Author’s Note: This is a term paper I wrote in my seminary years. Again, readers must consider that I wrote this in the Philippine setting within the Convention of Philippine Baptist Churches. I hope this paper will awaken our hearts and minds in serving the poor.
No less than the Lord Jesus Christ himself said that the poor would always be with us. While this is not the full context of the phrase, it is true that indeed the poor are ever-present in our society, much more in the church.
Because of the reality that poverty is perennial, some churches might have consciously or unconsciously neglected the poor in favor of “God-glorifying” programs.
After going through the many urban and rural pastoral or church issues confronting the church today, the author chose to make a critical observation on the commitment of the church to the poor.
The milieu of this paper is in the context and auspices of the Convention of Philippine Baptist Churches (CPBC), of which the author is a member. The particular scope of the topic reflection would be the churches where the author had attended.
How is the church’s commitment to the poor today? Do our churches continue to appropriate what Jesus Christ appropriated to himself the prophecy of Isaiah 61:1-2: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord” (Luke 4:18-19).
Do our churches love their neighbors more than they had before, following one of Jesus Christ’s greatest commandments to “love your neighbor as you love yourself”?
Because this is not full-blown scientific survey research that would use a tool to measure the commitment of some CPBC churches towards the poor, the author employs “critical observations.”
Lest we might miss, the issue discussed in this paper is not the “poor” per se but the “commitment towards the poor” of some CPBC churches.
This paper intends to examine and discuss the current and existing commitment of our churches towards the poor. Some circumstances on how the poor are marginalized inside the church are considered. It ends with several practical suggestions on how our churches could be in solidarity with the poor.
Understanding the Poor in the Church
In this paper, the poor may have absolutely nothing or very little in terms of material wealth, opportunities, social status. They are those who lack the basic needs of food, clothing, and shelter.
In the church, the poor may refer to those with nothing to offer or who could only give meager offerings. One does not have to be entirely destitute to be considered ‘poor’ because there would always be people who would belong to the lower economic rung in a church community.
Mr. Harold Wilke, director of the Healing Community, a program of the New Samaritan Corporation, in his article, “Mainstreaming the Alienated: the Church responds to a ‘New’ Minority” describes the poor as the societal alienated persons which are far too often rejected by the local congregation and responded to, if at all, primarily in terms of a “mission” on the part of the church to these groups — to alcoholics, the mentally retarded, the physically disabled, returnees from mental hospitals, the violence-prone, former prisoners, and the aging.
He added that these are the persons who are wounded or ill on the road to Jericho wherever we travel and on this road, the church is far too often not the Good Samaritan, but the priest and the Levite passing by on the other side.
If we study the Gospels, we discover that they have much to say about the economically poor (and the wealthy), although they alluded also to the spiritually poor. In a deeper sense, whether the Gospels speak on the poor (and the wealthy), we could see that the Gospels are always turning our attention on the disciple of Christ and the response to the economically destitute.
Over and over again the emphasis is for Jesus’ disciples to be compassionate, with great sensitivity to the poor, being quick to open their hands to help. These could be observed in several miracle healings that Jesus Christ administered. Peter and John’s healing of the cripple beggar at the temple gate is another example.
In his book, “Foundations for Purposeful Church Administration”, Alvin J. Lindgren explains:
“If the church is to be an extension of the ministry of Christ, and not simply to proclaim in words that Christ came to minister, then the church must recognize that it exists to serve (Matt. 20:27; 23:11; Mark 10:44)… to be an extension of Christ’s ministry—his very body—the church must take seriously the responsibility of being a servant.”
Applying to him the words of Isaiah, Jesus Christ proclaimed his mission to preach to the poor. If the author may be allowed to interpret literally, then the poor in Luke 4:18-19 may be taken as those who have not heard the good news, captives, blind, and oppressed.
Time and again, without deeper consideration of its context, some churches and institutions have used these passages to emphasize (or even over emphasize) their ministry to the poor.
One cannot assume that poverty is a result of laziness or wickedness. While laziness could cause poverty to come in, other times it is due to sinful actions of other men like usury or extortion (Prov. 28:8), greed (Isa 3:14-15), unfair labor practices (Jer. 22:13), oppression (Amos 4:1), persecution (2 Cor. 8:1-2).
