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.
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