By Laura Rector
I was temporarily homeless this summer after I lost my below market-rate housing in California to a planned development. This transition meant spending about 40 days without a true residence and sleeping in hotels or friends and relatives’ homes. It was a frustrating, sometimes emotional experience to live in uncertainty — one that made my work difficult, my banking and insurance complicated, and my heart rate and blood pressure high, but at no time was I unsafe.
At no time, did I go hungry. I never had to wonder whether I would have a roof over my head at night or money for food. I had options, although sometimes the logistics of working through the options rightfully induced tears and anger, and the uncertainty of the transition made daily life complicated.
Christians generally have compassion and sympathy when personally confronted with an individual in need, particularly when that person is child, regardless of our political or public policy views. At least part of the problem is that many of us do not regularly or intentionally have such personal encounters, despite the fact that 51.4 percent of Americans experience poverty at some time in their lives before age 65. At other times, we simply don’t think there is much we can do or we don’t know how to help.
In this Christmas season often, however, we want to express our love by Jesus by giving to others in need. Many of us will see our churches collect shoeboxes full of toys to send overseas or pull an angel from an angel tree in order to make sure a family in poverty has Christmas presents. Those are good things to do. They care for others and nurture compassion in our church families.
Our Scriptures teach us that even before Jesus was born, Mary knew Jesus would have a special concern for the poor. Consider Luke 1:53 where Mary says, “He has filled the hungry with good things ….” During his ministry, we see Jesus care for people’s physical needs, such as the numerous incidents where he healed the sick, when he fed large crowds (Matt. 14:13-21), and in his teaching.
Jesus taught that caring for the poor was the same as caring for God himself. In Matthew 25:35-36, he says, “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” Certainly, he also taught about prayer as in Matthew 6:9-13.
Yet many Christians often fail to do anything beyond temporary charitable giving or prayer. Sometimes that isn’t because of an intentional lack of will, but a lack of imagination.
However, there is also so much more that Christians could do to share the love of Jesus with these children. When children’s homes, schools, food, and safety are threatened, the role of the church should be to create options for their families, restoring them to the Christian community, rather than isolating them as poverty so often does emotionally, physically and even spiritually. Consider the creative, inclusive ways that the early church found to feed the hungry (Acts 2:44-45; 4:32-36; 6:1-7).
Sometimes this means being advocates for the children to prevent their poverty in the first place. This will mean diligently studying public policies to see what actually works (instead of what fits comfortably in our chosen political boxes), showing up at city council meetings, and contacting federal and state legislatures to work for the common good.
Of course, that’s only one solution. We need to use our collective imaginations guided by the Holy Spirit to envision other avenues of care, too. Does the church have unused land? Why not build affordable housing units on that land, or start a community garden, or a summer feeding program for kids who normally fed through the public school lunch programs and see how God uses such ministries?
Life Remodeled is a project started by Detroit Christians to address housing needs in their community. The group now has thousands of volunteers and corporate sponsors who are revitalizing neighborhoods and cleaning up public schools. Did the Christians start with prayer and giving? Almost certainly, but they also didn’t stop with prayer.
Certainly, prayer and charitable giving play a part in caring for the poor, but there is also much more that we could do. The role of the church should be intervention, advocacy and partnership with families in poverty to make sure no child faces uncertainty about where they will sleep, unsafe living conditions, inadequate nutrition or an interruption in their schooling.
Homelessness and hunger are serious situations, but they don’t have to be hopeless situations if the church will reimagine itself as a full-time partner and advocate for these children in order to truly live out Scripture’s teachings about poverty.