In spite of the many valid reasons to distance myself from my denominational heritage, there are several that keep me tethered to Baptist life. One of those is how we respond to disasters. Texas Baptist Men, along with their corresponding agencies in the Southern Baptist Convention and Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, have a reputation around the world for being both first on the scene after a natural disaster and for walking alongside affected communities for months and sometimes years as they rebuild. Federal emergency officials have been known to proclaim that no matter how quickly they arrive to the scene of a tragic event, the Baptists almost always beat them there.
This is also true for the wider U.S. Evangelical community as a whole. For every politically and socially damaging word and action that comes from Evangelicals that make me want to put my face in my hands in disgust, I am reminded of organizations like World Vision, Compassion International and even Franklin Graham’s Samaritan’s Purse that are on the ground in some of the most dangerous places on the planet providing emergency medical and food relief for the world’s most vulnerable.
It could be said that “in spite of” how well American Christians respond to disasters, we still struggle to find ways to effectively engage with our neighbors’ ongoing battles with poverty and food insecurity. May I suggest, however, that the reason we haven’t found ways to move people and communities out of poverty isn’t in spite of our expertise in disaster recovery but rather because of how well we respond to disasters.
“It’s difficult to shake the pervasive belief that poverty is caused by the poor.”
Disaster relief involves harnessing resources to help restore lives and communities back to (at least) how they were before a catastrophic event occurred. We rebuild houses, help locate lost items and people and pack boxes with food, water and other essential items because tragedy has caused loss. This way of loving our neighbors makes some unstated assumptions. It understands that the situation victims have found themselves in is not a result of anything they have done. It recognizes that there is strength in numbers and that pooling our resources is the most effective way of restoring a sense of balance to a community. And it figures that once everything has been rebuilt and restored, there is nothing else that needs to be done to address the storm or fire or earthquake that caused the need for help in the first place.
Unfortunately, because churches and faith-based organizations do disaster relief so well, we carry these assumptions into every other form of help we provide, thinking that what works for communities recovering from a fire will be what works for a family experiencing food insecurity or poverty. So we purchase food to give to those struggling with food insecurity through food pantries. We set up a benevolence fund to give rental and utility assistance to people who walk through our doors with great anxiety about being without a home, electricity or water. These actions may be sparked by the Holy Spirit and born of a strong conviction that Jesus calls us to care for the poor and marginalized. But aside from the fact that those in poverty are the most vulnerable when a disaster strikes, the situation of poverty is not the same as the situation of having been through a natural disaster.
What they have in common, though, is something that can be a point of contention. Indeed, I believe this point of contention is what keeps churches from moving the needle with regards to shifting people away from food insecurity and poverty and toward stability and thriving. I’m referring to the source of the cause. We all agree that most people who suffer through a natural disaster did not actually cause the disaster to occur. Of course there are fires caused by carelessness and our collection of individual choices have been known to cause changes to the atmosphere that bring about destructive events, but for the most part we didn’t start the fire, cause the flood or make the earth quake. Unfortunately, we don’t all agree the same is true for those in poverty.
It’s difficult to shake the pervasive belief that poverty is caused by the poor.
Occasionally a church will expand its vision for ministry to the poor and hungry, recognizing the need for something beyond a disaster-relief model of response. It will begin the important work of deepening relationships with those they are serving, walking with them through long-term solutions that involve job training, education and applying for benefits. This is wonderful work that requires a higher level of sacrifice and resources from congregations. But this still makes a destructive assumption, which is an assumption that the poor and hungry are poor and hungry because of something they did or something they lack. We shift culpability away from the storm, the fire or the earthquake and place it on the victim.
“Most victims of poverty suffer because fallen humanity has created systems designed to help some people thrive at the expense of others’ languishing.”
Few victims of poverty suffer because evil individuals conspire to deprive them of food and other resources to thrive. But most victims of poverty suffer because fallen humanity has created systems designed to help some people thrive at the expense of others’ languishing. Among them:
- wages that aren’t required to increase with inflation;
- resources to improve public schools that somehow end up being perpetually shifted away from poor communities (usually poor communities of color); and
- a healthcare system that puts many people one stomach bug, one car accident or one bout of pneumonia away from a lifetime of debt.
These are all baked into the cake of our society. These may not be natural disasters, but they have the effect of disasters that are repeated daily and perpetuated for generations.
Unlike most natural disasters, these are disasters that we have the power to end or at least to transform. And congregations can have as powerful an effect on the transformation of poverty and food insecurity as they have on helping communities after a natural disaster. To do so, however, we must begin by exercising our imaginations and envisioning how the world may be a different place than we once believed.
First, could we consider the possibility that we have looked at poverty and food insecurity through a lens that places most of the blame on those who suffer the most? Are our approaches and programs designed to effect change in people who actually are quite capable and who have expended every last ounce of energy to move out of their situation, instead of effecting change in the systems that have helped trap them into their situation?
Second, could we imagine what it might look like for us to change those systems at the same time we are providing relief for those who suffer the most from them? That leads to another painful, potentially contentious question: Do many people find themselves in need of emergency assistance of food and funds because they haven’t quite found a way to make the system work for them, or because the system is designed to work for some and not work for others?
Because these systems exist and are largely regulated by a two-party political structure, asking these questions poses serious challenges for pastors and church leaders, because it risks alienating congregants who have placed large emotional investments in their political viewpoints. But armed with the revolutionary love of Jesus and an eye toward the prophetic witness of God’s justice, I believe the risk would be worth it in the end.
Consider the familiar parable of the Good Samaritan. One of my favorite aspects of the parables of Jesus is that they give us a lot of room to move around in, to ask questions and to unearth new possibilities. We know about the characters: the traveler on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, the robbers, the priest, Levite and Samaritan. We know about the principal question being answered, “Who is my neighbor?” and the unstated one being answered, “What does love look like?” We’ve likely heard that it was the religious outsider, not the insiders, who was the hero in the story. And any preacher worth their salt has asked us, “Which one will you be?”
“Asking these questions poses serious challenges for pastors and church leaders, because it risks alienating congregants.”
These are all good questions to ask and lessons to be gleaned from the story. But I wonder about a few other possibilities.
If this story had occurred in 21st-century America, where followers of Jesus have a level of political influence unheard of in 1st-century Jerusalem, would there be a character who lobbied for a better-lit road for travelers?
I wonder if the traveler was on his way to his second (or third or fourth) job of the day, like many who are affected by poverty and food insecurity are in our country. What if the Samaritan, through his relationships and connections, could have garnered influence with employers and leveraged that influence to create a situation where one job provided enough to thrive on?
And the robbers? I wonder how Good Samaritans could transform the systems in which these persons feel trapped, so that they are pointed toward kindness rather than violence.
What if a lot of Good Samaritans got together and said, “You know, we spend a lot of time and energy setting up Go Fund Me accounts to pay for housing and medical bills of all these people falling victim to tragedy. Wouldn’t it be better if we created a system that not only reduces the number of these occurrences but also provides readily-available resources when they do happen?”
Unforeseen disasters will always occur. I pray that our congregations will continue to be the hands and feet of God known the world over as those who show up and get those hands and feet dirty, in service to the dignity of those who have experienced loss. But I also pray for us to be prophetic witnesses with the courage to imagine a world where food pantries and rental assistance and benevolence ministries are needed less, freeing us to be Good Samaritans by walking alongside our neighbors as equals, more than as helpers.