I’m happy to say my book of meditations on scriptures addressing poverty will be published in the near future.
Belize me when I tell you, dear reader, that you’ll probably tire of my shameless promotion of it when the time comes.
Meanwhile, here are random thoughts about how to attack poverty–or NOT attack it.
The great St. Augustine is remembered for his powerful writings and his eternal impact on theology and church tradition.
He’s not especially remembered as a fierce advocate for the poor, but should be.
In researching my book I read some of “Life of Augustine” (not exactly a beach read) by his close friend of 40 years and fellow Bishop Possidius, who said Augustine “never forgot his companions in poverty.”
“When the [charity] funds of the Church gave out, Augustine announced this to his flock, telling them that he had nothing to bestow upon those in need. It even happened that he ordered the holy vessels of the church to be broken up and melted down, and the proceeds distributed for the benefit of captives and of as many of the poor people as possible.”
Wow! Think about that. The great Bishop Augustine ordered the holy vessels of the Church to be melted down to give to the poor.
So what would your reaction be if your pastor or bishop proposed something even half (or maybe a fraction) as wildly radical as melting down sacred church objects out of love and concern for the poor?
* * *
Now, with all that said, Augustine’s approach to charity is not a realistic model for Christianity today. Augustine was prone to giving handouts–and let me say yes and a thousand times yes: there is a definite need for a certain amount of generous, charitable giving right out of one’s pocket or a church’s treasury. Immediate needs have to be met some way, somehow.
But we all know handing out a buck or 20 to every beggar you see isn’t the most effective way of (to borrow a term from capitalism) lifting everybody’s boat.
I’ve lived in the San Ignacio area in Third World Belize for a full four years now. I pass by ragged street people in this tourist boom town’s streets every day who approach me to beg for a dollar for a bottle of water or a dollar for 10 hot corn tortillas. Those are street guys looking for enough dollars for another cheap bottle of Belizean rum.
Once in a while I’ll offer to buy them tacos or something from one of the many fruit and veggie vendors on the streets and seldom get taken up on the offer.
What’s harder for me to turn down are the beggars–usually women or children–who obviously are destitute or close enough to destitute that it breaks my heart to give them no more than a “God bless you” and say, “I wish I could help you.”
Mind you, I do give sometimes, but more often than not I have to look such beggars in the eyes so as to at least acknowledge their existence and affirm their dignity and maybe pray with them or for them and move on. I can do no good in this world if I make render myself penniless or drop from exhaustion and lack of self-care by my own charity.
In my charity of giving money I do what I can in all the ways I can and accept that everything in charity of giving money–like everything under God’s sun–comes with practical limits and boundaries.
And there is something to be said for the charity of simply loving the poor and affirming their dignity, but that’s another post for another day. (And a chapter in my book.)
* * *
I love beautiful and glorious cathedrals and churches and “holy” objects as much as anybody. This broken and violent world needs all the beauty it can get. But I do believe our first duty as Christians is to love and lift up the poor and marginalized as we are able.
That can be done in imaginative and yes, radical but effective ways.
In Indianapolis, the urban Broadway United Methodist Church transformed itself by doing something wildly radical indeed–it completely abandoned its traditional charity and outreach programs, right down to the food pantry and the after-school tutoring program (it simply never made a dent in the neighborhood’s school dropout rate anyway).
This once dynamic and mostly white Indy church, which was dying fast, discovered new and improved ways of lifting up the needy people in the church’s very neighborhood by sitting down with people in the neighborhood and listening to them–uncovering their needs, their wants, and more important, their gifts and talents.
The church went so far as to hire a “roving listener”–not so much to gauge people’s needs but to understand what dormant talents they had.
The approach was based on what’s called “asset-based community development”–the notion of capitalizing on what works in a place rather than merely addressing its deficiencies. It’s a way of empowering people to start their own businesses to meet their own needs and everyone else in a community.
John McKnight, a professor emeritus at Northwestern University, is one of the founders of this approach of building up communities from the inside out. Broadway UMC’s pastor Mike Mather invited McKnight to speak to the church members.
It goes without saying that many congregants were appalled at the idea of closing down traditional ministries like the food pantry.
This is an excerpt from an article about Broadway’s transformation (and growth) in “Faith and Leadership,” which describes itself as a learning resource for Christian leaders and their institutions from Leadership Education at Duke Divinity:
For decades, the church had been feeding people out of its pantry. But local health officials were telling Mather that the No. 1 health problem facing the neighborhood wasn’t starvation.
It was obesity — often leading to diabetes.
To Broadway UMC’s Senior Pastor Mike Mather, it made no sense to hand out carbs in a box and peaches in cans of heavy syrup to people who were overweight.
“We’re not only not helping,” he concluded. “We’re actively making people sicker.”
Instead of handing out food, Mather led the congregation to long-lasting solutions to hunger. He tells the story of Adele, who came to the food pantry for supplies for her family and ended up, a year and a half later, using her gifts as a cook to open her own restaurant.
I commend the whole story of Broadway’s effective and radical approach to poverty which you can read here.
Think about it and pray.