For a couple of years when I was in seminary I was also an associate editor of the now-defunct United Methodist Reporter.
It was there that I became fast friends with another editor named Bill Fentum, and a United Methodist preacher who worked in the communications department named Keith Head.
I’ve mentioned here before that Keith is a man of multiple gifts and graces who applied his artistic gifts in illustrating my book The View From Down in Poordom: Reflections on Scriptures Addressing Poverty.
My old friend Bill Fentum has posted a review of the book at AmazonBooks.com, in which he wrote the following user review:
The View From Down in Poordom is a succinct, passionate book with vivid messages that could apply to any era, but seem especially relevant to our world today.
Solidly based in scripture, it conveys God’s call to ministry with (not “for”) the poor—to step out of our comfort zones and be not only ministers and advocates but friends to those in need, in and beyond our local communities.
I’ve known the author, the Rev. Paul McKay, as he moved from a long career as a news reporter to life as a hospital chaplain and ordained United Methodist deacon, now living and writing in Belize.
Simply put, this book, with fine illustrations by the Rev. Keith Head (also a UM pastor), is like a good conversation with Paul: honest, unfiltered, insightful, and eminently persuasive.
I think that’s a nice way of saying “if you know Paul, you know he can be an ornery, outspoken S.O.B.”
But I’ll own it.
* * * *
A number of people who’ve read the book have pointed out how relevant it is (as Bill mentioned). It is on the market at a time when we’re seeing budgeteers in D.C. proposing what I have to say, with unfiltered emphasis, are cruel, draconian and needless funding cuts.
(And these are proposals at this point by the way. I hope and pray that more level heads will prevail and restore funding for more constructive things like science and research, the humanities, and, of course, funding for the the poor, the sick, the vulnerable.)
I didn’t write this intentionally concise, 108-page book of mine as a polemic; it’s not a political diatribe.
But I don’t shy away from condemning the self-starting hypocrites in Washington who feather their own nests at every turn while thumping 20-pound Bibles and knocking each other over to get filmed and photographed at the National Prayer Breakfast for their spin doctors to send back home.
Then again, I don’t shy away from condemning churches of all or no denominations for their failures to do more to be the church of a Creator and Redeemer who not only urged but commanded that we get to know the poor up-close and personal.
What follows are a few excerpts from the section on material poverty. I’ll be sharing more from that section and the second section of the book, which delves into the meaning of spiritual poverty in its many manifestations.
My hope is that Christians and people from all faiths or no faiths will read and share and discuss the book in Sunday schools, Bible studies or book clubs.
I think there is plenty in it to stimulate lively discussion and reflection among folks no matter what their political, philosophical (Jesus was a philosopher, you know) or theological bents may be.
From Chapter 1, “Poverty: A Synonym for Suffering”
It’s still common today to hear people—especially those from what’s come to be known as “the Greatest Generation”—speak sentimentally and fondly of growing up poor and wearing hand-me-down clothes but being perfectly happy because “everybody was poor.” As I noted in the introduction, my mother, who was of that greatest generation of admirable Americans who survived the Great Depression and World War II, never looked back on her days in Poordom with anything approaching fondness. I suppose that each person’s experience of poverty is as different as each person’s experience of wealth—and of whatever lies in between. Without a doubt, some people can grow up in poverty and later find success and well-being in life, as my mother did, with a strength and character that struggle and hardship in fact had a hand in building. Some can look back fondly and sentimentally on their lives in poverty as “the good old days.”
But it seems to me, from what I’ve observed firsthand as an advocate and activist for justice for the poor, that most poverty in this world today creates misery and suffering that won’t be recalled with any fondness in future generations. For one thing, poor people back in the old days lived in a rural America in which merchants and professionals like doctors and lawyers accepted chickens and eggs and crops in lieu of cash.
We have to live in the world as it is today. Times and the dynamics of poverty have changed enormously. Poverty in this modern, heavily urbanized world of spiraling income inequality diminishes a person’s holistic health and well-being to such an extent that it causes premature death, crime, escapism into alcohol and drugs, and so many other forms of evil.
