Why don’t more Christians respond to the needs of those on the margins?

I spend many days alone on our property in rural Virginia.  This cabin in the woods is my sanctuary.  I shared earlier this week that I was beginning to feel overwhelmed by all the need that surrounds me on a daily basis.  I know when that begins to happen, it is time to get away.  We know from scripture that Jesus often withdrew to a lonely place, and I think I understand why.  In the midst of the noise of ministry, it is very hard to hear God’s voice clearly and even harder to discern the path in front of you.

I always begin these personal retreats with a walk around the property with my 150 pound Bernese Mountain Dog named Max.  Today, I decided to take a path I have not traveled in a while through the woods and was sad to see that the trail was covered over with leaves and sticks and that in several places it was blocked by fallen trees and large limbs.  Before I could continue my journey, I had to stop and clear away the debris from the road.  As I sat to write this post, I realized that “clearing away the debris” is what a good theologian helps us do.  They help us rediscover ancient pathways that may have been neglected or covered over with other things.

Christine Pohl’s book Making Room: Rediscovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition, had that effect on me.  Through her work, I began to see the hidden path of hospitality toward the stranger: a path blocked by fear, neglect, judgment, materialism, and personal blindness.  It was this book that launched me on my initial journey into the inner city.  So when I received an invitation to hear Christine Pohl and Chris Heuertz speak at Reconcilers Weekend at Duke Divinity School a few weeks ago, I did not hesitate.  Through the next few posts I want to unpack the nuggets of truth in the book they have co-authored titled “Friendship at the Margins.” I encourage those of you who love to read good books about ministry to consider purchasing the book and sharing your insights as we explore it together.

However, before we get into the book, we need to clear away some of the debris that has accumulated along our path.  I shared in my post “Jesus Brought Sweet Potatoes”, that I was frustrated last week that more people did not respond to the needs of an urban friend of mine.  Of the 52 people who read the post, only 1 person responded.  The rest of the responses, which I shared in my last post came through personal relationships that I have with different groups of people.  At first, I found this very frustrating and I admit I was a bit self-righteous in condemning those who read and did not respond.  For this I have repented and ask your forgiveness.

As I was reflecting this week on all this, I have been asking “Why don’t more Christians respond to the needs of those on the margins?”  I was offered a couple of different answers by those who read the post.

One friend seemed to imply that caring for those in the margins is not a biblical call directed at all Christians.  To those interested in the biblical foundations, please consider the post “Beyond the Pew.”

Another friend suggested that we all have needy people in our lives.  I have been wrestling with that response.  Is that true?  Does everyone personally know someone who goes to bed hungry many nights like my friend Al?  Do most people know by name those who live in the margins of society cut off from social support systems?  I know for me, prior to answering God’s call to minister in the urban context, I did not know anyone who was truly materially poor.  So is the reason we don’t respond to needs like hunger because we know lots of hungry people?  I don’t think this is a valid answer.  I think it is something deeper.

When I was at Duke a few weeks ago, Chris Heuertz, who is the Director of Word Made Flesh ministries, shared numerous stories about children who have been enslaved and used in the sex trade. Over the years I have heard these horrific stories but have never responded.   The whole idea of this happening turns my stomach.  It is such a painful thought, that when I hear those stories, I often tune them out. As I asked myself, “Why do I not respond?”, I think the answer would be a combination of guilt and powerlessness.  If I read those stories, it all seems so overwhelming that I don’t know how to really help.  When I don’t help, I feel guilty.  It is easier to pretend the need does not exist or assume someone else out there like Chris is meeting those needs.  So perhaps we don’t respond to human suffering because we don’t want to feel guilty for not doing more.  Could that be it?

While guilt seemed to explain why I avoid certain issues, I don’t think it is at the root of the issue.  If it were, then it would seem to imply that people who do respond do so out of guilt, and I know that is not the case, at least should not be the reason we respond.

As I continued to read Chris’s book and after having met him in person, something began to happen to me.  Rather than be repulsed by the stories of abuse, I began to view the victims through Chris’s eyes. They were no longer characters in a book, but friends of my friend Chris who deeply loved them.  As I continued to read, I started to feel a part of what God was doing through Chris and I wanted to support him in his ministry.  Not out of guilt but a desire to join Chris in what God had called him to do.

So what changed?  Basically, I started to see Chris as my friend.  Why did I feel so burdened by Al’s needs?  The answer is simple, Al is my friend.  Why did those who responded to Al’s need respond?  Again, the answer is they are all either my friends or friends of Al.  I don’t want to build a ministry driven by guilt, I want to build a ministry built on friendship.

