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.