"Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?"
The expert in the law replied, "The one who had mercy on him."
Jesus told him, "Go and do likewise."
So who are our neighbors? Sometimes it's hard to see. Sometimes it's easier not to. I know I'm certainly guilty of turning the blind eye to someone in need, or simply becoming so wrapped up in my own life that I just don't have time or energy to pay attention to those around me. We're all unfinished projects in the eyes of God, all of us have room for improvement. But as Christians, our goal should be to become more Christ-like. To see with His eyes, look at the world around us, and have compassion.
Sometimes it's easier to look afar to find those in need (our distant "neighbors"). It's easy to look to the third world and see poverty, hunger, sickness, and war. But one of the greatest lessons I learned during my visit to Honduras when I was in college was that we are all most effective in our own home towns. During that week of rebuilding a damaged Church it became obvious that sure, we brought money and college student man-power, but it was really the Nationals who contributed the most. Why? Obviously because they had a vested interest in the result. The same is true for us. We have a vested interest in what goes on in our own neighborhoods/towns/cities/states/country. I'm not saying that missionaries shouldn't go to the third world, in fact I think more should go. But that's not everyone's calling. However, everyone CAN look around and find those in need wherever they are.
Need some ideas of who you can help? First, PRAY! And then pray some more! I fully believe that if you ask God to show you who needs your help that opportunities will practically fall into your lap.
Second, try asking yourself the question, "Who would Jesus hang out with if He lived where I live?" Jesus hung out with some pretty unsavory individuals. Tax collectors, lepers, invalids, poor, hungry, disadvantaged, you name it. So who are the lepers of your home town? Who are the people who no one else wants to deal with? Who are the ones that get the cold shoulder? What group would most of us prefer to ignore? Or wish would go away? I believe that in every place there are people who live in the edge who are not accepted by the whole. And I think that if Jesus lived where you live, those are the people He'd want to help. In Matthew 9:12 it says, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners."
It's very easy to say that Jesus lived long ago, before there were guns, drugs, etc. True. And I don't think that Jesus wants you to get yourself into a dangerous situation and get yourself killed. Remember, He said mercy, not sacrifice. So be safe about it. He gave us reason for a reason. Use it. It's likely that for every group that needs help there's a non-profit of some sort already established. Work with them, ask what's needed, donate items, time, money, etc. Look at your own family situation and figure out what you are able to do. For us, I don't have a lot of time on my hands, and the time I do have I'm usually stuck at the house with sleeping toddlers. So volunteering somewhere is generally not possible for me, unless there's a way I can bring my kids along. But I certainly can clean out my closet/pantry and give what I can. Other mom's in my position who are crafty might spend nap time knitting hats for preemies in the hospital, or using whatever abilities they have to give to others in need. I've already decided that if I have a surplus of produce from my garden that I intend to give it to the local homeless shelter, which I'm sure they'll appreciate since fresh produce is getting expensive.
I also give to Kiva.org. It's a non-profit that lends money to business owners all over the world. You make a micro-loan (for as little as $25) via their website and choose where your money goes. And then over time as they repay your loan you receive Kiva Credit which you can either cash out or re-lend. I've used Kiva to make loans for 2 years now, and during that time I've helped finance 7 loans. Two of them were unable to pay back due to a war in their home country, but everyone else has. The ones that didn't repay? Frankly, I just hope they're still alive, who cares about the cash! For me this is an easy way for me to give and benefit lots of people over time for a very small contribution on my part. I help the business owner expand and earn a better living, which in turn gives a better life to his/her family, which in turn helps the local economy. I really don't see the downside to that!
When your heart is open to serving it's amazing what opportunities will present themselves. So pray, and listen to that "still small voice". Pay attention to those around you. Is someone you know on bedrest? Do you know someone who's unemployed? These are tough times and there are possibly more people hurting around us than there ever will be during our lifetime. Keep an open heart and open mind, be receptive to what God's leading you to do.