As I settle into a new ministry in the Kansas City area, I’m getting to know the community. An important part of that is finding out what non-profits and service organizations are already doing for those in need. When I moved to Phoenix 7+ years ago, I did the same thing. I flitted happily about town, handing out business cards, collecting brochures, making bff’s with community relations folks in the various helping professions. For the most part, I found the local service facilities to be clean, welcoming, and all around in the business of transforming lives. But then there was this rescue mission…
The place was filthy and smelled of urine; it did not strike me as warm in any way; and it was full-up of Christian tracts of the sort that I usually make fun—until I see them thrust upon the most vulnerable members of society, at which point I just get mad.
Not only did the place keep this literature on-hand—you know, the images of cartoon white guys burning in the poorly-sketched flames of hell—but they required that the men who came seeking help go through a ‘counseling’ session before they could receive care.
It was basically a Christian time share pitch. But without the trip to the beach at the end.
Needless to say, I did not choose to partner in service with that particular establishment. But I did learn some stuff about the kinds of questions I should ask when vetting these places in the future. And about the kinds of conditional compassion that I absolutely did not want to endorse.
Fast forward 7 years, and I’m applying all this wisdom to my assessment of KC area charities. And what pops up in my newsfeed but this gem of local gospel.
It’s like a little parable. The Shiny Christian Charity (read: Pharisees) declines the volunteer services of the Super Scary Atheist Coalition (read: Gentiles). Their argument? That the Super Sad Poor People (read: just regular poor people) needed to be told about Jesus before they could collect their turkey dinner. And therefore, the Super Scary Atheists should just go on home, and let the Shiny Christians do the manipulating. I mean Biblical Serving of the Poor.
Enter a different, not-so-shiny Christian ministry (read: Jesus!) who said, “let the atheists come to me!” And they all serve the poor together, and maybe even start saying, ‘why are there so many poor people? And what can we do about that?’ And it’s a great story.
There are so many layers of things going on here… for one thing, it seems like the Shiny Christian Group is saying “But…but these are OUR poor people!” Like they are calling dibs on all the goodwill in the city and saying that it must be done in Jesus’ name, or not at all. Like there aren’t enough poor people to go around.
But really, that’s not it. There is a fear of scarcity at work here, but it’s not about scarcity of people who need help. What these folks—and other Christian Salespeople—really fear is a scarcity of grace. A shortcoming, somehow, in God’s saving power. They seem to think that, unless they sell their particular, packaged and branded faith, God will somehow fail at restoring the world to God’s self.
So they guard the table. They serve the poor and needy, but ask them to proclaim Jesus as the personal savior, on the spot, in EXACTLY the right words. So it’s not that ‘these are our poor people.’ It’s more like, ‘this is our table. And we’re the boss of who can sit here. Now who wants some time share turkey?”
What they fear is that somebody will come in and nudge them aside from their table-guarding post. So now they aren’t just guarding the table. They’re guarding their RIGHT to guard the table.
But seriously, they send the atheists away? If there’s anything this sort of group loves more than bringing a homeless person to Jesus, it’s bringing an ATHEIST to Jesus. How could they miss out on such a windfall of evangelism points?!
Thing is… when you’re busy guarding the table, you can only reach so far.
I sent the KC Atheist Coalition (not really scary) a thank you note for serving people in need; and told them I was sorry that Christians don’t always exhibit Christ-like behavior. I’m not planning to send a note to the Shiny Christian Rescue Mission but if I did, here’s what I’d say: Following Jesus means that you want the world to look more like the kingdom of God. And you can’t transform the world unless you are IN the world. Like, really in it; meeting people where they are, loving them regardless of what they believe or don’t, and serving the most fragile, most vulnerable people among us without making them sit through an effing lecture about what sinners they are.
Because I saw that little room, at the rescue mission in Phoenix, where the men sat in a circle of plastic chairs and heard about Jesus. Those men were hot and sunburned. They were drunk, high, and/or in various stages of detox. They were mentally ill. They were wounded veterans. They were dirty, they were tired, and probably hungry. They did not need a piece of the Jesus timeshare, or a comic book track about hell. They needed an encounter with the living Christ. And when you think about the Jesus we meet in scripture, how does he love people? He shares a meal with them; he heals them with his hands; he restores their place in community; and he tells them to come to him, and rest.
And he says we should go and do likewise.
The ‘Go’ part might mean that we have to step away from the table-guarding post for a minute. But it’s cool. The atheists can ladle up gravy just fine.