Like our brethren in calamity stricken areas, poverty can also be caused by natural disasters. It can be due to voluntary choice as in the case of Jesus (Luke 9:57-58) and his apostles (Mark 10:28). Poverty has many causes and both Moses and Jesus Christ taught that the poor would be with us (Deuteronomy 15:11 and Matthew 26:11).
Patronage or Solidarity with the Poor?
It cannot be denied that the ministry of the church is very biased towards helping the poor. In our churches, we gather benevolence offerings every month after the communion.
Every December, we collect white gifts in kinds and cash for distribution to recipient families. As a church, we respond to cries for financial help because of fortuitous events by gathering special offerings.
There are big city churches, like the University Church, that conduct regularly medical and dental missions to nearby towns and barangays. Calvario Evangelical Church is one church, which through their cooperative has successfully battled the loan sharks in the Janiuay public market, came up with poverty alleviation and sustainable development in the community.
In doing all the pro-poor church activities mentioned above, the church has to examine whether these actions are just mere patronages to the poor or indeed solidarity with them.
Are our acts for poor families, vehicle out of poverty or merely “pantawid-gutom” (hunger alleviation)? Do our benefactors see the church as merely an alms giver or a church that is pouring out itself towards helping the poor?
Patronage giving is just giving a part of yourself while remaining comfortable in your current condition. The easiest way to help the poor is to draw a coin in your pocket and place it on the open palm of the poor.
The gathering of white gifts, benevolence and giving of financial help are reduced to mere symbols of giving when the church fails to see a person or a community freed from the shackles of poverty. Has our church become satisfied with symbolical giving such as these because in the present situation, we cannot see a very concrete, substantial, and genuine concern for the poor?
If the church fails to make a lasting impact on the lives of the poor and sees fulfillment in patronage giving then it seems that mendicancy is what the church might be institutionalizing, is it not?
Solidarity with the poor could be metaphorically illustrated in the example of Christ in Philippians 2:7 where he gave up all he had and took the nature of a servant. In his book, “Jesus on Social Institutions”, Shailer Matthews writes:
“If the church is really to institutionalize the spirit and attitude of Jesus it must be more than one of many agencies of scientific social technique. By its origin and history it stands committed to a faith in God as love. Only thus can it be said it have the mind of Christ. And only as it makes such faith contagious and controlling is it following in his way…
…For this the church ought to stand, not only in the case of people, but in the case of group action. To express this attitude in social activity is something more than to relieve the unfortunate. It is to remove the causes that produce human suffering. It is not enough to play the Good Samaritan on the road from some Jerusalem to some Jericho—the road itself should be policed. It is not enough to save brands from the burning—we must put out the fire”
Here, Matthews challenges the church launching not only into a holistic ministry but a church “pouring” or “emptying” itself to the community, especially those who are in poverty.
Again, reading through the example of Christ’s kenosis in Philippians 2, the church (CPBC churches, as well) faces the question about what extent should the church “pour” or “empty” herself into the issue of dealing with the poor.
Ideally, it is a church arising from her comfort zone and becoming uncomfortable for the comfort of the poor. True, it would be a struggle but I am convicted that our churches must help create and help a culture of solidarity with the poor. This could be a lasting guarantee that the dignity and well-being of the poor and the marginalized in our society will be uplifted.
This calls for more and more interaction among the various people and groups in the civil society with the poor as the focus. We must be able to put up a strong advocacy, continuously mobilize and activate the society and government to express its solidarity with the poor and the underprivileged.
Our churches need to make its commitment to solidarity with the poor through concrete options and choices, programs and policies. I believe that our churches must leave from mere patronage and move towards genuine solidarity with the poor.
Marginalization of the Poor within the Church
It may sound ironical but marginalization of the poor within the church is happening obviously. In terms of fellowship, the poor has to take a lot of effort to meet belongingness. In city churches where the disparity between the rich and poor are great, the poor are seen at a particular spot in the rows of pews.
Since the time of Jose Rizal until now, it is the rich members in their beautiful clothes and jewelry who usually take the front pews while the poor members sit at the back. Poor church members who have done odd jobs with rich church members might never have the chance of getting elected as officer of the church.
After the threefold amen has been sung and the congregation begins to go out, the poor hardly receives handshakes from rich people because as if on cue, some rich members would gather among themselves to share what new things and “blessing” they acquired lately.
