Nervous: Facing Need Head-on


About a million years ago, back when I first started my undergrad degree, I took a public speaking class. It was good for me. I went into it afraid, and came out far more confident in my ability to speak in front of a group. One of the things our professor taught was that you never tell the audience that you’re nervous. “If you’re nervous, they can already tell,” he would say. “And if they can’t tell, you should let them keep that illusion.” He pointed out that once you tell the audience about your nerves, they start to see your nervousness instead of your message.

Rules were made to be broken, right? I’m nervous writing this post. I’ve learned something about myself and I don’t like it. Worse than that, I’m afraid of the consequences of changing. I’m afraid that by telling you and admitting it to God, I’ll be held accountable to change.

You all know that I care deeply about the world’s hungry. I love service projects, volunteering, and supporting great organizations. But hands on, face to face with need, I’m terrified. I like my service projects, volunteering, and support to be clean. I like to pack meals at Feed My Starving Children. I actually enjoy serving in the kitchen during church events. I’m overjoyed to speak to the middle class and church people. I’m happiest doing research and writing about best practices and great organizations here at Food Shelf Friday. But making a small sacrifice here in my safe, clean home is one thing. Coming face to face with need on the streets and the uncertain mental and moral status of individuals feels dangerous and threatening.

We finally gave away our last “blessing bag” this week. J and I enjoyed planning out the bags, shopping for the supplies, and preparing the packages. But handing them out was unnerving. The first bag I handed out was on a busy urban street corner in broad daylight. I was alone. As I approached the intersection where a man stood with a cardboard sign, I realized he would be on my passenger side. I grabbed my purse and put it on my lap, grabbed the bag, and opened the window as I approached.  “Here are some things for you,” I said. He thanked me, and I waved as I pulled away, heart pounding. The second bag went to a man on a highway on-ramp. It was a public but less busy area. Again, I moved my purse away from the window, rolled it open, and handed out the bag. Again, the man thanked me, and again my heart pounded as I pulled away.

Several months passed after that encounter (Minnesota winters aren’t really conducive to street corner begging). I realized a flaw with the blessing bags – they were only helpful if I was in my car and if the people in need were somewhere I could reach from my lane. Most of the time I see people begging when I’m not in my car. After being approached on a light rail train, I realized that I needed something more portable. So I picked up a couple of $10 Subway gift cards. I chose Subway because they offer reasonably healthy food, and because they don’t sell alcohol. If someone wants to sell the gift card and use that cash for alcohol, I can’t stop that, but I feel like this gift card offers something truly useful. I won’t accidently spend the gift cards, as would likely happen with cash, and they’re so portable I can carry them in my phone case at all times.

This past weekend we saw our third blessing bag recipient. This time J was with me, so as I approached the intersection, I instructed him to grab the bag and open his window. He was immediately nervous and flustered. As he handed out the bag and settled back into his seat, I noticed two things. First, I wasn’t nervous. Either the recipient being female, the fact that I wasn’t alone, or the fact that I was the driver and not the hander-outer was apparently enough to keep me from getting nervous. The second thing I noticed is that J was worked up. “That was scary,” he said several times on the way home.

Ok. So apparently it’s not just me. Why do we get scared? I know one thing that worries me is the unknown mental state and motives of the stranger. One day when I was driving home from work, I was spending some time in prayer, and I offered God my willingness to do anything He might call me to do. “…except picking up hitchhikers. I’m sorry Lord, but the only way I will ever let a strange hitchhiker in my car is if he looks exactly like the Jesus of Renaissance art and holds up a sign that says, ‘Hey Karah, this is Jesus, give me a lift.’ And even then, Lord, I’m not sure I could do it.”

I’m afraid because as a woman I have heard stories my whole life (mostly fiction and Dateline-style news drama) about female joggers dragged into the woods and back alley assaults on women out after dark. Jacob Wetterling, Elizabeth Smart, Jacycee Dugard – their stories are part of our collective memory. They scrape away our faith in humanity, our personal security and confidence, and our willingness to “get our hands dirty.” We want the police and missionaries to handle it, and we’ll just take up an offering or hold a supply drive.

Sometimes that’s ok. I don’t want my sweet grandma to start working with bikers or even to answer the phone when scam artists call. I don’t want my teenage son rehabilitating reformed prostitutes (God forgive me for even saying that…). And offerings and supply drives make many amazing ministries possible. Some things are just not appropriate, and some situations need to be handled by people with special training.

But I do not want to be afraid of people. I want boldness and confidence in the God I serve. I want to bless others and not always hide and distance myself from need. I want to learn to love people because God loves them. I want to overcome my nerves because I know that I am called to serve and advocate on behalf of the hungry.

There, I said it.

Do you identify with this discomfort/anxiety? Have you overcome it? What worked for you? Share in the comments!

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