“What do you mean by crushing my people, by grinding the face of the poor?” declares the Lord God of hosts. Isaiah 3:15
This verse was what Robert Putnam, author of “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis” chose to read to kick off the Poverty Summit at Georgetown University. The three-day summit hosted by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the National Association of Evangelicals, intended to raise awareness of poverty, and how to deal with it in our nation. 120 religious, civic and political leaders, including President Obama, attended to address issues like marriage, incarceration, and social responsibility.
While the topics discussed are as deep as they are far reaching, the reoccurring theme of speakers was the role of the church in alleviating the needs of the poor. In fact, Cathy Lynn Grossman from Religion News Services quoted Putnam saying:
Can we revive a communal sense that we are all in this together? Religion has a role, says Putnam. #Povertysummit
— Cathy Lynn Grossman (@CLGrossman) May 11, 2015
And President Obama pointed to the Pope as an example of framing the discussion on poverty:
“Our faith-based groups have the capacity to frame this, and nobody’s shown that better than Pope Francis.” —President Obama #PovertySummit
— The White House (@WhiteHouse) May 12, 2015
The focus on faith and poverty is nothing new. It is a debate that has been going on for centuries. And this summit is just another conversation of leaders talking about the poor and their status, with little (it seems) plan for action resulting from it.
As our nation’s leaders call upon faith-based organizations and churches to help the poor, there is a deeper question at hand. Why are churches increasingly absent in places of poverty in the U.S.? W. Bradford Wilcox in a recent Washington Post article, says the issue lies in money, sex, divorce and television. On the issue of money, in particular, Wilcox points out:
A key reason that working-class men are now less likely to attend church is that they cannot access the kind of stable, good-paying jobs that sustain a “decent” lifestyle and stable, married family life — two key ingredients associated with churchgoing in America.
Good-paying jobs and stable married life. Two definitive ingredients to going to church in America. When did these two things become the rule by which people are measured fit for church attendance? Don’t get me wrong, it’s important to be able to support your family and healthy marriages are part of the fabric of a vibrant community.
However, the Scripture has plenty to say about how God feels about the poor, starting with the above verse from Isaiah. The example Jesus set in His earthly ministry was pointed: the gospel is for all people; regardless of nationality, ability, income level, or relationship status. In Mark 14:7 He told His disciples, “For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them. But you will not always have me.” The verses He read out of Isaiah 61 speak of ministry to those who have nothing and are utterly destitute. He also outlines the fact that any ministry done to those who are poor, naked, hungry, in prison or sick; indeed the very least of these, is our ministry to Him.
The church must be a place where people can come, physically impoverished and spiritually destitute, and find life. Our arms should sweep wide open to welcome the cast off of society and embrace the homeless in our cities. We should be the place where people are treated with dignity and respect. I understand there are complications when it comes to these issues. As a pastor’s kid whose parents run a street and homeless ministry in Colorado, I’ve experienced the difficulties that come with this kind of ministry.
But the Lord does not qualify His command to help the poor with, “Unless it makes you uncomfortable.” Or, “Unless the work is too complicated. Or, “People will take advantage of you, if that happens, walk away.” He calls His church to minister to sinners, broken and in desperate need of Living Water. If we are faithful to follow Him in that call, He will lead.
You can follow the last day of the #PovertySummit on Twitter.