On Knowing the Right Words, but Never Doing Anything in the Face of Poverty
For the past 9 months or so, I have been working as a case manager in the city of New Haven. My official title is "Employment Specialist," my job is to work with individuals on welfare to help them to find work and to gain independence and self-suffiency. My job is often demanding and at times rewarding. I love to hear people's stories. More than anything I want to give people a sense of hope that things can be better. They can be better.
At a job like mine, it is easy sometimes to lose focus. To lose sight of the bigger picture. With caseloads in the 150's and numbers needing to be met, it is hard at times to narrow your focus to one individual, one broken person.
I have often heard it said that the church should be providing the response to the issue of poverty. I am familiar with passages such as Matthew 25:35-46 that exhort us to feed, clothe and provide shelter to the poor, reminding us that whatever we do for the least among us we are doing unto the Lord. But it wasn't until recently that I truly understood the nature and extent of the church's responsibility. You see, a government contracted agency like mine will never be able to cure the issue of poverty, joblessness, homelessness, etc. At best, we can try to put a bandaid on a wide gaping wound.
The church holds the key. His name is Jesus. Listen to what Paul writes about Jesus in 2 Corinthians 8:9: "You know the generous grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Though he was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, so that by his poverty he could make you rich." He became poor. He left heaven to take on the form of broken humanity. In Christ, lived "all the fullness of God in a human body" (Col. 2:9-10). And guess what? In us, lives all the fullness of Christ! In the same manner that God left heaven to dwell in a broken world, we are called to leave the bubbles of our church communities and the comfort of our homes to be the hands and feet of Jesus to the poor and destitute among us. It is time we started bringing the riches of the joy, love and hope of Jesus to the broken-hearted, the crushed and the poor of spirit.
Lately, I have been thinking that we have become too good at doing "church." Those of us who grew up in the church know all to well how to do church culture. We know all about the latest Will Reagan album or Bethel hit. We faithfully attend small groups and Sunday services. We are big on doing "community" with other Christians. All these things are wonderful. But do we know the names of our neighbors? I have to say I don't. Where are the broken people in our lives we are pouring into? Who are we sharing the Gospel with? Are we praying for those we come into contact with on a daily basis?
The government will never do a good job of taking care of the poor. It doesn't hold the answer. The people I serve aren't just lacking jobs. They are lacking peace. They are lacking love. They are lacking motivation. They are lacking answers. I can't count the number of people that have emotional breakdowns in my office talking about their anxiety and depression. I can't tell you the number of drug addicted people we serve. I have lost count of the number of people that have told me they had been a victim of domestic violence at one juncture in their life. The people I see don't need a 30 minute meeting with an employment specialist, they need a life support. They need someone to meet them where they are at. They need someone to listen to their story. They need someone to care. They need someone who is willing to get involved in the messiness of their lives. They need someone who will leave their judgmental and condemning glances at the door. They not only need to be told that God loves them, they need to be shown that God loves them. They need to know that someone thinks their worthy of their time and that they are worthy of being invested in.
I am a firm believer that we should never compromise the truth of the Gospel or water down the message of Jesus. I think that sometimes we believe kind actions are enough and that if we can do enough nice things in the name of social justice that we are spreading the Gospel in our own way. This is not true. We need to be meeting the needs of others AND unwaveringly sharing the truth of God's word. We cannot merely tell people that Jesus loves them, without loving people ourselves. I love the way the Message paraphrases the passage found in James 2:14-26, "Dear friends, do you think you'll get anywhere in this if you learn all the right words but never do anything? Does merely talking about faith indicate that a person really has it?" It goes on to say, "I can see some saying, 'Sounds good. You take care of the faith department, I'll handle the works department.' Not so fast. You can no more show me your works apart from your faith than I can show you my faith apart from my works. Faith and works, works and faith, fit together hand in glove."
We can't separate our deeds from our faith, or our faith from our deeds. We are called to allow Christ to live through us. Church, let's stop trusting in the government to do the work that was originally assigned to us. We have been contracted by God.