FIRST-PERSON: Why we serve the poor (one church's uplifting story)
You know the rest of the story. Jesus took the five loaves and two fish, blessed and multiplied them miraculously, and not only fed the entire crowd until they were full, but 12 baskets were left over.
What can one church do to meet the needs of the poor and the outcast in a community? At times, we may be discouraged about how one congregation can meet so many needs. Yet Jesus can bless our meager efforts and accomplish much more than would be possible in our own strength.
So it is with the ministry of First Baptist Church of New Orleans. In 2004, the church's pastor launched an immense effort called "Baptist Crossroads" in concert with Habitat for Humanity. The goal? Build affordable housing for 40 families in the Upper Ninth Ward of New Orleans. Impossible? It was the largest such project ever attempted by a church in partnership with Habitat. Then, just as the project/construction began, Hurricane Katrina struck and made the need for housing even greater. Today, with the help of thousands of volunteers, 40 families are now proud owners of their own homes.
The church offers other opportunities to impact the community, most of which are under the umbrella of the "Care Effects" ministry. Some members provide academic tutoring and sports coaching for children in the Upper Ninth Ward. Others volunteer in a nearby public elementary school, tutoring children, helping in the library, cleaning up the school grounds, and providing food over the weekends for children who otherwise may not be fed.
Church members minister to abused children and youth through the Baptist Friendship House, prisoners in the local jail, and at the juvenile detention center. Some serve at Global Maritime Ministries, which ministers to sailors and seamen coming through the Port of New Orleans. Others serve the homeless at the New Orleans Mission or the Ozanam Inn homeless shelter. Some of the women minister to prostitutes in the French Quarter.
As a member of FBC New Orleans, I'm involved in a ministry that feeds the hungry on Wednesday nights. I serve at one of our two locations, the Evangelistic Baptist Church, a primarily black Southern Baptist church in a lower income section of New Orleans. The church is located near a home improvement warehouse and close to two interstate highways. Dozens of day laborers hang around the store to get manual labor jobs. Many of them are homeless and sleep under the interstate highway overpasses. The church also feeds people from the neighborhood, including some of those who come to the church for Wednesday night Bible study.
This ministry has helped me have a greater sensitivity to the needs of the poor that I seldom encounter in middle class America. For example, I met a couple of brothers in their 60s who come regularly to the ministry. They are both delightful men with a charming sense of humor. They suffer from several significant physical issues, and they both walk with crutches. The house they live in had belonged to their mother. The house's ownership was split among a number of family members after her death, but the brothers were allowed to live there (though they did not have a clear title to the house). After Katrina, the house was left virtually uninhabitable. The electricity was shut off because of a leaky roof. Two elderly men on crutches were left in a leaky house with no heating, cooling or lights.
They could not connect the electricity from the line to the house until the house was certified by an electrician. The electrician could not certify the house until the roof was fixed. The roof could not be fixed until a building permit was issued by the city. The building permit could not be issued until the brothers had a clear title for the house. Checkmate. So the brothers remained in horrible circumstances.
Many of us can overcome such obstacles. But the brothers had no vehicle. Even to go to the doctor was a daylong event. Long before a doctor's appointment, they had to walk with their crutches to the bus stop and wait in the humid New Orleans weather -- sometimes in the sun, sometimes in the rain. They had to change buses several times to get to the stop nearest the doctor's office, then walk the rest of the way.
Could they have gone to all the city offices to work through the red tape to get their house fixed, even if they had the money? No. This is the frustration and futility of poverty. It is easy to judge the poor for not helping themselves. It is a different matter to understand the reality of their lives.
Our church helped address their multitude of needs as best we could. In addition to providing food at times, church members took the brothers to the doctor when possible. We tried to connect them with lawyers who could provide legal advice. We helped find a better place to live (with electricity), helped them move there, and provided furnishings. One of the brothers has moved to the new housing; the other is still refusing to do so. Perhaps most importantly, we visited them and treated them as real people, helping overcome the faceless bureaucracy they often encounter, trying to show God's love through Christ to them in word and deed.
Feeding the poor is a good thing, of course, but it is not enough. We are called to give a cup of cool water in His name (Mark 9:41). Christian ministry must meet needs in the process of bearing witness to Christ. At our feeding station, we share Bibles and tracts in both English and Spanish. New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary students who speak Spanish help witness to our Spanish-speaking guests. We pray over their needs and talk with them about the Lord.
One night Michael Edens, the associate dean of graduate studies at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, was praying with a man about an obvious medical problem he had, manifested as a bulge in his stomach. He was drinking alcohol to dull the pain. Dr. Edens shared with him about salvation through Jesus Christ, and he prayed to receive Christ. Later, I put my hand on his shoulder to tell him how happy I was that he had received Christ into his life. He reacted oddly, recoiling and sneering something about not touching him. His speech was disjointed and hard to understand. I wondered if through the pain and alcohol he was clear-minded enough to make a meaningful commitment to Christ.
I saw him again a few weeks later. His transformation was so amazing that it reminded me of the account of the Gadarene demoniac in Mark 5. He was "sitting and clothed and in his right mind" (Mark 5:15). He had a smile on his face. He was clean, courteous and did not smell of alcohol. He was receiving the needed surgical procedure. He was being discipled by a nearby ministry focused on recovering drug and alcohol addicts. God had miraculously transformed his life.
This is the goal of ministry to the poor and disadvantaged -- to introduce them to the One who can transform their lives.
Steve Lemke is provost at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, where he also serves as professor of philosophy and ethics.
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