Christ gives us a simple mandate that begins with Matthew 25:31 and continues to the end of that chapter. You want to go to heaven you must serve the poor; feed the hungry, clothe the naked, bring drink to the thirsty, visit the sick and those in prison. Jimmy Dorrell in his book Trolls and Truth: 14 Realities About Today’s Church That We Don’t Want to See states emphatically that those who for whatever reason find themselves living on the streets of our cities do not trust Christians. Simply, Christians do not practice what they preach or what is so clearly stated in the Gospels. Reminds me of what Jesus says in Matthew 23:3, “Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example.” Seems that after a couple thousand years we would learn something.
About 12 or so years ago I purchased a new bible and came across some bible tabs that you could place in your bible to quickly access apologetic doctrinal issues when defending my Roman Catholic faith. Somehow I misplaced that bible a couple of years ago and recently went to replace it. While at the store I came across those same bible tabs and purchased them then spent the next couple of days placing them in their proper place in my bible. When complete I asked myself why? Then I began to ponder if there were bible tabs that would allow one to quickly access scripture compelling us to serve the poor. After a little internet research I came across nothing and began to make tabs of my own and now have a bible full of tabs pointing us to powerful scripture detailing God’s desire and command to serve the poor. I can tell you it is clear and compelling.
I can also tell you that there are two inextricable themes in the Gospels; to evangelize to all nations and to serve the poor. Inextricable meaning they always go together and can never be torn apart. Somehow though, we Christians have separated the two. Some church communities are very effective in evangelization and a very few are effective in serving the poor. I am told that around the end of the 19th century these two inextricable calls were politicized; one being the conservative way (evangelization) and the other being the liberal way (serving the poor). So we Christians began to separate the two calls with the conservative way being the most dominate.
Anecdotally, I have been tracking the finances of churches to see how much of their operating budgets actually go towards serving the poor or social concerns. The results are sad, to say the least. Most budgets allocate MAYBE 5% towards these needs and you would really have to go in to it to discern if this is for direct services to the poor. A lot that I have seen has been around education dealing with social justice. Most of our churches will justify this poor expenditure by saying that they foster ministries within the church community to perform these tasks but my experience is that most of these ministries are poorly funded and poorly managed. The protestant community seems to be responding to this through what they call “missional church plants”; churches being created to serve the poor. Dorrell also recognizes in his book that the church has not been raising up people to move into areas to serve the poor; to live among them as a vocation. I concur! As a Roman Catholic here in Austin serving the homeless now for over ten years I have noticed that there is not one ordained priest or avowed religious serving the homeless full time on the streets. Why is this?
If the call is so clear in the Gospels why do we as Christians struggle at fulfilling this Gospel call? Why do we lift up even in these modern times those whose lives were dedicated to a life of service to the poor yet we don’t aspire to this life ourselves? Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta is a great example. Her life drew worldwide attention to the plight of the poor and her death was mourned worldwide by people of all faiths. The Hindu’s particularly in India revered her. She is on the fast track to be canonized as a Saint.
Perhaps we as Christians here in the United States have so segregated ourselves from the poor that they are barely visible and perhaps only from our locked car windows looking from the inside out. Going back to Jimmy Dorrell’s book he makes another profound comment that the most segregated places on earth are our respective churches on Sunday mornings. Segregated by color, culture, and economics. This is essentially my experience with a few exceptions. However, one place you will find extraordinary diversity is at Church Under the Bridge in Austin, Texas (also in Waco). Here you will find people of virtually every color, every disability and ability, spanning all economic strata’s and representing cultures from around the world. What is truly amazing is the tolerance for this unbelievable melting pot. Have we lost our tolerance in our suburban environments? Bring in 50 homeless folks into most of our suburban churches on any Sunday morning and you may very well have a mutiny brewing amongst the parishioners. Contrast this with the scriptural call to serve the poor; all the poor and most particularly those who are truly despised and outcasts in our communities. How can there be such a contrast between this Gospel call and our response to this call? AND why must we have church under the bridge? Are these beautiful people who like all are made in His image welcome in our real churches? Or is the real church actually under the bridge?
When I give talks to church communities I always talk about this gift to serve the poor given to us by God and how I believe the answer to some of our most pressing social issues like homelessness lies firmly and belongs passionately in our Christian churches. It is a fundamental call. Will we take up this call? I see a lot of prayer directed in this area and I hear a lot of words but I don’t see a lot of action.
In Austin there are approximately 1,000 chronically homeless people living on the streets. There are more than 1,000 Christian churches. What if each community were to adopt just one chronically homeless individual? Be willing to raise money to get this person into affordable, permanent and sustainable housing and be willing to befriend this human and make them a part of the broader church family. To lift this person up off the streets giving them an opportunity to heal from the ravages of living on the streets and help guide them into a purpose filled life. What if?
If the truth is that we Christians are not standing in the gap to this Gospel call are not we better off to know this truth than to create our own version of the truth? In John 8:32 the Lord speaks "you shall know the truth and the truth will set you free". Speaking the truth allows people the opportunity to hear the truth. I say we Christians are failing at this fundamental call. This failure leads to society, much as Jesus did in Matthew 23, calling the Pharisees of the time hypocrites. This is how we are viewed by non Christians and by Christians who are our brothers and sisteres on the streets of our communities; as hypocrites. And you know what, I believe they are right. Practice what you preach and we will believe you, they say. James 2:15-16, If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day and one of you says to hem, "Go in peace, keep warm and eat well," but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it?
Frankly, most of the homeless people I know have a close intimate relationship with God. It is easier for them since they don’t have all that material stuff that typically separates one from God. What they need is for the Church to be an answer to their prayers, not just pray for them. Trust me they are praying hard to be relieved from the extraordinary suffering of homelessness so the question is can we be an answer to their prayers? I too pray in solidarity with them that we will.