Ostrich Chronicles: What We Don’t See about Poverty

Okay, so I am way behind on my blog since the Miley Cyrus/Robin Thicke fiasco. It’s called being a pastor, and the real job occasionally gets in the way of the writing that I really enjoy. (Yes, blogging could be considered part of the job, but not the most important one–so it’s often the first to go).

I read with great interest the articles and commentary about the city of Raleigh, NC’s reaction to groups working to feed the homeless. I knew a few people involved in the Love Wins Ministries flap that brought attention to city laws–both in Raleigh and beyond, even in the state of South Carolina.

For the record, a public outcry has resulted in a change in the law in both Raleigh and Columbia, SC; but there is still plenty of debate about how to deal with the homeless. One of the places where the debate is not being addressed, at least not extensively enough, is in the church.

A number of churches contribute to Love Wins Ministries and other efforts to feed the homeless in Moore Square in Raleigh. But what are those churches doing to address all of the issues of homelessness, or even bring the homeless inside our own doors?

Before we completely throw the governments of various municipalities under the bus, let’s understand the reasons for their actions, as well as ours. Their objective is often to protect citizens, raise revenue, and build business–none of which is helped by an excessively visible homeless population. So they reacted with the tools at their disposal, with regulation designed to make the homeless go away.

Lack of compassion and concern for the “least of these”? Absolutely. But I want to believe (perhaps naively) that they were primarily reacting out of fear and ignorance. They just don’t know what to do about poverty and homelessness.

And before we get sanctimonious and self-righteous, let us admit:  Neither do we.

It’s one thing to box up meals and take them to the homeless. It’s another thing altogether to invite them into our churches, create ministries that open our doors to the poor, and change our budgets to reflect an overwhelming concern for those that Jesus commanded us to reach in Matthew 25:31-46.

In fact, we generally don’t view poverty as a “sexy” topic anymore, as pointed out by one of my favorite bloggers, Jamie the Very Worst Missionary. (The “sexy” was for my wife, who absolutely despises the excessive use of that word in general commentary). We do plenty, but we have failed miserably to make the wholesale changes required of our churches and our lives in order to fully address the poverty in our world.

In other words we’re very much like city councils:  We’re not sure what to do, and we’re afraid of what might be required for us to do it. So our response is to do what we can do and hand out food.

PLEASE do not misunderstand me:  This is an excellent first step! The worst response is no response, so KEEP FEEDING THE POOR AND THE HOMELESS WHEREVER YOU CAN! That meets an immediate, physical need. And sometimes, that’s the best we can do in this place and time. (And yes, you should keep fighting in city council for the right to do this).

The problem is that we cannot stop with that. There are also spiritual, mental, and emotional issues that need to be addressed. Our encounters with poverty and homelessness should not leave us feeling good about what we’ve done, but should instead prompt us to consider:  What more can we do?

This is a much more difficult choice, one that requires much more of us than hauling big pans of mac and cheese to the poor side of town. Very few places are prepared to take on that level of commitment the way that Triune Mercy Center and Love Wins and Metanoia have. (BTW, I love the fact that Love Wins has a tab on their site for “Biscuitgate“!).

But maybe it’s time for us to get prepared to do that. Perhaps we’re being called to take on the hardship of making the poor and the homeless welcome within our walls. Augusta Heights, where I serve, is not “rich” in money or resources or power or influence; but it is in the 1% in love and compassion. Maybe it’s time for us to do even more to allow the poor and homeless to experience that.

Throwing open the doors to people that we do not understand would dramatically change us, and most certainly change the nature of the church. I would say that it’s high time we make that change.

No, we might not reach the prettiest or the wealthiest or–dare I say it?–the “sexiest” with this approach. Then again, we might be surprised at how many people want the challenge of helping others more than the comfort of the status quo church.

The problems of homelessness and poverty seem well beyond the scope of most churches. We don’t have the money for mental health counselors or job trainers or internet access computers–which, by the way, you almost have to have in order to apply for a job.

But we’re never going to have those resources if we don’t start the conversation and begin to assess our priorities. We have to take that inevitable look in the mirror to see what we’re willing to try in order to minister not only to “our people”, but to the people that the city council wants to go away.

Some might argue that this is not our task, and that resources seemingly devoted to self-preservation are critical to reaching out to the needs of others. I’m not convinced of this. I’m more convinced to consider my own skepticism and fear, and what I am willing to give up in order to help others who are afraid of the judgment they may face if they enter the doors of that place we call “God’s House”.

Are we ready to truly be changed to welcome them in, and to do what we can to help others, even beyond their daily bread. The overwhelming grace does not compel us or command us to “fix” the problem. But it does compel us and command us to put ourselves aside, in order to try.

I don’t mean to make this out to be a “no-brainer”, easy decision on the part of churches. It is difficult and risky and challenging, and it requires an unbelievably heightened sense of purpose and commitment. But just because it’s hard doesn’t mean it’s the wrong thing to do.

Our greatest act of worship may be giving up what we see as worship so that others may have the chance to raise their voices to God.

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