Friday, August 12, 2005

What's our purpose?

I had an encounter this morning of the kind that I expect happens to most people at our seminary at some time or another (occasions like this have certainly happened to me before). While walking from my car to my office, I heard a voice calling out that seemed to be directed at me. I turned to see a homeless person some 20 feet away from me talking (apparently to me, although I was never entirely sure until the very end) about how we "can't be training pastors and preachers because [we] don't go out into the world...." The meaning of her words seemed obvious. She wanted something, and we had not given it to her. I did not rectify this situation. In fact, I told her that I didn't think she knew what she was talking about, and returned on my way to my office to the sounds of her reply "I do too know what I'm talking about, because...." The remainder her reply was lost as I walked into the distance.

These encounters always fill me with a bit of guilt, as I do know on some level that she's right. What kind of Christians are we if we do not care for the poor? On the other hand, I firmly believe that the people I work with do care for the poor and work in many varied ways to make a difference.

But I also take offense at the implicit notion that we, because of our status as a seminary, should give handouts to every homeless person who needs it who comes to our campus. The fact is, the city in which I live has a serious homelessness problem, and we have not done anything like enough to resolve the situation. But we simply cannot meet the needs of everyone who comes here looking for help. We do not have the resources.

In fact, I question the assumption that we, as "pastors and preachers" have a special call to help the poor. It is the call of all Christians to help the poor. If Christians, in general, were doing more to stamp out poverty in our local communities, "pastors and preachers" would be getting a lot fewer angry responses from people who've been denied help.

I realize that not everyone will be comfortable helping individual homeless people directly (although I wish more would try). There are plenty of other ways Christians could be fighting for justice. Volunteer at a soup kitchen. Donate to a homeless shelter. Work to help poor people be able to keep their homes, so that fewer people have to become homeless in the first place. Write your congressperson to advocate for living wages and laws that help people who do, in most cases, work very hard to make ends meet (contrary to what some conservatives suggest). A particular organization that's good at advocating for the poor in many various ways is Bread for the World. Check out their web site and find the way to help that works best for you.

One important word: people who try to avoid the problem often quote Jesus in saying "the poor you will always have with you." Very few of them quote the part that comes after it, "and you can help them any time you want." (Mark 14:7. Admittedly, the Matthew 26:11 parallel does not have this portion, but the line that follows in both, "but you will not always have me," makes the context clear) Christians are called to help the poor, not to just "shrug it off" as a problem that's insoluble.

Perhaps I should have done more to help the person who confronted me this morning, despite my feeling that I didn't have the means to do so at the time (I never carry cash with me, and in any event don't think that's the best way to help such people anyway). Perhaps it sounds as though I'm trying to "pass blame" and should be doing more myself. Perhaps anyone who says this is right. While I have been involved in most of the ways to help the poor that I've suggested, I do not doubt that I could do more, somehow. But I strongly feel that many non-Christians are often better than Christians when it comes to working for social justice, and I believe that this is to Christians' shame. God commands us to do better, and it is our responsibility as a whole people, not just as "pastors and preachers," to improve in this area.

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