Before receiving our sabbatical this past year, I had not spent more than three weeks at one time in the U.S. since coming to Romania 10 years ago. While I noticed changes on every visit to the States, there is only so much you can see and sense in such a short time. Having the opportunity to spend an 6 months in the U.S. allowed me to get in tune with the deeper changes in American culture.
One of the most obvious changes that I observed was in the church’s attitude towards the poor. When I lived in the U.S. in the 1990s and was becoming aware of what Scripture said about the poor, I felt like I had to convince friends in the church that responding to the hungry, naked and poor is Christian. It seemed to me that serving the poor was seen as a special call for certain individuals or organizations. It was seen as something secondary to or the means for converting people and growing churches, or it was dismissed altogether as liberal or communist. I was deeply encouraged to see that in the various churches that we visited in different parts of the U.S., “caring for the poor” is part of the church’s regular vocabulary and that it is not seen as optional but an inherent task of the church.
Although this represents a fundamental change in the church’s mentality, I still often heard aggravating statements like this: “Make sure you don’t just care for the poor but that you also lead them to Jesus.” While I agree that Christian ministries among the poor should be explicitly Christian and distinguish themselves from non-Christian social work, the prevalence of statements like this seems to show that the church’s turn towards the poor is superficial or partial. There are a few reasons why this disturbs me.
First, it assumes that because our community includes caring for the physical and social aspects of a person that we exclude spiritual aspects. So, the question itself betrays the inquirer’s modernist compartimentalization of a person – a perspective that is not only non-biblical but anti-biblical. Think of Jesus’ feeding of the multitudes, healing bodies and forgiving sins. These actions, for Jesus, were unified not compartimenalized. Likewise, in our community, we seek to minister holistically.
Second, the very question is dehumanizing to those who are already socially and economically marginalized. The question implies that our friends, who are in need, are the objects of ministry. It assumes that it is all right to help them with their needs as long as you tell them how to be saved. But Scripture doesn’t set up these false dichotomies. Rather, we are called to love. We don’t see the beaten, robbed and dying man on the roadside and give him a tract. We tend his wounds and care for him. Why? Because we love. Likewise, we tell the poor the Good News that God has invaded our world and paved a way to salvation. We don’t do this because that is the goal of our ministry but because we love them. And the authenticity of our love can be tested by whether or not we continue to love even when our message and our God is rejected.
It seems to me that the view that separates Christian proclamation from Christian presence can only be held by those who are isolated from relationship with the needy. I have, for example, painful memories of sitting with young children in coma and dying with AIDS. I could hold their hand. I could sing to them and pray for them. But I could not give them the 4 step plan of salvation. If the church’s message of salvation has any traction at all, it must confront and give hope to those suffering from disabilities, disease and hunger.
Lastly, those that are making these statements, asking me to “remember the disembodied souls,” are not saying to those who focus on teaching, evangelistic campaigns, or other media based forms of church activity, “Make sure you remember the poor” (Galatians 2:10). This reveals a lingering mentality that holds a hierarchy of needs and, thereby, values Christian ministries that claim to tell and teach above those that serve and care. But, if feeding the hungry and thirsty, welcoming the stranger and clothing the naked is an inherent part of Jesus’ gospel, then why don’t demand this from all Christian ministries? Somehow it is accepted that we go around telling people how to get saved from sin without caring for those impoverished by our sinful world. James condemns this behavior flatly saying, “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (2:14-17).
Although we may moved further into the realization that the church is called to respond to the poor, we still have much further to go.