God must love the poor. Why else would he have made so many of them? —Abraham Lincoln
She reminded me of Marlene Dietrich. Something about her confident bearing or those exotic features, her oval face, her soft-spoken manner. But she was no movie star, and no one had ever stopped her for an autograph.
She was rail thin and her face was deeply lined. Her dark eyes sparkled, her clothing was neatly pressed and she carried herself with dignity. Before the accident, she had had a good job. She was bright, a problem-solver, a valued employee who took pride in her work and her company. Her name was Lupita.
The accident was one of those freak, unpredictable things. She never saw it coming. One moment she was on the job, as always, the next she was groggily opening her eyes in a hospital room with no memory of how she had gotten there. And worse yet, she couldn’t move. She’d suffered a severe skull fracture, a brain hemorrhage, and she’d lost the use of her left arm and leg. It had been terrifying.
One of her very first visitors had been the boss, and he had put her mind at ease. Her bills would be covered by insurance, he promised, and her job would be waiting when she returned. He’d been a good man, she told me.
But it had been a long and grueling recovery. And by the time she’d learned to walk again and regained most of the strength in her arm and the doctors had gotten her seizures under control, a lot had changed. The company had been bought out by a bigger firm. They had indeed saved her job for her, but her former boss was gone. The new man in charge hadn’t known her and wasn’t particularly interested in accommodating this woman who was old enough to be his mother, this woman who tired so easily and seemed sometimes confused by his orders. He gradually reduced her hours until she was at the bottom of the list, down among the we’ll-call-you-if-we-need-you group. The calls had stopped coming long ago.
Her bills were mounting up. Her doctor had forbidden her to drive. She had no family. She was nearly sixty years old and had discovered that not-so-young-anymore, brain-injured women are not much in demand in the modern economy. In fact, after weeks of hunting, she hadn’t had a single offer.
She told me these things without any sense of bitterness, without tears. “We are all permitted to suffer,” she said, “but God has blessed me. God is good, and I will not complain.”
I was one of 1,500 volunteers providing services for Tucson’s homeless and poor at the Festival of Hope, an annual event organized by Mission Tucson and designed to bring together faith-based and secular organizations for the common purpose of helping the neediest people in our community. The festival served some 10,000 clients during a six-hour period, providing dental care, food boxes, haircuts, clothing, and a host of social services for those needing jobs, shelter, medical care and other forms of assistance.
I have been giving some of my time to an organization called The Jobs Partnership, a national, faith-based mentoring program that connects the unemployed and under-employed with churches and employers, helping them lift themselves out of poverty while finding a living hope in a community of faith. I’m volunteering in response to James 2:14-26, a passage of Scripture I had long ignored: Faith that doesn’t show itself by good deeds is no faith at all—it is dead and useless. (NLT)
A rising tide may lift all boats, but it drowns those who are priced out of the personal watercraft market. We have the most successful economy in world history, but the free market, for all its advantages, is fundamentally Darwinian. It thrives because the strong prosper and the weak are bought out. It has no sympathies for those who can’t adapt to the whims of the consumer—it merely surges ahead and leaves them drifting in its wake.
I am not suggesting that we embrace a new economic model. I am suggesting that the church must throw itself vigorously into search and rescue, a responsibility given to us by Christ himself and one that we must not abdicate to government. Public-sector programs can do little more than hand out money. Money is needed, but impoverished and hurting human beings need something even more basic—the milk of human kindness, the cool water of Christ’s love.
I spoke with dozens of young mothers, women barely out of their teens with children in tow, whose husbands or boyfriends had moved on to greener pastures. None of them had any education beyond high school. None of them had any marketable skills. Their only options are minimum-wage jobs: food service, custodial work, etc. On such an income, they never seem to get ahead. In fact, they live so close to the edge that the slightest unexpected expense—a car repair, medicine for a sick child, a traffic ticket—can send them into an irreversible economic coma. They are desperate to do better, but they have little hope of doing so.
With few alternatives for their children, these young mothers often form risky sex-for-food alliances with men, hoping against hope that real love and a permanent commitment might grow out of the arrangement. What usually grows instead is another child, and by the time it is born, the man has moved on to a younger and less needy woman.
It is all too easy for those of us who are comfortable to simply ignore these people. They have bad teeth. They are often uneducated. They wear worn, hand-me-down clothing. Some have unsavory pasts. Some are mentally ill. It is all too easy for the Christian church, especially the suburban church, to leave the problem of the poor to inner-city ministries.
Jesus brings the poor to our doorstep and says, “You feed them. You help them.”
“I was hungry and you fed me,
I was thirsty and you gave me a drink,
I was homeless and you gave me a room,
I was shivering and you gave me clothes,
I was sick and you stopped to visit,
I was in prison and you came to me.”
Then those ‘sheep’ are going to say, “Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry and feed you, thirsty and give you a drink? And when did we ever see you sick or in prison and come to you?”
“I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.” —Matthew 25:35-40, The Message (Jesus speaking)
There is only one true safety net for people like Lupita: the church, the body of Christ. If we who have benefited so richly from God’s mercy fail to lift up those who have stumbled and fallen and lost hope, what will God say to us? If we cannot find it in our hearts to love such people, what does that say about our love?
Jesus, the King of kings, left behind every privilege, every honor, every trace of his glory and consented to be born in a cold, dank stable. He lived off the land, he was homeless, he may not have owned anything more than a change of clothing. If we shun the poor and claim to know Jesus, we are utterly deluded. He, himself, was one of them.
As the tide rises, it sets men, women and children adrift, leaving them no choice but to tread water. We who call ourselves Christian are the hands and feet of Jesus Christ, the great rescuer of the lost. How should we respond? What is God calling us to do?