It is very common in Florida to see people standing on the corner of nearly every stop light of a busy intersection holding the stereotypical cardboard sign and asking for money. Two of my favorite places in Tampa, Ybor City and the Riverwalk, are especially crowded at various points during the day with folks sitting on sidewalks or benches and waiting for the passersby to offer some spare change. As 2020 progressed I saw entire families standing at the edges of the parking lot at shopping centers with signs explaining that both parents lost their jobs, due to the impact of COVID-19 and the attempts to combat its spread.
More often than not I succumb to my societal programming and look the other way or just walk past people asking for money, silently hoping to myself that they will not approach me directly. Usually it is not because I’m going somewhere important, so much as the uncomfortable nature of being confronted by someone desperate enough to ask me and my having to explain that I don’t carry cash. I don’t always walk past, sometimes I help, but not very often. Sometimes, my children will want to give some of their own money to the people sitting in doorways of closed businesses. Kacie will ask the person standing outside of a restaurant holding a “hungry” sign what he wants to eat, then go inside and buy a meal for him.
As common a sight as begging has become in cities across the nation, it seems wrong that this is taking place in our society today. When I’m approaching someone, the safety and guilt alleviating mechanisms offered by a society seeking to justify their presence immediately kick-in. Conscience-easing thoughts such as, “They should get a job,” “They caused their own homelessness,” “They just want money for drugs/alcohol,” or “They want to live this way” immediately flood my mind. Rather than actually address the homeless problems, cities often focus on ways to make the individuals less visible. Panhandling has been banned from blocks and entire sections of the city. When people are littered all over the sidewalks we view them as a nuisance, much like trash to be removed, rather than people in need.
It is disturbing, but it is disturbing for a deeper reason than we care to acknowledge. It should be agonizing to the core of our being to see the contrast of gleaming buildings reaching up to the sky, while a beggar sits in the doorway of that same structure.
If the United States is a Christian nation, as many have claimed, then Christianity has failed.
The gospel from beginning to end is about alleviating poverty and the burdens of others, as they are introduced to a community replacing selfishness with selflessness. Luke 3:4-14 records John the Baptist proclaiming that the Kingdom of Heaven would be lived out by the giving of excess to those in need and treating others as if they were ourselves. Matthew 25:31-46 records Jesus describing a judgment wherein individuals who gave of their excess were welcomed into eternal life, while those who ignored the cries of the outcasts, the immigrants, and the outcasts of society were sent to eternal punishment. Paul writes in Ephesians 2:8-10 that the entire purpose of our salvation is to go about doing these good works of the Gospel.
If a church is truly to be a City on a Hill by which the world sees righteousness or the Salt of the Earth which pulls out the flavor and goodness for all to experience, then we must consider our churches to be the avenue through which all levels of life are impacted. While the launching of this kingdom on earth may have begun with a call to baptism and discipleship, it should no longer be limited as such. Many local churches are now established within communities but are failing to be anything other than another entity foreign to outsiders. When a church is solely focused on the notion of individual conversion, then it is failing at living out its mission.
When the Church in the United States continues to live and thrive in the excess of expensive buildings, expensive sound and lighting productions – and pastors seeking some cool-factor relevance or a name for themselves – while families and individuals in their community go hungry… That church has failed. It has condemned itself.
Imagine what societal chains could be broken if the excess of the Church were leveraged to fight poverty… and if the Church also began to vote as if poverty mattered. We must become a people of faith that worry more about what is clearly taught – giving, serving, peacemaking, loving – and less about conservative political ideologies and culture wars that are nowhere found in scripture. We can exhaust ourselves in a fight, but it will be a fight for all of the wrong things.
We must begin to see the people who Jesus saw: the people right in front of him who were invisible to society. Then, we must serve them.
This is what I want my mindset or resolution to be in the New Year.