Thursday, October 23, 2008

Smoke Screen

“What we need to do is get the government out of the way and let the church do the job of caring for the poor“. I’m pretty sure you’ve heard that in one form or another. The logic seems to go like this:

1) The government always does a poor job caring for the poor (sorry for the pun). (Though it does seem they’re doing a pretty fair job helping out the not so poor these days).
2) God appointed the church to care for the poor and they did just that in the days of the Roman empire when there was no welfare state.
3) Government usurped the church’s role in caring for the poor, instituted programs that were a complete failure and now we have one big mess.
4) Government needs to get out of the way so the church can resume our rightful place and care for the poor.

Well dudes and dudettes it‘s time to go back into the hornets nest because I‘d like to challenge those assumptions. I’ll begin by asking what the average person in your church thinks about the poor? Who would they define as poor? Would they say that poor people are those with jobs that pay at or near minimum wage or those who just don‘t want to work? Are the poor those people who’ve failed to find jobs that pay a living wage and consequently have given up trying? Do they view poor people as those who lack the drive or imitative to take the necessary steps to climb out of poverty? Or do they see the poor as those who don’t have as much access to opportunity as others? How would we go about distinguishing those who need help from those who just want a hand out?

These questions are important since how I view the poor will directly impact the way I believe they either should or should not be helped. If I genuinely believe that poor people are or remain poor due to a lack of desire to move out of poverty then perhaps the help they need is a swift kick in the pants. And if that’s the case the issue isn’t whether they should receive help from the church as opposed to the government but whether they should receive any ‘help’ at all. If I and those I worship with are convinced that the poor somehow lack the necessities to make it in a society that provides equal opportunity for all then the root issue isn’t a lack of help and it therefore follows that few if any resources (time, counseling, money etc.) should be spent on them. Why open and maintain a soup kitchen for those who could just as easily get a job and buy their own soup?

There are times when I wonder if the whole ‘get the government out of the way so the church can do the job mantra’ is a smoke screen. I wonder about that because we haven’t settled on who we believe is poor, why they are poor and the causes of their poverty. In fact we rarely even really talk about the poor. They always seem to be those people out there who remain on the fringes of our world until someone laments what a poor job the government did in trying to lift them from poverty. I wonder if it’s a smoke screen because if we’re honest with ourselves we know that if the government turned the care of the poor over to us tonight that we most likely would not be ready, nor able, nor particularly eager to address their challenges. I wonder if it’s a smoke screen because it sounds good, gets hearty ‘amens’ and knowing nods without us having to actually come up with a plan to actually address the issues of the poor.

So the next time someone confidently declares ‘What we need to do is get the government out of the way and let the church do the job of caring for the poor’, ask the following:

Solid, the government should get out of the way and let the church do our job. What is your church’s (or denomination’s) plan for helping the poor in your area? Have you thought about how much this will cost? What percentage of your church budget would you be willing to devote to this and for how long?

Brothers and sisters I have no problem with the church helping the poor. But let me leave you with this. Over the last several years there’s been a growing number of reformed theological conferences. How many of those conferences have focused on what scripture says about the poor and powerless? If our conferences are indicative of what we believe is important and the theme of poverty rarely if ever makes a peep at those conferences then why in the world would those who do believe that government has a role in assisting the poor entrust us to care for those we’re not even talking about?

To Him Who Loves Us…
Pastor Lance


Graham said...

Thanks for your post, Pastor Lance. I want to try to answer a couple of your questions, and pose some of my own. [Please forgive the length of my comment, which will rival your post. You asked great questions!]

Who are the poor? Those who do not or cannot provide for themselves. For most of my adult life, I have lived among the poor. Among them I have known those who:
1) are undocumented, and therefore are exploited by employers
2) don't want to work
3) are mentally ill
4) have initiative, but lack the skills to keep a job
5) lack the mental capacity to hold a job above minimum wage
6) don't have connections or opportunities to build a work history
7) have ability, but lack qualifications (like GED)
8) have such a bad work history that no one will hire them

The only way I've found to parse which category (or categories) a person falls into is to get to know them - personally.

What is our church doing? We have an integrated community of homed and homeless (although admittedly few working poor) people that includes a weekly meal, an overnight shelter. Two days a week doctors, social workers, and others to assist the homeless as well as providing a shower, clothes and a meal. And, as a church of 300, we have one full-time paid staff (and several hourly folks) devoted to "community ministry."

What do we accomplish? Almost nothing. The vast majority of homeless guys in our church choose the streets over the discipline of a good Christian job training and rehab program. So we enable them to keep living on the streets.

