For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me. Matthew 25:42-43
These verses have been ever on my mind the past few months as the reality of my surroundings set in. Everett, WA, as I may have mentioned before, is a community that struggles with rampant poverty. This is not surprising as it is a burn out paper mill town whose mills have long since shut down and have been bulldozed. Despite this the cost of living is still relatively high here as it is throughout the Pacific Northwest. As a result, homelessness, drugs and domestic abuse are common in this place where many people have lost hope along with their livelihood.
I won’t be telling you anything new by suggesting that the mission of the church as a whole is to minister to these people. Indeed, the story from Matthew 25 suggests just such a thing and even goes so far as to claim that when we serve those in need we encounter no other than our risen Lord. That being said, all too often when people come through my office door asking for assistance and my tired reply is all too often “we don’t do that here, you’ll have to try somewhere else”.
I don’t want to throw Central under the bus. It is a lovely congregation with an aging although warm and welcoming demographic. They offer a meal twice a month for 90-120 people and collect food for Trinity Lutheran’s Emergency food shelf. They also have a mission of the month in which a portion of the month’s offerings go to a particular cause, many of them local. They know there is a need out there and are trying to fill it. Yet, it is a small comfort to me when I have to look into a person’s empty tired eyes and say “sorry, I can’t help you.”
I am not suggesting Central create a giant slush fund to meet the need of every person that comes in. It is not practical and is probably not efficient. Yet, more must be done, more must be accomplished. I think it starts with the attitude about the people that we serve. There is a latent distrust of those who come to our door, that they are trying to get money out of us to feed an addiction to drugs or alcohol or that they in some way won’t use the resources properly. Perhaps more heart breaking is that this develops into a sense of fear of being taken advantage of but also of elitism and of paternal/maternalism, that we will only fill the needs these people “ought” to be concerned about.
These are not unfounded concerns as anyone who is close to a person struggling with an addiction well knows. We will and probably do “get played” or “used” to fuel their addiction or self destructive behavior at times. However, I think this concern boils over into an attitude of superiority and dismissal. We, although perhaps not consciously, begin to think of them as less human or less worthy. We are even encouraged by American Protestantism to think this way. That God helps those who help themselves. To be fair there is some truth in that, if you play by the rules, God’s law, things will probably tend to go better for you in society. However, what about a job loss, or mental illness, or raging medical bills or any number of personal catastrophes? I think most people would be hard pressed to blame all of these outcomes on a lapse in “following the rules”.
Now, I am not sure where to go from here or what being more “helpful” looks like. I don’t claim any particularly keen insight nor do I offer a clear solution. However, I think it has to start with how we regard the people whom we serve. Will we see them as lazy sub-human scum or are they a suffering and afflicted child of God, through whom we can see the face of our redeemer? I think the conversation must start there. These people are also created in God’s image and are loved by Jesus our redeemer. Furthermore, we too were lost and all too often still are and it is not by our actions but by God’s actions that we gain the title of worthy, precious and holy.
I imagine I will have to say “no” many more times to people who walk through my door. The church has limited resources and limited time. We simply can’t serve them all. However, my hope and prayer is that I will not forget their humanity and whose image they are created in.