The Church and the Poor in Our Midst

My post on Monday, regarding the politics of cutting the federal budget and the dangers of these cuts harming the poor in the process of attempting to balance our federal budget, struck a nerve. For this I am grateful. I have continued to reflect on several comments and responses, from both this site and my Facebook page.

images One person wrote on Facebook: “As a Pastor in the U.S. I can state, unequivocally , that if the care of the poor were given to the church in it's present state the poor would cease to exist as a class in one year. They would starve to death the first Summer and freeze to death the first Winter.”

There is a note of cynicism in this comment but it makes the point. People often say, “Let the church help the poor.” I want to ask, “Which churches and how will they do this on such a massive scale?” Show me the way this works and how it would help right now?

The same Facebook friend later added: “Many leaders in my church believe the poor are poor because they are lazy, addicted, you fill in the blank. Unfortunately I believe this condition is prevalent in most churches across the US.”

I completely agree with both of these comments. In fact these comments, and others like them, prompted me to think further about this issue.

When I flew home from Rome in March I sat with a brother from South India. He was coming to the US for a job interview. We talked about his job, his family, his dreams, his ideas about America, etc. After hours of talking I asked him, “The large evangelical church that you attend in the south of India, do you have the genuinely poor in your congregation and are they a part of the regular ministry of your church? Do they actually sit by your family week-by-week and do you really know poor Christians personally?” He answered in the affirmative. I then told him, “Do not expect to find a church in the suburbs of Chicago where this will be true.” And if he found it in the city it would be rare, though more likely in some areas.

I’ve thought about that conversation quite often since March.  At least in the broad sense it is clearly the truth. We have many large evangelical churches with full-service operations (all within a few miles of my home) but I know of only one nearby church of 400-plus worshipers where week-by-week there are quite a few poor people actively attending and sitting in the congregation.

Now I know more than a few churches who give food away and offer modest financial and social help to the poor. But I know none where the poor have a significant role in the life and mission of their church. They do not serve on committees, boards or in leadership.

James 1:26-27 plainly says heart religion that is “pure and undefiled” includes “visiting orphans and widows in their trouble.” Faithful Christians are called to be the guardians of the poor. In this first century Roman context the poorest and weakest were women without husbands and their (often starving) children. (This is still so today, with single mothers being a high percentage of the truly poor in modern society!) Ignatius of Antioch said, “Do not let the widows be neglected; after the Lord, you must be their guardian.” Whether a woman is a widow because of her husband’s death or because of his abandonment of the family it does not matter. She is single, poor and has children in need!

The same Epistle of James urges the “lowly brother to glory in his exaltation” (James 1:9). Those who have the least here on earth will often have then most in the Kingdom of heaven (see James 2:5; Matthew 5:3 and Luke 1:52). In James 2 the writer adds, “Has God not chosen the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which he proclaimed to those who love Him?” (v. 5). The point seems to be that the poor are more likely to repent and renounce this world for the sake of the kingdom!

But the portion of James that has always caught my attention in this regard did so once again as I reflected on this issue of the poor and our social networks that were designed to help them cope in the wealthiest society in human history. James writes: “For example, suppose someone comes into your meeting [church] dressed in fancy clothes and expensive jewelry, and another comes in who is poor and dressed in dirty clothes. If you give special attention and a good seat to the rich person, but you say to the poor one, ‘You can stand over there, or else sit on the floor’ – well, doesn’t this discrimination show that your judgments are guided by evil motives?”

The reference here to clothes is clearly intended to reveal a sharp contrast in socioeconomic status. It is a natural, normal, human thing to give special preference to those whose social status, political power and potential generosity is very evident. By making those of means our priority we can gain the economic benefits we desire (need). But discrimination here reveals our “evil motives” in many cases. Following this warning is the aforementioned verse 5 about God choosing the poor to be rich in faith.

The Old Testament is filled with expressions of God’s compassion for the poor, the alien and the stranger. Jesus picks these themes up and demonstrates them in his mission. He incarnates God’s love of the poor (Luke 4:18; 6:20) and even speaks of those who love the poor as loving and serving him. “If you have done it unto the least of these . . . you have done it to me.”

The problem we have is that we live in a world where “millions of people enjoy a standard of material wealth that few kings and queens could match” (Newbigin) prior to the last hundred years or so. As a result of increased wealth the way that we interpret the biblical teaching on poverty has increasingly been spiritualized and interpreted metaphorically. The “poor” are the “poor in spirit” thus they are those who recognize their utter dependence upon God. In this sense the rich can be poor. So we slowly moved away from the biblical message about the poor.

Now we are a wealthy society on the brink of huge monetary chaos. We surely need to solve some very big problems. Christians are often at the forefront of making the most noise about how to solve the problem by radical budget cutting. I believe we should urge the Congress and the President to find effective ways to solve our debt problem. What I was saying on  Monday was clear and straightforward – we cannot, or should not, solve the debt problem by balancing the budget in a way that directly harms the genuinely poor who need our help more than ever.

Earlier, I quoted a Facebook response to my Monday post in which the writer notes that many of us believe, “the poor are poor because they are lazy, addicted, you fill in the blank.” I am profoundly convinced that this observation is true. I know people scam the system and often are those who live debauched and immoral lives. They use the provisions of our federal and state system to draw income they should not receive. This calls for further reform. But this illustration, though clearly true, is far less true than it was before the Clinton era reform of welfare in the 1990s! But such stereotypes only need one or two human faces to support a conclusion about the evils of government aid to the genuinely needy.

The strongest evidence says that most of the poor are poor because of the cycle of poverty, the lack of basic job skills, the presence of drugs, the impact of bad schools, etc. But one of the unseen, and rarely spoken about, reasons is mental illness. The poor have little or no access to mental health care. The result is that many studies now estimate that the vast majority of the poor (an increasingly large numbers are military veterans) suffer from treatable illnesses.

Let me provide one illustration that I know firsthand. I have a diagnosed case of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS). I have written about it here on several previous occasions. I get what medical treatment I can, which is minimal but it does help. At one time this strange illness was rather cruelly called “The Yuppie Flu.” Why? Because the patients that the doctors saw, and this was before we even knew this was a viral illness, saw the symptoms only in people who fit the category of yuppies. The assumption was that no one who was poor had this illness. This myth was long ago shattered. The real problem is now recognized – many poor people suffer from the CFS but cannot get a proper diagnosis, much less care or treatment. They feel overwhelmingly tired, un-refreshed by sleep and “flu-like” all the time. They assume that this is normal since this is what they’ve known for years and they cannot go to the ER for CFS treatment. If they did they would get no help!

I am not a proponent of the specific type of health care program passed by Congress in a more recent moment of euphoria. But I do believe we can do much better for the poor if we had the will to do right. I believe our stereotypes and misplaced values have caused us to lose our way as a society and the resulting budget debates will likely harm the poor more than ever. This is why I look at all the talk about budget cuts, and the promises to slash government spending, much more carefully than I did a few years ago. Then I comfortably refused to notice the poor and needy who are all around me.

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