Friday, May 1, 2009

The heart of faith

Today many Presbyterian bloggers are joining to write about their thoughts and musings about poverty. Go to to read more blogs. The following is my contribution.

The best way I can write a short article about the relationship of the church to issues of poverty is to share a part of my own faith journey.

The seeds of my own call to ordained ministry were planted when my parents moved my family in the mid 70’s from rural Minnesota to live in Inner-City Kansas City, Kansas. My dad took a sabbatical from teaching and worked with my mom as a Volunteer in Mission for the Presbyterian Church for a social service agency in Kansas City called Cross Lines. We lived in Kansas City for almost two years.

An important part of this move was the preaching of our local Presbyterian pastor. He had been encouraging our white, rural congregation to follow Jesus by helping the poor. Our congregation wasn’t ready for his message and subsequently fired him as the pastor. However his preaching touched my parent’s hearts—and they were willing to uproot my family to serve the poor in Kansas City.

Up until that time all I really cared about was the plight of sports stars Harmon Killebrew and Fran Tarkenton. In Inner-City Kansas City I saw and experienced a completely different world—one of visible poverty. My family lived near two housing projects, had to lock our doors at night, and saw dilapidated houses and garbage strewn in the street. I went to school with children who had a different skin color than mine and had to worry about gangs in the school.

What I saw in Kansas City caused me to question why people had to be poor.

My family frequently visited friends of my parents who lived in Johnson County, Kansas, one of the richest counties in the United States. My fourth grade mind couldn’t wrap itself around the concept of why there was so much money in Johnson Country and why there was so little money in the neighborhood where my family lived. I couldn’t understand how people could live so well in Johnson County while so much poverty existed in the neighborhoods where I lived. How could they sleep at night? Why didn’t these people do more to help?

These questions changed the direction of my life.

At the time I believed that the solution to poverty was the abolishment of money. To my young mind this made sense—people who lived in Johnson County had money; the people in my neighborhood didn’t have money—why don’t we abolish money? I wrote letters to my congressman saying that the solution to poverty was the abolishment of money.

I didn’t get very far with that idea—but I came away from my experience in Kansas City with the belief that the solution to poverty partly lies in the hearts of the wealthy. How willing are we willing to help and serve? How great is our compassion and willingness to sacrifice?

I went on to serve as a labor organizer for the United Farm Workers in California and a community organizer for A.C.O.R.N on the south side of Chicago and in low income neighborhoods of Mineapolis/St. Paul. From these experiences I came to believe that poverty can’t be sufficiently addressed unless people who have resources are helping and serving people who don’t have resources. Poverty won’t be sufficiently addressed unless the church plays a leading role in helping, serving, sacrificing, and advocating for justice.

The existence of poverty challenges the heart and compassion of wealthy folks—really the character of our faith. Jesus was very clear in his teaching that when we help those who are hungry, thirsty and without clothes we do it to him. Our willingness to help is a reflection of our own service to Jesus.

A key point—which is often missed in discussions about poverty—is those of us who are wealthy help and serve not only for the benefit of the poor, but for our own benefit. Our willingness to serve is a direct reflection of the compassion and mercy of our own hearts.

I find Jesus’ teaching so powerful and so eternally relevant for the church. We who have means help not only to help the poor. We help and serve so a community is formed between the classes. We who help and serve are changed in the process—and continue to become the people God desires for us to be. We take steps towards becoming complete Christians through our service.

I’ve been involved with many efforts at helping the poor through the church. As a youth director in a Presbyterian church in Long Island I led a Bible Study on justice that led the group to start a soup kitchen. As a pastor in a small town in Minnesota I helped the churches start a Migrant Council. Our town had an influx of Hispanic workers from Texas come in the summer who were largely invisible to the wider community. Our Migrant Council was able to hire a Hispanic social worker who could directly help people.

The church has an unique role to help those who are poor. We can serve and help through education, direct service, financial giving, advocacy, work for justice, mission trips—the list of ways to help and advocate is endless. Our service must always be a reflection of Jesus’ care and compassion. If our help and service is not rooted to his character, then we’ve lost the rich spiritual power of our leader.

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