Pohl and Heuertz write this, “Jesus calls his disciples friends rather than servants because of shared commitments and purposes (John 15:7-17).”  While it would be much more efficient for me to write a post and have strangers all over the world send in money to meet the needs of my friends, somehow my friends and I would miss out on the blessing of being a part of a beloved community of friends.

So what what does this mean?  It means that through our friendships, we become friends with those in the margins.  I will never live in India or help to rescue girls from the slave trade, but through my friend Chris, I can extend the love of Christ into those places.  Many of you will never minister in the inner city of Richmond, but I hope through your friendships with me, you too will come to see my friends as your friends.  Many of you are reaching out to people in the margins and developing friendships.  My prayer is that this blog can be a place where we can encourage one another and share the needs of our friends.  If we are truly friends of Jesus, we have to join Jesus in the margins.  Some of us will do that in the flesh and others through extended friendships.  This past week, I made several new friends from across the world through this blog.  I pray all of you will join me on this path of friendship and let’s discover together where it might lead.

So, what do you think is obscuring the path of friendship with those who are poor or oppressed?  Is it guilt, fear, too much need, too little resources, too little time, too many other demands, lack of clear paths, all the above?  What needs to change in order for us to more fully befriend those in the margins that Jesus befriended?  How can we develop a network of extended friendships in order to make Christ love known in the margins?

I will compile your responses to this question and see if Chris and Christine’s book can help us overcome some of these challenges in upcoming posts.  So, I need your thoughts.  Don’t be shy!  I ask that you all consider leaving your comments here so everyone is seeing the same thing.  If you want to comment on facebook or via email, just cut and past in both places.  I would really appreciate this being a dialog.  I honestly don’t know the answer to this question but I am hoping we can discover the answer together.

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10 Comments

Filed under Leadership, Urban Ministry

10 responses to “Why don’t more Christians respond to the needs of those on the margins?

  1. HP

    You ask great questions. I think the answer begins my developing a clear understanding of what genuine friendship is. The following excerpts were shared at a bible study I attended last week:

    Friendship

    “The rigorous demands of true friendship, the gift of oneself, one’s time, one’s preferences, the nakedness and honesty, are beyond the price many are willing to pay. Anyone who has been graced with true friendship knows the cost and knows the worth.”
    – A Place Apart by M. Basil Pennington

    “I hope you will find a few folks who walk with God to also walk with you through the seasons of your life. But honesty – and Scripture – forces me to admit they are a rare breed. Few there are who find it. All the more reason for you to make the number less scarce by becoming someone who walks with God and teaches others how.”
    – The Journey of Desire by John Eldridge

    “What happens in intimacy, whether in twos, threes or more, cannot be communicated adequately to those who are not part of it. Yet there is something about the secrets of intimacy that makes us want to share them. We thirst for deeper penetration into the depths of others, and to have someone with whom we can share our own secrets and who can understand us more deeply.”
    The Shape of Living by David Ford

    The following quotes are from Sacred Companions by David G. Benner

    “The principal reason friendship is so undervalued is that too few people have experienced a significant, enduring friendship. The coin of friendship has been continuously devalued by being applied to lesser forms of relationship.”
    “Jesus’ relationship with his disciples began with his initiative. It was a call to a transformational journey. In this journey he:

    ● He spent time with them
    ● He shared painful depths of his experience with them
    ● He shared special insights with the chosen few
    ● He humbled himself before them
    ● He offered them emotional support
    ● He invited and answered their questions
    ● He related to them in loving ways
    ● He challenged them to grow
    ● He called them friends and invited them into the intimacy of his relationship with the Father. His offer of friendship was an offer of intimacy.”

    “In caring for me, my friends support my emotional, spiritual, intellectual and physical development. They do not want me to stay as I am. They seek my growth. They want me to become all I can be. By being honest with us they offer us invaluable opportunities for growth. They can help us penetrate our self-deceptions and cherished illusions.”

  2. wmccaig

    I think the last quote struck me the most. I have had a lot of people speaking things into my life lately that I did not really want to hear. However, I have to admit, it has been a tremendous time of growth. It is easy to stay stuck when the only voice we hear is our own. How have you grown as a result of your friendships with folks outside your normal circles?

    • HP

      I would say that 75% or more of my growth over the last 5 years has come from intentional efforts to create, maintain, and honor friendships with “different” people. The growth comes from leaning on God for help getting through rough patches….from hanging in there and engaging in the learning that unfolds in unknown territory. I think we need God in this territory because our human instincts are to eject from it because we don’t want to deal with the tension and awkwardness. I’ve also found that I need prayer to deal with the crap in me that gets pushed to the surface, and to maintain grace in situations that I am tempted to react negatively to tough moments.