So here's the harder question for me: What if the very nature of a community perpetuates poverty? What if it decreases IQ, promotes mental illness, makes getting a good education near impossible, and makes it possible NOT to work? That is Geoffrey Canada's diagnosis of Harlem, where I live. (I'm 2/3 of the way through Whatever it Takes, which has excellent insight into poverty, education, Harlem and Geoffrey Canada's approach.) Canada grew up in the South Bronx and has worked in Harlem for 23 years, and will say boldly that parenting inhibits child development, so that by the time the set foot in school kids are already a year or two behind - and they never catch up because the key brain building years are 0-3. By the time they get to seventh grade and are 3-4 years below grade level, frustration is understandable. Add to that a culture that glorifies misogyny, crudity, vanity and violence, and you have a recipe for a cycle from which very few can break out. That's where I live.

There's more than enough blame to share among rich, poor, white, black, government and church. And the problem is far bigger than any of those entities alone can solve.

So here is my small contribution: Since parenting is the single best predictor of educational achievement [and therefore social and earning opportunity,]and the family is the most powerful unit of culture , and the first 5 years are the critical window of development - affecting the physical structure of the brain and crafting the lens through which a child sees the world, I've helped develop a platform called tumblon to help parents of young children understand, engage and enjoy their young children in a way that nurtures character, competence, creativity and collaboration.

The values and practices of parents are at the very heart of cycles of poverty - and the information and inspiration needed have been least accessible to those who need it most . . . until now.

In creating an account, the parent provides the child's birth date, and we provide simple, reliable, interactive, customized developmental information - written at a 5th grade level.

We're partnering with churches, community centers, schools and non-profits (like Harlem Children's Zone) to provide access for parents who do not otherwise have internet access. In less than 5 minutes, a parent can have a clear sense of their children's current development and specific recommended books, activities and toys to support healthy development.

Like I said, the problem is enormous and my contribution is small. Change will require collaboration. So if you know of churches, non-profits, community development organizations, etc. in Philly or elsewhere that would be interested in partnering with us, please let me know at graham (at)

May God use good government and His church to break the yoke, and set the prisoners free!

Jim Pemberton said...

The name of the little girl I'm holding is Genesis. In her country, Venezuela, it's pronounced "Hennessees" Genesis lives in the Maracaibo city dump. She and her neighbors go through septic garbage (the plumbing can't handle toilet paper so in the city they throw it away instead of flushing it) for anything they can eat, wear, build with, or resell. She's wearing clothes we brought for the mission there.

Another girl we met lives by herself in a shack that has only three "walls". Many of the people we have ministered to in that area build small square huts from seedlings and tin sheets. She only had enough for three walls and a roof. She kept a single open flame going to cook on. She was 14.

Another little boy we know from the church was badly burned when he entered a cistern to clean it. Flammable gasses had gotten trapped in the cistern and were ignited by a stray spark as he worked. With no quick way out of the cistern, he was miraculously picked up and dragged from the cistern. He testifies that it was Jesus that pulled him out. With no money for private health care, the family turned to the government. Only a certain amount of money is allotted for each patient. He was sent home before he was healed because they reached the maximum amount of money allotted for care. We sent a team to minister to him, and his mother and uncle came to Christ as a result.

We see countless people like this every year. I've seen people who have nothing else pick fruit from trees on public land and sell them on the streets for money to live on. These are poor people.

Here in the States, we have beggars at a nearby exit from the interstate. They beg in shifts. You can give them food and they throw it away uneaten. They take no assistance to free them from their addictions.

There was a man who lived under an overpass across the road from the church. His name was Walter. He was mentally deranged and accepted no help when we offered. He's gone now. I pray he's alright.

The government could help these people if the people wanted help, but the government simply can't help where the people are trapped in their sin and mental illnesses. But we offer the gospel which frees people in ways that no government can, whether here or in other countries. God is at work and He will provide through the government and through the people who are called by His name.

Maria Isabela Dos Reis said...

I only just read your post today, but I so appreciate your questions on this issue, as I have had many questions on this myself. The first is, what exactly is the government preventing you from doing that you are so all fired up to do?

"Let's get government out of the way", out of the way of what? I see the church in America where many ministries bring in $140 million+ a year, and yet the bulk of those funds are not committed to working with the poor, either here or abroad in fundamental ways that affirm. I have seen much media coverage recently of Remote Area Medical, a non-profit which originally brought volunteer medical and dental services to Latin America countries, but is now focusing its efforts in rural areas such as West Virginia and Kentucky. Each time I hear or see such a report, I consider how the church is using its funds and am forced to agree that this is a "talking point" aimed at getting government out of social services.

As the full impact of this economic crisis deepens, we will see just how prepared, willing and able the church is to handle the growing numbers of its neighbors with deep humanitarian needs. It will require sustained levels of compassion, organization, skill, competence to address the coming storm, and I think we are woefully unprepared because we still think of the poor as undeserving of care and needing a swift strong kick in the pants.