Recently, a young pastor shared this story with me. He and his congregation studied Vital Signs together over a year ago, and they have been working to balance their inward focus (ministries for the membership) with an outward focus (ministries to the community). He thought the church was doing a really good job, making significant strides toward being in ministry to the homeless in their area. People were organizing food collection drives. A mission fund for ministries to the poor was established, and many people were giving impressively. A few volunteers were working at a local food bank, and a few others at a shelter. The energy and spirit was infectious. People were really proud of their ministry to the poor. Then tragedy struck: A homeless man came to church one Sunday morning!
When the congregation actually confronted a homeless person, they were shocked. No one greeted him. No one sat near him. In fact, a few people moved away. After he came back a couple Sundays — with other homeless people — some regular church members began to stay away. My young pastor friend said that one of the long-reigning matriarchs of the church sat with him, patted him on the hand, and said, “Well, frankly, we were shocked. He wasn’t very clean, and he didn’t dress very nicely, and he smelled bad. We can’t have people like that coming to our church,” she said. “He’ll drive away the good people.” The pastor’s heart was broken. The congregation didn’t want to be in ministry to and with the homeless — they wanted to be in ministry with the idea of ministry to the homeless.
I wish this were an isolated story. We tend to love people in the abstract. We want to love the homeless, the sinners, the poor, the single mothers, but when it comes to welcoming actual living, breathing people — well, then it gets a little dicey. “Those people” aren’t like “us.” “They” make “us” feel strange. “They” are dirty, unsophisticated, crude, pushy, and… uhm, real. Our church doesn’t do well with real.
I spoke with another pastor who said that he was dealing with an unpleasant situation where a long-time church leader admitted he was an alcoholic and was an abusive father and husband. For years, everyone was fine with his leadership, but that now — knowing the “real” story — no one knew how to respond. People were uncomfortable, but it wasn’t really a problem. He was the same man he always was, right? Of course, the choir director who confessed her homosexuality? That was a tragedy. One was acceptable, but one was not.
Where comes grace? How do we reconcile what we believe with who we are? Why condemn one behavior while ignoring another? Why be concerned with people who claim one value, when they live an incompatible one? What’s the real problem here?
For me, it is that we are Christian in the abstract, but not in the concrete. We love people that we are not willing to like. We want to serve those we don’t want to accept. We will be Christ to only those of whom we approve.
“The reality of loving the unlovable,” a young woman pastor recently told me, “is bogus. No one really wants to love drug addicts, poor single females, ex-convicts, and homosexuals. These people are beyond our capacity to love.” She went on to say, “I believe God is love, but don’t push me to prove it through the people in my church. They hate a lot more than they love.”
Is this true? Is this accurate of most United Methodist churches? I pray not, but I wonder. Loving in the abstract is so much easier than loving for real. A test for me is the story of Jasmine and Amber, two young Cuban-American women from the Bronx. This is their story:
I (Jasmine) realized that we were going to die if things didn’t change. We needed something to save us.
(Jasmine was 20 years old with two children from a father who was in prison in New York. Her 18 year old sister had five children from five different men, and was unmarried. The two of them lived with their seven children in a single room 700 square-foot apartment, looking to make a life for themselves and their children.)
I knew that we needed to get our lives together. We needed to clean up, and we knew we needed help. There was a church in the city that had a banner over the door — “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors.” That’s where we decided to go first. We went to church, but it was clear from the moment we got there that they didn’t want us there. (The kids are completely out of control — very loud and very demanding) We tried seven different churches in the Bronx, but none of them were any different. They could not stand having two young women with seven active kids.
After a few weeks of facing disapproval and rejection, Jasmine and Amber took things into their own hands.
We decided to go back to the first church (UM) one more time, to steal a Bible and a song book (hymnal) so that we could learn on our own. None of the churches wanted to help us, but we needed to clean up our lives. We needed God.
The United Methodist Church claims to want to want to help people know God, but apparently it has no interest in people like Jasmine and Amber. Yes, we say we want to help the poor and marginalized — unless of course we have to actually meet them. Heaven help them if they speak differently, or are disruptive, or use curse words, or smell. We’ll help those who deserve it or who meet with our approval or who we like, but let’s not push it too far. Sinners? No way. Those who make us uncomfortable? Not really. Poor people in the abstract are like us, but without money. Starving people are like us but without food. Homeless people? They should be like us, but without a house.
The gospel of Jesus Christ is real, not abstract. The poor, the marginalized, the homeless, the hungry, the mentally challenged — they are who they are, and it is our responsibility to help them… as they are. It does no one any good to romanticize or idealize them. All we can do is love them, and serve them, and meet them where they are. Love must be unconditional. anything less is un-Christian.