Kudos to Circuit Rider for the Nov./Dec./Jan. issue focusing on ministry with the poor. So many other voices share my conviction that ministry “with” is our future, rather than ministry “to” or “for” the poor (so I must be right). Of the Four Areas of Focus of The United Methodist Church, poverty and economic injustice may be the key to “the transformation of the world” section of our mission. Over the past decade, I have worked in urban settings from coast to coast, meeting people who feel that there is no place for them in The United Methodist Church. Many of our congregations have a distinct middle class bias.. The poor we may always have with us, but not literally with us. They exist, but they are generally outside our doors. I am always so excited and inspired when I find congregations that not only provide ministry for the poor, but welcome the poor into their midst. I have a strong belief that ministry “for” another group, or “to” another group, is fundamentally inferior to ministry “with” other people. I have been told by some that this is irrational, but have been affirmed by many more that this is a critically important distinction. Interestingly enough, opponents to this idea are usually from inside the church; those who affirm it are from outside the church. No one likes being the target of another’s good intentions. It sets a toxic precedent by making one group beholden to another.
The great thing about our focus to engage in ministry with the poor is that it invites us to reflect on our mission and purpose. “Making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world” sounds so great, so noble. There is nothing in the mission to argue with (apart from who really “makes” disciples — us or God) and it is an elegantly defining task. What is a disciple? How is one made, equipped, and supported? What do disciples do? What do we mean by a “transformed world?” By what process does true transformation occur? No church can say they live this mission without wrestling with these questions. And now, through the kind, helpful guidance of the bishops, we know that poverty is unacceptable in a transformed world. Economic injustice cannot be ignored. Western greed cannot be tolerated. Political squabbles over health care will not be allowed. The rich and the middle class will share with the poor, and we will all work together to bring equity and equality to the whole planet…
Or will we? We really don’t know how to relate to the poor. Money is not the whole story. Often the poor lack education. Sometimes there are mental and emotional deficits as well. Many times there is a different set of core values and expectations. There are often different standards of cleanliness, comportment, civility and social interaction. In short, the poor are different… and United Methodists often don’t like different.
But we can learn. I will use myself as an example instead of picking on poor innocent churches. In 1999, I ended up walking through some of the scariest neighborhoods in East St. Louis. I was uneasy, I was nervous, I was trying so hard to ignore my prejudices and the 1,001 urban myths running through my head. and I am glad I did. I met more people who extended to me real radical hospitality. I have never been better cared for or spoiled than I was in a week of living among the urban poor. I found similar experiences in Harlem, the South Bronx, Atlanta, Memphis, and L.A. In Gary, Indiana I was warned not to walk the streets without the pastor as my chaperone. But even there, the people I met were warm, real, and kind. Were there violent and unpleasant people? Certainly, but it was a smaller percentage of unpleasant people than I meet in most churches. I realized that the poor and marginalized are mainly poor and marginalized because of ignorant people like me. Rarely do people like being poor, and I have yet to find anyone who glories in being marginalized and oppressed. This is one area where The United Methodist Church can make a powerful impact with very little effort. Just doing a little will be so much more than we are already doing, that it can’t help to do great good.
Ministry with the poor is a no-brainer. There is an almost unlimited supply of “the poor.” They exist in every community, within easy reach of every church. There is so much need that every church can find something to do. There is no excuse for any church not to engage in ministry with the poor. This is an amazing opportunity and an excellent goal. Any church can begin to make a positive difference immediately… if it wants to.
Dan, I live in a small town just south of the Pennsylvania state capital of Harrisburg. That is, it used to be small town, but it is fast becoming more urbanized as people flee the inner city for small town life, changing the character of a community where everybody knew everybody else’s business, and now most neighbors are strangers to each other.
I’ve been trying to lead the church where I serve Jesus to connect with the community, particularly “the poor.” In precept and example, I’ve been attempting help the church think and act more inclusively. Their response is simply to send money and give away clothing and food. While important (after all, Jesus did feed 5000), I believe it doesn’t go as far as table fellowship with sinners and outcasts, extending to them the gift of Christian community. It’s as if the “teach a man to fish” adage doesn’t apply to the church somehow.
IMHO, the church’s ministry TO the poor has become an excuse to not do ministry WITH the poor, the “mission projects” become ways to pat ourselves on the back for having done something about the poor without actually having to get our hands dirty in the lives of persons different than ourselves, points you have made so well in your post.
The joy and enrichment God has brought to others less fortunate through me and my wife sharing table fellowship and building relationships is worth it. And if God can use an introvert like me to build relationships with “the poor”, God can use anybody.
The other posts on intercambio sound very close to Bishop Tutu’s understanding of ubuntu. I need to stop treating “the poor” as problems to be fixed and more as persons created in God’s image through whom God also works.
Thanks, Dan, for your comments which resonated so powerfully with me, and for all of your posts which stimulate thoughtful and prayerful consideration.
Dear Dan, those groups of volunteers coming for the purpose of responding in a loving manner to those who struggle or suffer instead of fixing a problem seem to have a much different experience here in Matamoros. The people here and some volunteers call the former an intercambio or interchange. The latter is called a transacion or transaction. I asked for clarification. The intercambio requires a higher order of behavior than a transacion was part of the reply. Further, in the intercambio each person depends on the other, no matter what one’s status happens to be. In the transaction, the one receiving the help depends on the one giving. There is more to it than this, but I thought I would share a part of what I have been told. Peace,larry
Thanks, Larry. This is a fascinating concept… and an interesting distinction. I feel we could do with more intercambio, while offering transacions where appropriate!
Bishop Don Ott used to say the problem with the UMC was there weren’t enough poor people in it so us middle class folks could see what it would be like to work WITH the poor. I totally agree with your statement that ministry should be WITH the poor.