There are only a few of the rich church members, those who have genuine concern to the poor, who would take time to mingle with the least of their brethren.
Our churches have ushers and we are happy that we have member who see ushering as a gift and ministry. It is through ushering that the church begins to express her hospitality. In her book, “Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition”, Christine Pohl emphasizes that “hospitality is central to the meaning of the gospel.” She writes:
“Jesus’ ministry and proclamation of the kingdom are inexplicable apart from issues of hospitality; Paul urges fellow disciples to welcome one another as Christ had welcomed them; the writer to the Hebrews enjoins readers not to neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for like Abraham and Sarah they may be entertaining angels unawares; and the letter of James offers a powerful critique of showing partiality to the rich at the price of the poor.”
Pohl stressed that hospitality involved attending to the physical, social and spiritual needs of strangers; it meant not only offering food and shelter, but recognizing strangers as persons of equal worth and dignity. It also was a key practice in transcending national and ethnic distinctions in the church.
Do our churches still value hospitality as what Christine Pohl had expressed? Or are our hospitality has been relegated to mere door greetings, handing out of worship service programs and leading people to a vacant seat?
According to Pastor Rick Warren, creating an atmosphere of belongingness to a newcomer would be a deciding factor whether or not the newcomer would come back to again join the church fellowship.
I believe that hospitality in the church is fading as a significant practice. Attention is still paid to the needs of strangers, especially the poor, but that attention is diffused, and seemed afar off from the language and practice of hospitality as it seems in the gospel or as a Filipino trait.
The issue of marginalization of the poor within the church could be understood by knowing the quantifiable bases of empowerment as proposed by Norman Uphoff in his article, “Some Analytical Issues in Measuring Empowerment for the Poor, with Concern for Community and Local Governance.”
Gleaned from his quantitative study on people empowerment, we could appropriate Norman Uphoff’s five categories of resources or assets that can be accumulated and used to gauge whether our poor church members are marginalized or attaining empowerment. The six are:
- Economic resources (power bases) – There is a need to find how the poor members of the church are faring in terms of economic resources. Have they shown control over resources that would allow them to become productive and sustain their day to day living?
- Social resources — social status or standing, based on social roles and/or on meeting criteria considered worthy of respect, esteem and deference. Such ‘goods’ can be simply ‘consumed’ or can be used to meet goals, in which case they are power bases.
- Political resources — primarily a consequence of occupying authority roles entitling people to claim that they are speaking in the name of the church or organization and can use whatever resources that institutions have to enforce decisions. Being able to influence the exercise of authority, and achieve objectives thereby, through voting or any other means, represents power within the domain of church politics.
- Informational resources – knowledge of the Christian faith that is productive or beneficial for others and thus desired by them, reflecting the adage that “knowledge is power” or better yet “Biblical knowledge is spiritual power.” Do our poor saints gain sustainable equipping in the aspect of Christian life, social awareness, advocacy and continuous learning?
- Moral resources — the legitimacy given to decision-makers, decisions, and their roles or the system of governance that leads people to defer to and accept others’ decisions as right and proper. How independent are they when they take part in the church’s decision-making? Can they vocalize their stand on some vital issues in the life of the church without fear of being reproached by those on the opposite side of the issue, more so, the rich church members?
In the lens of the present realities of the commitment to the poor of CPBC churches, the principles that should guide us in our response to the plight of the poor must be carefully and clearly laid out.
What changes need to be effected in the consciousness of our churches so that it is oriented towards greater commitment to the poor? What transformation and creative orientations are required in the praxis of the church?
I believe that there is a need for us to rediscover that the purpose of the church is to increase the love of God and neighbor. Multiplying and magnifying the love of God and neighbor remain as the fundamental challenge of our church.
It seems that love of neighbor remains highly selective in some of our churches. Some church members would prefer joining a group with whom the members are clique in social status, jobs, interests or business. Our churches need to check their commitment to the poor. The challenge is to be completely immersed into God’s work of loving mission to be involved in the plight of the poor.
Dr. Bernabe Pagara’s dissertation enumerates several recommendations that could be well applied by our churches in reinventing there commitment to the poor. Dr. Pagara writes:
…Having known the specific factors and manifestations of poverty, which affect the poor, the researcher suggests the following recommendations for further study and actions that may aid in the proper and effective exercise of Church ministry to the poor. These recommendations are as follows.
