"The glory of God is man fully alive, and the life of man is the vision of God." -St Irenaeus of Lyon

Taking On Poverty

Author’s note: This post is part of a series looking at how the Church responds and relates to poverty.  The series runs mostly on Tuesdays and Saturdays.  Tuesday’s posts consider the issues of poverty more broadly while Saturday’s posts are written primarily to Christian audiences.

I had an interesting conversation with a pastor friend of mine who discussed that “Taking on poverty” has become all of the rage in Christian circles.  Usually, one can blame the latest and greatest book that just came out for the rage.  In this case, “The Hole in our Gospel” is a likely culprit, having won the 2010 Christian book of the year.  I have posted some of my thoughts about the book (4 out of 5 stars).  The general thesis of the book is that Protestant churches in America should be doing more to take on poverty [I restrict my observation to Protestant churches because there is no mention of the presence or absence Catholic and Orthodox witness around this topic] so, almost on cue, Protestant pastors have decided to “take on poverty.”

My pastor friend always asks people who say they are taking on poverty one question: What are you doing?

The Church’s response to poverty requires some sort of action to be a response.  To respond by praying requires the use of a verb: “pray”  When you pray, you do something.  But generally, a response to poverty invites more than prayer as St James (2:15-17) writes:

If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.

The material nature of poverty invites direct and engaged response of some form.  But it is so much easier to talk about poverty while drinking $5 lattes at Starbucks.  Somewhere the conversation and the venue reveal the disconnect.

We can maintain the disconnect by consistently defining poverty as being in a place other than where we find ourselves.  After all, is not America a rich nation?  Or are there places in your community you just do not go because they are clearly places where the poor in your community live?  Do you know of structures in your own community either supporting people as they leave poverty or preserving poverty?  Have you taken a good, long look at your own community to see where you can offer the most?

Also, the often-forgotten step: have you taken a good, long look at yourself in an attempt to face your own Poverty?

Additionally, are you seeking to respond to poverty because it is yet another “right thing to do” as a Christian?  Or do you seek ways to make yourself present to others in relationships?

Increasingly, it seems to me that responding to poverty requires asking God to open the door of His heart to you so that you can see a way to make an practical, enacted difference in the life of another human being.  Christ distributes Himself to all who are willing to receive Him according to the individual need of each.  He knows our needs before we even ask.  But we try to “take on poverty” without looking for real, practical ways to make small differences in the lives of people in our community?

Working within your own community, fully aware of the limits on your time and talents, to respond and relate to those in poverty can plant a seed of faithfulness, whether you volunteer an hour at a library in a poor community, support the work of your local food bank, or familiarize yourself with the work of organizations serving your local homeless.  People might scoff at your answer of “What are you doing?” but Christ’s willingness to enter the world after developing from a single cell in utero shows us His willingness to let the small things grow.  As we prayerfully engage with one small challenge in our local community, then we may see greater doors open.  Yet, I have to wonder if our goal should be seeking Christ among the relatively small amount of people we can serve rather than a constant obsession of always scaling up.

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