‚ÄúWhen I gave food to the poor, they called me a saint. When I asked why the poor were hungry, they called me a communist.‚Äù
Dom Helder Camara tweet
On his blog, John Smulo was asking why there are so few poor people in most (read suburban middle class) churches, given that the role of the church is clearly to reach out to the poor.
It’s a good question that has elicited some thoughtful responses.
However, I sensed there was a potential here for another round of middle-class-suburban-church-bashing, which despite being a popular sport in the blogosphere, didn’t seem appropriate this time round. Don’t get me wrong, there is lots about this mode of church, especially in its attractional and progamatic avatars, that merits criticism.
However, of the churches I’ve been invovled with across four cities (and countries), they have all, bar one, taken the call to minister to the poor seriously. I’m not just talking about some generic donation to a charity in some far off land. I’m talking about an effort to identify the poor within their midst, to provide housing and shelter to the needy and at risk, to visit the infirm and shut-in, to sacrifce not just money but time and personal comfort.
Of course, it is easy to judge a comfortable looking congregation from the outside, as a visitor or passive observer. But one thing I’ve learnt through the years is to never underestimate how far God has taken people in their journey of faith. Time and again, behind the facade of middle class wealth lies a biography of someone who found faith in the despair of poverty. Back in Sydney, I was constantly surprised how many leaders and stalwarts of safe leafy suburb churches actually begain their journey with God in grinding Depression-era poverty and Inner-City missions. In London, many well educated and liturgically literate church folk had grown up with the limitations and sacrifices of post-war London, long before the fashions of gentrification.
This begs the really hard question – why are the poor, poor? It also begs a further question – if the church doesn its job, will they remain poor?
I’m not talking here about some misguided doctrine of prosperity, but a simpler economic reality. If we take poverty seriously, then we take dismantling it seriously. Addressing poverty means going beyond the handout, the soup kitchen and the extra blanket and journeying with people as they build (or rebuild) their lives.
There are, of course cultural issues that make it hard for poor people to intergrate into middle class suburban churches (actually they make it hard for anyone who is different, ethnicity can be as much of a barrier as class). Brodie McGregor is right to comment on the role literacy can play as a barrier.
Those with poor education do find it a struggle to intergrate in a literate environment. In many ways, the youth ministry driven, popular culture consuming mode of attraction church aggravates that problem. You need money to watch all those movies and listen to all that music to get all those pop references. Often times one needs to look beyond Sunday, to the week to week social networks of a church to see where poor folks are beginning to find community in the church.
It is important not to confuse “could do better” with “not doing anything at all.”
[tags] Poor, Poverty [/tags]