- The churches should be educated and equipped about the issues of poverty and struggles of the poor through regular seminars, workshop and literature.
- There is a need to manifest visible and transparent Christian witness in the proper exercise of church funds particularly for the poor.
- There is a need to improve the procedure and the practice of Christian giving and stewardship among the churches.
- There should be a united effort, with a sense of accountability, to be made at the denominational level to address the issues and the problems of the poor and poverty.
- The Church should adopt the apostolic model of diakonia (service), which reflects sacrificial attitudes and a caring community.
- The Church should discover and exercise the neglected incarnational gifts – sharing, caring and giving (cf. Rom. 12:8-9).
- The adoption of a deprived community by a rich local church to serve as a catalyst.
- The churches should practice the stewardship of earth’s resources.
- A simple life-style of the members of the Body of Christ.
- The churches should show solidarity with the poor in every way and participate in their struggles against injustice.
- An additional study needs to be conducted in relation to how churches participate in the social ministry aspects.
- There should be solidarity among Christian congregations in the issue of poverty and injustice.
What does it take to be committed or in solidarity with the poor? Writing on the “Asian Christian Views on Suffering in the Face of Overwhelming Poverty and Multifaceted Religiosity in Asia”, Andreas Anangguru Yewangoe, an Indonesian theologian, concludes:
“Living in solidarity with people also demands from the churches confession of sin. At the same time, they must let their prophetic voice be heard, based on the conviction that God has reconciled Himself with man. This means that critical voices are directed not only to the “oppressors,” or the oppressive system, but also against all human efforts to release themselves from the bondage of suffering.
Let the church be the Church of the Cross. Also let the church be the church which always remembers Jesus’ suffering and death, but at the same time also open its eyes to see human sufferings and open its ears to hear human crying. God cannot be experienced in the church if He cannot also be experienced outside the church, in the midst of world miseries.
Becoming the Church of the Cross does not, therefore, mean making the church a kind of masochist church, enjoying the beauty of the Cross, but rather, a church taking part in human suffering, miseries, longings, and hopes. As the bearer of the Cross, the churches would betray their true nature if they remained indifferent to the people and their sufferings.”
From my six years experience in process documentation research, staying in several depressed villages of Antique and Iloilo provinces, spending time with the urban poor along South Super Highway in Parañaque, Bicutan and Quezon City, then my 10-year experience in two local churches, I am deeply aware of my “poverty” in actualizing a sustainable and holistic ministry to the poor of our churches.
May this paper pose a challenge to us all who have been called to minister to God’s poor people. Life is too short not to get involve in God’s call to true and selfless service.
- Hopewell, James F.. 1987. Congregations Stories and structures. Fortress Press, Philadelphia.
- Lindgren, Alvin J.. 1965. Foundations for Purposeful Church Administration. Abingdon Press, Nashville.
- Mattews, Shailer. 1971. Jesus on Social Institutions. Fortress Press, Philadelphia.
- Yewangoe, Andreas Anangguru. 1987. Theologia Crucis in Asia: Asian Christian Views on Suffering in the Face of Overwhelming Poverty and Multifaceted Religiousity in Asia. Amsterdam.
- Hope, Marjorie and Young, James. The Homeless: On the Street, on the Road. Available from web.worldbank.org/WBSITE/EXTERNAL/TOPICS/EXTPOVERTY/EXTEMPOWERMENT.
- Howe, Leroy T.. Where Are We Going in Pastoral Care. Available from http://www.religion-online.org.
- Messer, Donald E.. Reinventing the Church. Available from http://www.religion-online.org.
- Northbrook, Warren Heard. Luke’ Attitude Toward the Rich and the Poor. Available from www.apuritansmind.com/Stewardship/NorthbrookWarrenLukeRichPoor.htm.
- Pagara, Bernabe. “The Implications of the Pauline Theology of PTOCHOS and PTOCHEIA to the Contemporary Understanding of the Poor and Poverty among the Deacons of the Convention of Philippine Baptist Churches in the Province of Iloilo.” Doctoral Dissertation, Asia Baptist Graduate Theological Seminary, 2003. Journal of Theology, Volume 2.