Teresa of Avila said, “Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours; yours are the eyes through which Christ's compassion looks out on the world.”
While those words sound beautiful, many of us in the body of Christ struggle with how to care for broken people. Compassion comes easily for people who are like us, but what about people on the margins of society. How can we be the hands and feet of Christ to people who are struggling in the downward spiral of poverty and isolation?
A woman sent me a note asking me to please stop sending her newsletters about our ministries’ work with the homeless in Chicago. “I don’t want to have anything to do with those people”, she wrote. “I let a homeless woman stay with me and she stole from me.”
“I’m afraid to get too involved with people who have such desperate needs,” Toni told me. “I know that if I get personally involved it’s going to get messy. I had an experience once where I was taken advantage of. I felt like an idiot. I was angry. That’s what I get scared of, that I’m just being foolish.”
None of us enjoys being duped. After experiencing two or three of these unfortunate confrontations, it is understandable that some would rather just avoid dealing with people in need. After all, aren’t there government programs that take care of the legitimately poor and the unemployed? Why should we be bothered and chance contributing to someone’s addiction or being taken advantage of?
Yet Jesus was very clear in his teaching that Christians don’t have the option not to care for the down and out.
The Good Samaritan crossed the road and was moved by compassion for the mugged man. He got involved by bandaging his wounds and then took him to the nearest rehab center and paid for his rehabilitation.
What we do for the least of these, Jesus said, is what we do for him. The list included providing food and clothing, looking after people in prison, caring for the sick and taking in strangers.
Compassionate care for the poor is central to the teaching of Scripture. Ultimately the power to overcome poverty lies in learning to live the Jesus way, to follow him in how he interacted with the poor and the marginalized, and to be willing—like Jesus, to lay down our self-centered, materialistic lives to take up the cross of loving generosity, gentle kindness, and tenacious advocacy for the rights of the poor and the oppressed.
The needs of the poor are often complicated. Generations of social castaways are plagued with inadequate education, dilapidated housing and few employable skills.
What can the church do find and serve the least of these?
As I have walked for the past eighteen years alongside thousands of men and women who have become homeless in the city of Chicago, and as I have visited impoverished communities throughout the world, I have discovered good news. We actually can, in very practical ways, find sustainable, manageable ways to make a difference in the lives of the poor.
Caring for the poor is something we do together. In the body of Christ, we each have a role to play. God raises up leaders who start movements, ministries and organizations that are feeding and clothing the homeless, providing shelter, caring for the sick and ministering to those in prison. Each of us can join these movements in some way through giving and volunteering.
When was the last time you shared a meal or had a meaningful conversation with a poor person? Find a ministry in your community that is caring for people in need and find out how you can get involved. It will change your life.
The Christian church is the largest grassroots movement on earth. How we respond to the poor is central to the life and teachings of Jesus and to what it means for us to follow Christ. Together we can make a profound impact on poverty. Indeed, I believe we are called by God to do so.