Ministry For and With the Poor

Our society is backwards. We like to drink our $4.25 latte’s that were made by an employee making $9.00 per hour. We like to grab a quick McDonald’s hamburger for $3.99 that was made by an employee making $8.75 per hour. But we don’t want to house the people that serve our needs in our community. We don’t want “those” poor people living next to us. Our lives benefit from the poor and the services they provide, but we don’t want to build affordable housing that meets their needs; because it will “drive down our property values.” 

One of my biggest takeaways from the last few months in my work with finding homes for former residents of America’s Best motel is that a large percentage of vulnerable people work. These people are the working poor and we have left them to be devoured by sharks. Hotel/motels, buy-here pay-here car lots, and check cashing businesses gobble up every hard earned dollar that they can find. 

We, as a society, carry with us a general disdain for the poor. We believe that they are dragging humanity down and that we would be better off without them. We look at them with judgment and condemnation for the perceived choices they have made. We believe that they haven’t applied themselves fully toward earning an income that will sustain them. We believe that they have not given their full attention to their education, which would have helped them “pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” We believe that they should have taken more precautions and not ended up with children out of wedlock. We believe that they should take control of their mental health and not allow it to keep them from finding suitable employment. We believe that they should have spent their money more wisely and not wasted it on alcohol or drugs. We believe that they should work toward their own betterment and that their plight is not our responsibility. 

I can understand that a secular person might come to these conclusions.  What I cannot accept is the idea that a Christian man or woman who takes seriously the words of scripture can maintain such a viewpoint. I cannot and will not accept the views of a Christian man or woman who maintains this perspective in light of the ministry and care that Jesus offered the poor while He was present upon the earth. The Messiah’s ministry is characterized in Isaiah 61:1-3 where it says, 

“The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion—to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. They will be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of his splendor.” 

The Jews believed, based upon the prophecy of Isaiah and others, that when the Messiah came He would bring with Him “good news for the poor.” This good news would contain a healing for people’s broken hearts, a release of prisoners, and the ushering in of a hope and a joy that would overcome despair. Let us remember that Jesus walked into the synagogue in Nazareth (Luke 4:14-21), unrolled the Isaiah scroll containing this very passage of scripture and read it out loud. After reading it, He rolled the scroll back up, gave it to the attendant, and said; “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” 

Jesus was declaring to the religious powers that be that the Messiah was present. Wherever Jesus went from that point on His teachings and example uplifted the plight of those without power, influence, or financial stability. Upon Jesus’ ascension, His followers carried on a ministry to people who were poor and marginalized. In fact, in Matthew 25, Jesus says the way He will be able to determine His followers from the rest of the secular world is by the way in which they treat the “least of these.” The “least of these” are those who are hungry, those who are thirsty, those who are homeless, those who are sick, those who need clothing, and those who are in prison. Our mission field is clearly defined by the parameters set forth by Jesus. Jesus never wastes His time to try to get the religious establishment to recognize their error in interpreting correctly how God meant us to take scripture. Instead, Jesus goes about the work of communicating God’s care to those who feel far from God.   

So, if the Gospel you’ve accepted does not compel you to walk beside the poor, then you might want to reevaluate the example of Jesus. Jesus could have easily spent his time teaching in the synagogue and Temple courts, but He chose to situate Himself next to the poor, the marginalized, and the vulnerable. If we, as the church, are not the good news to the poor, then there is no good news! We must advocate for a conversation with the poor, and not about the poor. 

The other night Tawnya and I went to dinner a Cast Iron Steakhouse, because Emma was working there. As we entered the door I saw a disheveled man exiting the bathroom. This man’s clothes were in tatters. There were several gaping holes in his shirt and the rear-end of his pants were ripped. I asked Emma if he had been eating at a table and she said, “No, he just walked in.” I told her that I’d speak with him. I asked if he was there to meet anyone and he said, “No, just here to use the bathroom, but, I am hungry.” I said, “Great, I’ll buy you dinner.” We walked out on the back patio of the restaurant and had an eye-opening conversation. The morning before we met at Cast Iron, this man had left the Western State Mental Hospital in Kentucky, 179 miles away. He had walked toward Clarksville, IN because he remembered that this was where he was born. He was still wearing his hospital bracelet, had his hospital picture ID, and was wearing his hospital issued “no skid” socks and slide sandals. 

On his journey he had cut across fields. His arms and shirt were scratched and ripped due to walking through briar patches. His pants were ripped, because he was crawling over a barbed-wire fence and had gotten them caught. He had slept the night before in an open field and even had the cockleburs in his hair to prove it. I found out the man’s name and that he had bipolar disorder. I bought him food and got him another set of clothing. I had to question the probability of him leaving the Western State Mental Hospital the morning before and making it 179 miles to the exact location I would be eating at that night. What is the probability of him running into me, the pastor of the church who just made a leap of faith to buy the Haven House? The easy answer is that God put him there that night, to remind me of what our mission is together. Our role is to minister to the “least of these” in whatever way we can.  Sometimes our efforts can only be small, but other times our efforts with the people God places in front of us can change their lives forever. My prayer for us is that we would be open to the ministry to the poor that God has for us, and that we will believe that it is our responsibility as “the” church to meet their needs.

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