Faith and Action

Social Justice — By on February 7, 2012 at 8:00 am

The great tragedy in the church is not that rich Christians do not care about the poor but that rich Christians do not know the poor.[1]

—Shane Claiborne

The girl’s questions made her mother very uncomfortable. She tried to explain that these people lived on the street, that they didn’t have a home. She didn’t know why and couldn’t offer any explanation to her daughter. She didn’t really want to think about it and hurried her daughter into the museum.

The little girl, however, couldn’t stop thinking about the people on the streets and how cold they must get during the winter. So, because she was too young to think that she couldn’t, she decided to do something about it.

She went back to her school out in the far edges of suburbia and asked her principal if she could organize a blanket drive for homeless people in the city. She went to her church and told her Sunday school teacher about the homeless people. She asked friends, family, and neighbors to donate blankets, and she collected quite a few.

Each December for the past several years (she started this when she was about eight years old), she’s gone down to the city with her aunt (who offered to help with this project) with a pile of donated blankets and several thermoses full of hot chocolate. She stands on a corner and hands out blankets and a cup of hot chocolate, in Jesus’ name.

That’s a true story—I know that girl. I appreciate her spunk. Unlike that little girl, we sometimes think that large societal problems like homelessness and poverty are much too complicated for us to do anything about. Or, in our ignorance, we assume that someone who has less privilege than we have is simply lazy. More often, we avoid thinking about it at all. We’re too busy to learn anything about the circumstances and factors that keep people trapped in cycles of poverty, or the alarming rate at which mental institutions (due to loss of funding) are eleasing patients who are not ready for independent living. We don’t want to know how many homeless people are veterans who were damaged mentally and physically as they fought to protect our country.

We want to avoid the issue, so we work harder than we realize to protect our ignorance. While many homeless people will ask for money, this is not always the most helpful thing to give. It’s hard to know which people are in genuine need, and which are
professional panhandlers. Also, giving money can sometimes keep people in cycles of addiction and dependence.

Jesus once had a conversation with some religious people, and he told them that on the judgment day, people will be separated into two groups: those who showed compassion to others, and those who didn’t.  Those who showed compassion will be welcomed into his kingdom, Jesus said, and they’ll be welcomed with the following greeting: “For I was hungry and you gave me
something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in . . .” (Matthew 25:35). Those who did not do these things will be turned away into “eternal fire.” And when they ask, “When did we see you hungry or thirsty?” Jesus says that he will reply: “Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me” (Matthew 25:45).

It’s a sobering passage which reminds us that faith and action are to be seamlessly intertwined. Jesus said the most important things are to love God and love our neighbor. Many of us have arranged our lives so that we don’t interact with people who are hungry, thirsty, homeless, or poor. And yet, just because such people are not often visible to us does not excuse us. True compassion often means engaging enough to really know someone’s story. Those less fortunate are still our neighbors, and God is still calling us to love them in practical ways.

So how do we show compassion? Following Jesus’ directives is a good start. Food, water, and clothing are basic needs. When we are generous with these things, it is as if we are being generous to Jesus himself.

Francis Chan, in his book Crazy Love, wrote, “God’s definition of what matters is pretty straightforward. He measures our lives by how we love.”[2]

How can we love people who are hungry, thirsty, or hurting? Grappling with this question is essential to our spiritual growth. Taking action toward loving the least of these is also essential.

If you know of a ministry that works with homeless people, you may want to have a conversation with someone who works in that ministry. Learn what you can about the problem of homelessness.

But today, the challenge is to find a place where the homeless typically congregate—perhaps a park, subway, street corner or whatever. Go to that place and offer to buy a meal for a homeless person. Or, like the little girl we mentioned earlier, you could give someone a blanket or sleeping bag.

As an alternative, you may want to pack up some sandwiches, granola bars, and water bottles, and hand them out to people who are hungry. Or keep a stash of protein bars or water bottles in your car, and if you encounter a homeless person begging from a street corner, simply hand them food and water instead of cash. You’re not handing it to the homeless guy—you’re handing it to Jesus.

[1] Shane Claiborne, The Irresistible Revolution (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006),113.

[2] Francis Chan, Crazy Love (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2008), 93.

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