Wineskins Archive

February 11, 2014

Lord, Expand My Neighbor’s Borders (May-Jun 2002)

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by Margaret Smith Roark
May – June, 2002

Most Christians would agree that a life of faith involves not only Jesus’ command to love God with heart and mind but that his follow-up command is pretty important too. We are supposed to love our neighbors–the people of the community who are weak, suffering, powerless, and voiceless. Of course, the tricky part is figuring out and agreeing on how to do this. This is not a popular sermon topic. You don’t hear it discussed much in Bible class or at potluck suppers. I attended a small, private Christian university with mandatory Bible classes and none of these was entitled “Loving Your Neighbor: Practical Application.” Why don’t we discuss this subject more openly and frequently in our churches and ask ourselves what it means–in terms of our time, energy, finances, skills–to be good neighbors right now? I am a literal person, I guess. I want to know concretely, specifically, what does this love look like?

I do know some about what this love looks like thanks to my parents. They love indiscriminately. Sometimes too indiscriminately, I would think, after Dad had invited the car salesman we met in line for Star Wars tickets over to dinner because his wife had left him. This kind of person does not make for lively dinner conversation. Mom dragged me out of bed once when I was feverish and grouchy to take me along as she gave an older woman without transportation or family a ride to the doctor. They tried to help people even if it meant that they got hurt doing it. One time, someone they had invited to live with us stole our car (a paneled station wagon – my sisters and I did not miss it at all). Growing up, I thought that my parents were a little bit crazy. But now I feel as if they gave me a great gift. Even if the way I go about it may be different–everyone in line at the movies is safe from me–they gave me an orientation toward helping people, toward putting active compassion over passive judgment in any circumstance. This orientation is the most valuable thing I have.

On a larger scale, churches have a responsibility to cultivate this orientation and seek creative and effective outlets for it. There are many people who need help within our communities. The gap between rich and poor is growing. Thirty-six million people live at or below the poverty level in the United States. Forty-three million people are without health insurance. Many people right now are facing job loss and financial instability. Are these solely private matters or are they public matters that warrant our involvement as Christians? Ron Sider, author of Just Generosity: A New Vision for Overcoming Poverty in America and president of Evangelicals for Social Action, argues that a biblical understanding of justice is much broader than one of procedural justice: biblical justice has a “dynamic, community-building character.” It is fundamentally restorative, seeking to locate and correct social wrongs that hurt or oppress people or interfere with their ability to be equal, active participants in the community. Scriptural teaching suggests equal emphasis on the need for both righteousness and justice. John asks, “How does God?s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action” (I John 3: 17-18 NRSV). Jesus healed people in body and spirit. If we are to minister to people holistically, to love them as we love ourselves, we can’t ignore any kind of suffering: emotional, spiritual, physical, or financial.

I talked to a few people who are working in concrete ways to bring righteousness and justice together. I hope they will bring you encouragement and inspiration as they have done for me.

Trina Williams believes that “individual congregations can make a huge impact on their communities when they take the challenge of becoming the body of Christ seriously.” Williams has worked for social justice both in Washington, D.C. with the Children’s Defense Fund and as a director of a church community outreach program. She is currently working on a Ph. D. in social work from George Washington University. Her direct experience working with people struggling with the hardships of poverty gives her an appreciation of the complexities of the problem and she is quick to point out that there are no easy answers. But she is still full of ideas. First, Williams believes, churches need to become more informed about and try to understand the root causes of poverty. The overwhelming amount of people trying to survive at or below the poverty level indicates that poverty is not, as many conservatives claim, caused solely by bad personal choices. Unjust social structures that prevent people from achieving stability and moving forward are significant causes of poverty. Without proper health care and insurance, reasonable housing, transportation, education and its opportunities–things most of us take for granted–it becomes difficult to survive. Solutions require, according to Ron Sider, “both inner, moral, spiritual change and outer, socioeconomic, structural change.” Both Williams and Sider feel that churches are uniquely qualified for addressing both kinds of change.

How can churches work to bring about both spiritual and structural change? Williams suggests that churches engage in more comprehensive efforts to help people that move beyond occasional charitable contributions or handouts. Churches need to have systems in place that can provide support in various ways. “Talk to members in the church who are struggling,” says Williams. Finding out what their needs are will not only be an opportunity to develop meaningful relationships, but it will give other members clearer understanding of difficulties they face and what kind of support they and others in similar situations in the community need. Single working mothers face particularly difficult challenges. Finding affordable childcare is often difficult. If their children get sick, they must stay home and nurse them, risking job loss as well as significant financial setback from being unable to pay health care costs. With no safety net, with no nest egg, one setback can be devastating. Churches could support these women by offering temporary financial help or daycare free of charge as well as emotional support for the loneliness and weariness of raising children alone. Some churches might provide classes on how to save, invest, and become homeowners. Affordable or free housing could be available for people who don’t have enough to pay a first month’s rent down payment. They could stay on until they were able to get on their feet. Not all churches can provide all these kinds of services, Williams acknowledges, but all churches should at least have a commitment to being attentive in some ways to community needs on a consistent basis. In the same way, not all Christians can get involved in big social issues. But some should get involved with other local organizations that have potential to make a difference–hospitals, local businesses, civic groups. All of us have a responsibility to become informed about politicians’ position on public policies that have potential to support the struggling and empower the powerless.

