches and some were selling our food to a grocer to support their drug habits. Since our food and clothing closet was redundant we stopped providing that service.
9. Check with other churches in your area. Have they received similar or identical requests? Con artists usually “make the rounds” going from church to church until someone says “no.”
10. Be wary of people who want to “get out of town.” Transportation tickets can be exchanged for cash even when we ask that they be stamped “non-refundable.” Travelers Aid is the appropriate agency for legitimate requests of this kind.
11. Pursue every means to avoid using cash. Make prior arrangements with local grocers and other merchants to use pre-paid church “vouchers” or use a check made out to the appropriate vender.
12. Learn to say “No.” Practice saying, I’m sorry, I am not able to do that.” By doing so, you will save yourself time (and if you are dealing with a con artist, s/he will appreciate their time not being wasted, too). If the requester knows that your answer is an emphatic “no,” that person will leave.
13. Experience is a great teacher. We want to show compassion. We also want to protect out time, the church’s money and resources, and hold people accountable for their actions. We have learned to do what we do best—becoming involved, providing hospitality and offering hope—so we specialize in that.
14. Try not to rescue people. There are natural consequences to people’s actions. We can’t save people but we can bring people into contact with the savior.
15. Do not take too much responsibility for solving other people’s problems. The Lord has given people a lot of resources to deal with their problem, therefore explore what resources they have and ask the person what they can do to mobilize those resources. Sometimes people get themselves into problem situations because they are acting irresponsibly and want someone to come in and make everything okay. Your job in these cases is to listen graciously and then insist that these people take responsibility for themselves.
16. Remember that you cannot change anyone. That is the business of the Holy Spirit. The only person you can change is you. If your efforts to aid someone appear to be unsuccessful in that he or she has not changed, remember that God is not done working in that person’s life. Mary was a drug addict who attended our Bible studies for ten years. We never saw her cooperate, never saw any fruit. All she wanted from us was material goods. All we got from her was grief. We finally asked her not to come back. A few years later I met her—clean and sober and a new person in Christ. God hadn’t given up.

2 Responses

  1. Nicholas T. Batzig


    I thought they were very helpful. The third one from the top is the most convicting (NO NAME DROPPING) Ha! We’re all in trouble now buddy.

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