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WWII vet arrested for feeding homeless

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Homeless advocate Arnold Abbott, 90, of the nonprofit group Love Thy Neighbor Inc is fingerprinted by a Fort Lauderdale police officer, Wednesday, November 5, 2014, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida (Credit: AP/Lynne Sladky)

Fort Lauderdale, Florida resident Arnold Abbott has been feeding homeless people on the beach for 23 years.  The World War II veteran’s ministry is appropriately titled Love Thy Neighbor.  When city commissioners recently approved tough new restrictions on outdoor feeding programs, they put his ministry in legal jeopardy.  When he continued his beach-side ministry, he was cited for violating the ordinance.

Local businesses claim that the program is bad for business and tourism.  Courts have twice upheld Abbott’s right to continue his ministry.  City officials want to move such homeless programs into houses of worship or private property.  But Love Thy Neighbor wants to continue feeding the homeless near the beach.

In The Dallas Morning News weekly Texas Faith blog, our panel was asked to respond to this issue.  Here’s the question in brief: Is a city ban on feeding the homeless in a public place an infringement on religious freedom?  And here’s my response:

Clearly, a third option is needed.

City officials want to move homeless programs into houses of worship or private property to avoid offending beach-going tourists and inconveniencing businesses.  But what if neighbors of the church or private property object?  How many objectors constitute valid opposition—a hundred?  One?  And why should everyone be able to enjoy the beach except those who are hungry and homeless?

Now the other side: despite objections from businesses and tourists, should an organization be able to feed the homeless on a beach so long as it claims religious motives?  If tourism and business suffer, will the city no longer have revenues to maintain the beach?  Will everyone lose?

City officials don’t need the wisdom of Solomon—a beach is not a baby.  The feeding program has been working for 13 years; they can find a way to make it work again.

We need similar answers here.

According to The Dallas Morning News, the number of chronically homeless in Dallas rose nearly 40 percent last year, while the number of homeless veterans rose from 550 to more than 700.  Confucius noted: “In a country well governed, poverty is something to be ashamed of.  In a country badly governed, wealth is something to be ashamed of.”  Which are we?

We want to avoid what Marvin Olasky calls “the tragedy of American compassion,” hurting people by helping them without changing the conditions that hurt them.  Benjamin Franklin: “I am for doing good to the poor, but I differ in opinion about the means.  I think the best way of doing good to the poor is not making them easy in poverty, but leading or driving them out of it.”

While we should work to change the conditions that create homelessness, we must also care about those we intend to help.  Mother Teresa was right, as usual: “We think sometimes that poverty is only being hungry, naked and homeless.  The poverty of being unwanted, unloved and uncared for is the greatest poverty.”

Jesus came “to proclaim good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18).  Will we join him?