Williams acknowledges that it is easy to become overwhelmed in the effort to help. Her advice is to start small and then build on what you know. She urges Christians to find “substantive ways to become involved with a few public issues.” Get to know what others are already doing. Make a small commitment–tutor a child once a week. As you grow in understanding, responsibility, and relationship, you will begin to think about formulating answers to meet people’s specific needs.

It is hard to get in touch with Kenny and Mary House. You might find Mary listening attentively to a customer in her small downtown bookstore but you are just as likely to see her careening down the street in her old brown Volkswagen van filled with neighborhood kids who she is taking around town to pick up job applications. Kenny might be at the counseling clinic for substance abusers where he is director. But he might also be found at a city council meeting arguing for funds to revitalize the crumbling downtown industry or teaching a workshop for bridging racial divides among black and white churches. They lead abundant lives.

Ten years ago, Kenny and Mary House lived in Wrightsville Beach, an affluent part of Wilmington, North Carolina. The two of them began to feel a need to reexamine what it means to live a life of love in action. The people they most admired–whose lives seemed most authentic and truthful–were those whose lives were really invested in service to others. Inspired by these people, they attended a conference in Chicago held by Christian Community Development Association. Kenny grows animated as he tells me how they heard people discussing things that they hadn’t heard discussed in church. An architect spoke on how to redesign houses in order to cut costs. Business leaders reflected on how to encourage economic growth in inner cities. CCDA, begun in 1989, is a network of around 400 groups who are working in various ways to bring about social justice. John Perkins, founder of CCDA, believes that “the desperate conditions that face the poor call for a revolution in our attempts at a solution …. The most creative long-term solutions to the problems of the poor are coming from grass-roots and church-based efforts of people who see themselves as the replacements, the agents for Jesus here on earth, in their own neighborhoods and communities.” Perkins sees Christians’ mission to love as holistic; people who have been changed by God’s love begin to reach out to others not only through evangelism, but also through social action, economic development, and justice. Perkins lays out three principles that distinguish CCDA from more traditional approaches to social justice: these are Relocation, Reconciliation, and Redistribution.

Relocation means a willingness to live among the people you are called to minister. Love cannot take place at a distance. The principle of relocation assumes that to help anyone you must be close enough to understand the problems that they face. If you are called to help those who are financially struggling, you should be willing to live in their neighborhoods. Perkins points out that Jesus did not commute between heaven and earth but lived among us fully. Making yourself vulnerable in this way enables greater understanding, greater intimacy, and an imperative to search for potential solutions with greater knowledge and sensitivity.

When so many white churches in the South were silent in the 1960s during the Civil Rights Movement, House points out, a lasting chasm between blacks and whites was created that might have been avoided if white churches had decided to stand with black churches.

Reconciliation is an acknowledgment that part of restoring community means working to overcome barriers of race, class, gender, and culture in order to form relationships and work together on solutions for spiritual, relational, and economic poverty. Kenny cites Galatians 3:28: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (NRSV). Once he began crossing such barriers, House acknowledges, he realized how impoverished his knowledge of others had been. Reconciliation only happens when you are intentional, House believes. People must confess both their biases and their ignorance of one another. Only then can they begin to build meaningful relationships.

Redistribution is the result of living among the poor (relocation) and loving neighbors as we do ourselves and our family (reconciliation). Placing yourself in this position will allow you to orient yourself and your resources toward helping those who need it. Your time, education, skills, energy and other resources will be brought to bear upon the task of improving the lives of those around you in order to find creative and long-term solutions to community problems. Perkins states that “CCDA ministries find creative avenues to create jobs, schools, health centers, home ownership, and other enterprises of long-term development.” Kenny admits that this is hard work, but he also firmly believes that we have a responsibility to get involved in local and national levels when such involvement can make a positive difference in people’s lives.

Kenny and Mary House are in some ways probably much the same as they were ten years ago. Mary still loves to eat and Kenny still plays tennis everyday. And yet in other ways their lives have radically changed. They relocated to a downtown lower-income neighborhood and began to get to know their neighbors and attend a neighborhood church. Kenny stresses that they didn’t see this as some kind of social experiment. Rather, it was a kind of re-orientation of where they invested their time, talents, and energies. But this new neighborhood meant that relationships that hadn’t been possible before now flourished. Their world seems full of possibilities now in a way that it didn’t before. I don’t know that I’m advocating that everyone pick up and move to another neighborhood. I do know that Mary and Kenny are two of the most vibrant, interesting, joyful people I know and that this might not be so if they hadn’t made the decisions that they did.

There are many kinds of poverty. There is poverty that comes from isolation and forgetting that we are meant to live in community with others; poverty that comes from buying into a cultural ethos that suggests it is comfort and material wealth that make life worthwhile; poverty of imagination that keeps us from envisioning alternative ways of being that go against the cultural grain; poverty of knowledge and compassion that numbs us to a neighbor’s suffering; and there is a poverty of discussion within the church about tangible ways to love one another. I believe that many young people have an orientation toward helping that needs cultivation and encouragement. Many people are already at work in big and small ways even if you may not hear much about them. As Kenny says, “God is already where ever you think to go.” Hopefully, our churches can become places where all these kinds of poverty can receive attention and redress. God has in mind for us much richer lives.New Wineskins

Margaret Smith Roark

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