      Great topic. Night night time for me. Peace.

  3. I think you’ve come to a correct realization, that ministry priorities flow from friendship. I think the answer to your question about what blocks/hinders the development of friendships across economic lines is “all of the above,” plus some other things perhaps, like sub-culture, language, life structure, etc.

    While you’re right that not everyone has a friend like Al who goes to bed hungry many nights, there many other types of needs (you can even call them lesser needs in the face of hunger if you want) that people cannot neglect and ultimately consume their time and energy. As I mentally scan my congregation, I think about the following: family members with cancer or other illnesses, a bipolar son, a pregnant teenage daughter, an alcoholic son in rehab, caring for ailing parents, raising grandchildren, etc. To expect these people to care for Al or spend the necessary time to build new friendships is to expect them to neglect something or someone else in their life. At least, that would be true for me, and I don’t even have illness or crisis in my family. So when I said that many people already have their own “Al,” I was not suggesting that everyone personally knows hungry people. Yes, hunger and other needs related to poverty are more pressing. But it’s not the only need, and as you observed, we respond to needs in our circle.

    Please hear me, Wendy, I’m not happy with this state of affairs either, but we begin the work of transformation by starting with reality, and this is reality. Also, I am not denying that there are lazy Christians who could be doing more and befriending Al. This is also true.

    I see a move towards solutions happen in two ways. One, I think we can easily get overwhelmed when we talk about things in individual terms, but if we can find ways to bring communities together, I think many more possibilities open up. But also, it really does seem like this kind of ministry needs to be all or nothing, as I think your life exemplifies. I think about a ministry my church partners with in Nicaragua that addresses health and wellness. Many of us send money or go on week-long trips, but that really doesn’t amount to much practically. But one young man decided to spend a year with the ministry, and has since decided to stay in the country permanently, and is now truly serving the rural poor of Nicaragua. When the rich young ruler wanted to know what he still lacked (Matthew 19), Jesus gave him an all or nothing challenge.

    • wmccaig

      Hi Corey,

      I totally recognize that all of us have seasons when we are unable to extend ourselves beyond our own circle of relationships, but thankfully for most of us these seasons pass. When my girls were preschool age they consumed all my attention, but now they are teenagers and my capacity to enter into relationships has changed. I am in no way suggesting that people neglect their loved ones, simply challenging people to see that their “family” is actually very large and goes beyond blood ties.

      I agree that God has called me into the deep end of the pool, but I did not start off on the High Dive. I actually entered into friendships on the margin with very small steps into the baby pool. If anyone had told me it was all or nothing and that I would spend most of my ministry career immersed in some of the issues I am immersed in…I would have run for my life. We all have to be willing to take the small steps but also stay open to the fact that God may continue to say “come follow me a little further.” I don’t walk with every new friend for ever, but I do have some members of my new extended family that I think will be with me for the rest of my life. It is a total holy spirit led thing. I think that is what scares people…they think this is “too big” but trust me God does not call you to the “big” without first asking you to be faithful in the small and will not give you more than you can handle.

      • Oh, I agree. What I was saying with “all or nothing” is something you’ve suggested several times, which is that we have to be in it for “the long haul” in order to see true change happen or develop trust sufficient for ministry. Many of us don’t see how this “long haul” is possible for us without a complete change of priorities that may not be in step with what we feel our calling is. As you noted, your journey was step by step but it also took you deeper and deeper into a new kind of ministry, which was your calling. I also want to make sure we don’t see it as always a one-way street with respect to relationship building between those of different socio-economic backgrounds.

  4. Steph Rice

    I think the answer to your question is fear. I know that I avoid certain situations or service opportunities because I’m afraid of the unknown. But you’re very right in saying that friendships are the way to build a ministry and to engage people in serving. When we make friends, our fears are alleviated because we realize that people or situations are not nearly as scary as we made them out to be in our minds. As a part of Embrace, I have gained such a great appreciation for the housing projects and the “scary” people who are supposed to live there but are not scary at all. Some of the greatest people I know live in the projects, are former addicts and felons, but they are incredibly loving, caring and open people. When we step out of our worlds and make friends with people, we realize that not only are they not scary, but there is something we can do to help, even if it is just being a friend.

    • wmccaig

      I agree…fear is a huge issue in all this. Like you I feel safe because I know that Charles and Yolanda have the street smarts that I lack and that they would never allow me to get myself into a dangerous situation. That is what they give us, that hedge of protection that comes from years of walking those streets. I love seeing the world through their eyes…I have learned so much!

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