One of the greatest handicaps of caring Christians is thinking we know and understand the needs of those living on the margins of society. An honest confession is needed here. We must beware of the tendency to think we understand marginal living and thereby have the “answers” for those in desperate places.
Bible study, sermons, and readings can provide us with an understanding of the Christian mandate to be our brother’s keeper, while worship and a caring church environment can lead to Jesus pricking our hearts to care. However, it is only when we begin to look into the eyes of those living on the margins and listen to their stories that we can begin to know how to respond.
My church was a downtown church encompassed by several impoverished neighborhoods known to the city as the Northwest Quadrant. In an effort to get to know the community in the NWQ, our church forged a relationship with a social worker at the local elementary school. With her help, we invited the community to a series of Saturday morning breakfasts with free childcare. In the school cafeteria, church members ate alongside community members and listened. In several months, as people talked about their hopes, dreams, fears, challenges, and blessings, we all began to see the community differently. The NWQ community realized it had assets and friendships it hadn’t recognized before. The church began to glimpse what it is like to try to manage life from the margins.
Through listening, our church learned that, while food assistance was available through social services, it was greatly inaccessible to residents of the NWQ because of a lack of public transportation in the city. Our church, which resided in the neighborhood, invited social services to shift some of their hours to the church offices on Wednesday. The residents of the NWQ could walk to the church, have their children cared for by the church workers, fill out their paper work and receive their due subsidies. Members of the NWQ community could join the church family for supper and even stay for Bible study.
Through the sharing of stories, we came to understand the community members’ desire to be shown dignity and to be treated with respect. Our church family repented over a lot of judgmental thinking about those on the margins as we listened with our hearts. It is from this posture that miracles occur for both those on the margins and those in the church with hearts pricked toward those who have been marginalized.
What advice/tips/suggestions would you offer congregational leaders who are seeking to add “justice” ministries to already existing “compassion” ministries?
The greatest advice I can give a compassion ministry church who is seeking to add justice ministry to their calling is to match their justice ministries with their compassion ministries. Churches should being to seek to understand the underlying “whys” of their compassion ministries. So often, our compassion ministries treat the visible symptoms of justice issues. For example, poverty is often a symptom of poor education, discrimination, misuse of public funds, re-gentrification policies or illegal loan sharks, and unethical pay for work practices of employers. The causes of hunger, homelessness, and joblessness are many.
The call to justice ministry is the call to address the root causes of the compassion ministries that the churches are doing. Both are important; compassion ministries shouldn’t be neglected in the pursuit of addressing justice issues. Rather, an effective church demonstrates compassion toward those who have endured the brunt of injustice while at the same time seeking to understand and address the root injustices. As the root causes are addressed through justice ministries, the symptoms (addressed by compassion ministries) begin to lessen.