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This essay is going to be a bit jarring for some of you.
There are a lot of things we do at churches that would be foreign to the church Jesus started:
- Youth Groups
- Choirs and Bell Choirs
- Men’s Ministry
- Receptionists and Offices
- Robes and Liturgy
- Christian Counseling
- Christian Schools
- Full-time Ministry People
Now please hear me; all of these things can be good things. They’re just not essential to what church is, or Jesus would have at least mentioned that we might try them.
The problem is, glance at that list again and you’ll see that these “markers” have become the very distinctives of church life. We assume that church is about doing them and promoting them.
So here’s a question: Does Jesus want our churches to have food banks?
It seems assumed by all, that charity work is the essential work of the church. But is that true?
Now, before you think that I’m some kind of anti-poor-people wingnut, let me go on record by saying that I believe that it is the responsibility of any society to feed its:
- Widows and Orphans
- Disabled Veterans
I would add children to that list, since children are poor through no fault of their own.
I would also add that there are times of famine throughout the world, and that the Christians have been and should be at the point of the spear in responding. The Apostle Paul gathered an offering for the upcoming famine in Jerusalem.
Able bodied men (and women) should be working. And families should be the first line of defense. Solve the family problem and you solve the hunger problem. Divorce shreds the fabric of extended families and real people fall through the cracks.
It seems obvious to me, also, that most of the panhandlers in our midst (at least in the US) are mentally ill. We used to institutionalize them. I still think we should. For their own good, and out of love for our neighbors who can’t make their own good decisions.
I think it’d be a great idea for you to have a food bank at your church, especially if you feel led by the Lord to do so. We don’t have one. Not out of principle, but because we don’t feel led by God to do so, at least at this point. We work hard to empower single women who were considering abortions, usually because of poverty, to make a path toward sustainable life: http://hisnestingplace.org It’s what we feel called to do and we hope it’s helping.
The truth is, however, that much charity work (giving a man a fish) actually reinforces poverty, rather than teaching a man to fish. Giving to a panhandler (which I sometimes do and can’t explain why) rewards begging. And we all know that begging and more giving to beggars is not the answer to the problem of poverty, so why reinforce it?
I am struck and saddened by the level of obesity of those waiting in food lines in the USA. Many going back home to cable TV. Many of whom smoke while in line. There is a food bank across the street from my house, behind the library, and a bus stop just feet from my door. Much food gets left behind at the bus stop (stuff they decided not to keep). More than you think, as you picture it.
Let’s discuss, as responses to this essay, ways to end poverty. I believe that it is possible. Jesus said “the poor will always be with you,” but not that the poor would always be with us, 20 centuries later. There has been much progress against poverty in my lifetime. Breathtaking progress, to speak the truth.
But it doesn’t come through:
- Wealth redistribution (left wing answer). It ends up being forced, and then fails.
- Rugged individualism (right wing answer). The strong just get stronger and the weak can’t keep up.
It comes through great creativity, the Spirit of God, and relational solutions.
The truth is, poverty is a curse. And people need to be taught out of it. Here are some suggestions, meant to help. Some may work. Some maybe not.
- Teaching children out of poverty mentality and into abundance mentality. Not reinforcing victim mentality. In schools and in churches.
- Providing better public transportation so those who can’t afford cars can get to work.
- Making it harder to get divorced. Divorce compounds poverty. Encouraging people to have babies IN marriages. Not just in church, but in all of our schools.
- Abolishing welfare “as a way of life” for able bodied adults.
- Strengthening extended families and teaching them to care for the “least of these” in their midst.
- Trying to focus your help on those with whom you are willing to go the distance (e.g. the Good Samaritan). You can’t do this with everyone. Quality of aid over quantity.
- Re-establishing public healthy living communities for the mentally ill. Homelessness is expensive! In Canada, it costs $110,000 per year per person (money spent on homeless divided by number of homeless) to care for these people (homeless) who are moving targets. Not sure what the American number is, but it can’t be too different.
- Stop selling lottery tickets, 40 oz beers, etc. in underclass neighborhoods. Redline them if you have to.
- Re-establishing Christian mutual aid (common in NT times). Church members would receive from the offerings when there was need. This kept the giving relational. The Mormons are the only ones still doing it well.
- Incentivize entrepreneurial immigrants (e.g. South Asians) to settle in underclass neighborhoods. This may have done more to help blighted US neighborhood economic development than anything else.
There is great reason for optimism. Poverty is much less a curse than it was a couple of generations ago.
What are some of your ideas?
If you have a food bank, great. But let’s think beyond the foodbank.
Waiting to hear from you…
Was in Old Town Pasadena yesterday and was struck by the wild contrasts.
Homeless people all over the place and lots of upscale shopping (I won’t tell you how much I paid for soap).
The most “popping” contrast was looking at homeless people in the same field of vision as Tiffany’s Jewelry.
I live in downtown Huntington Beach, which has virtually no homeless (we are across the “Orange Curtain” from LA County), so this is not something I see a lot of.
It troubled me and the images continue to haunt my thoughts.
Some questions/statements for your Advent season musings:
1) How can we help the homeless without controlling their mobility and freedom? The easy thing would be to round them up, lock them up, and take care of them. But can we do that in a free society?
2) Do you think that a majority of the homeless are mentally ill? I tend to think so. What does this mean for our assumptions as we try to help?
3) Is human contact and genuinely “showing up” for them helpful, or would they rather we just gave to them?
4) I saw one “operator” collecting cash from several homeless “employees” (a la Oliver and the Artful Dodger). Is this the exception or more widespread than we think?
5) Homeless means “no home.” What if basic shelter were guaranteed? Who should provide it? Churches? Government? Benefactors?
6) Do you feel taken advantage of when you give money and it ends up making things worse (i.e. “give a drunk a drink”)
7) Would Jesus stop and give money to each of them?
8) I am reminded of my Bible teacher at the University of Bonn in Germany, Wolfgang Schrage, who used to go for walks with me through the downtown area. He always had a pocket of 2-DM coins (worth $1.50) which he would hand out while conversing with each homeless person–he knew them all by name. Something was right about that. What are your thoughts?
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The best street ministers I know are the Enoch folks in LA’s skid row. Follow them and support them. They are the real deal.