We Christians can accept and shrug off social injustice, poverty, and all the suffering in the world with the attitude that that’s just the way it is. Or we can strive to be like Jesus: refuse to accept the unacceptable, speak up, and speak out.
From Chapter 2, “To Know God, Know the Poor (A Beggar’s Story)”
Scripture: Jeremiah 22:13–17 NRSV
Key Verse (16): “‘He judged the cause of the poor and needy; then it was well with him. Is not this to know me?’ says the Lord.”
If you want to know God, you have to know the poor. But don’t take my word for it—take God’s word. God was speaking of the charitable King Josiah in saying that the good king judged the cause of the poor and needy. Other translations say Josiah defended the poor and needy, but the fact remains that Josiah cared about the poor and also cared for them, and for that reason, all was well with him.
Then, in what is quite a stunning statement from our Lord, God suggests that to know the poor and needy, to care for the poor and needy, is to know Him—to know God Himself! It’s stunning because of our tendency to think of God in such intellectual or emotional terms. We tend to think that to know God we have to have the right beliefs and practice the right spiritual disciplines—such as fervent prayer, Bible study, worship, tithing, meditation, and maybe fasting. Without a doubt, there’s no knowing God in the fullest without the right beliefs and works of piety. But it behooves us to remember that even Satan and the demons believe in God (James 2:19). We can’t know God in the fullest if we exclude works of mercy—if we neglect or shun the poor rather than knowing them.
* * *
One Sunday after church in Belize, I was driving home when I saw a homeless invalid, a local beggar that I used to walk or drive past without, most of the time, giving him a second look. Although I occasionally gave him some food or money in passing and always gave a heartfelt “God bless you” greeting—which he seemed to much appreciate—he might as well have been invisible to me and the many motorists and pedestrians who were passing by him as he sat in his wheelchair on a corner sidewalk at one of the busiest intersections in town.
From Chapter 5, “But Do All the Poor Deserve Our Help?”
Scripture: Matthew 14:13–21 (NRSV)
Key Verse (14): “When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion for them and cured their sick.”
These are hard times for the poor in America. As if it weren’t hard enough for them to be down and out, the poor are now bashed in unprecedented ways in the political arena and culture war zones. As if it’s not bad enough to be presumed lazy—or blamed for being poor and scapegoated for all of America’s economic woes by politicians and others with agendas and selfish interests to protect—too many Christians find unique ways to dehumanize, demonize, and denigrate the poor.
Never in anything that Jesus ever did or said did he so much as hint that the poor are to blame for their own plight. Nor, of course, did the Son of God (the Son of Love) ever demean or denigrate anyone living in the margins—the margins being right where he lived and taught and empowered the powerless.
* * *
Dorothy Day once opined that the gospel takes away our right, forever, to discriminate between the deserving and the undeserving poor. In support of Day’s opinion, one only has to consider the parable of the Prodigal Son—that rich kid and “good-time Charlie” who made bad choices all the way to a rancid pigpen (see Luke 15:11–32). It seems as obvious to us today as it was to that lost son’s brother—who stayed home with his dad and worked while his brother sinned away his inheritance—that the party-boy-turned-poor-boy didn’t deserve his father’s love. Yet the father literally ran out and greeted the undeserving son with loving, open arms.
Not all gospel stories are so obvious in showing that Jesus didn’t discriminate between the deserving and undeserving poor. When he went ashore and saw the great crowd of 5,000 men, Jesus didn’t separate the deserving from the undeserving and send the undeserving packing. He simply “had compassion for them” and acted on that compassion by healing and feeding them…
… All that said, there is such a thing as poor people who game the charitable systems of the church and the state, too, which I’ll address later. As long as there are broken, sin-tainted people in need of God’s grace, I’m sure the shady and shiftless poor will be with us as well.
But there’s also such a thing as greedy, me-first, sin-tainted wealthy people who use their power to game government systems to feather their own nests. These people have overrun Wall Street and D.C. It was their power games, not gaming by the powerless poor, that in 2008 caused the biggest and most painful economic crash in the U.S. since the Great Depression.