I recently came across a piece by Kay Warren, wife of megachurch pastor Rick Warren, in Christianity Today. Though I would not agree with all that Warren stands for, I was quite moved by her accounts of recent visits to people in desperate situations in the Ukraine. Here are some moving selections from her article “Talk and Walk”:
“People newly diagnosed with HIV come to this hospital for further tests. In one room, a man sat aloof, barely acknowledging our presence. Another man angrily denounced his government’s weak response to people with HIV. Anatoly, a local pastor, invited me to this hospital and we listened as the angry man talked about his two-year-old boy with HIV. (This means the mother in the family is almost certainly HIV-positive.) In silence, we grieved together over the uncertain future of this family.
In the next room, two young women sat on neatly made metal beds, apprehensive at our unannounced arrival. One pretty blonde, 23, told us she had been diagnosed for a month. To look at her, you would never know she was ill.”
The writing is dramatic, but so is the experience. Here’s more:
“Pastor Gennady resembles a swashbuckling movie hero—tall and handsome, with energetic hands he distributes bear hugs and high fives to children passing in the hallways. These precious children once lived on the streets; their arms are scarred by needle tracks from drug addiction. Twenty percent are HIV-positive. Pastor Gennady is known for blatantly grabbing street kids from their hideouts. He offers them safety, detox, and nourishment for soul and body.
Late that day, I joined him in a surprise visit to a basement under a large apartment complex. He had heard that a street boy there was about to die. The entryway into the basement was a hazardous crawl, down a metal ladder hanging onto the wall by a few screws, into inky darkness. As I climbed down slowly, my eyes adjusted. I could see the exposed electrical wires, pipes dripping waste, empty syringes, discarded foil cards that held tramadol (their drug of choice), and dead rats.
The glimpse of wretchedness was enough to smash my heart yet again. In the middle of this, I caught a glimpse of another reality—a local church pastor being the hands and feet of Jesus to someone who perhaps had never personally experienced the love of Christ.”
I cannot say that I have easy answers for the questions that revolve around “mercy ministry” to unbelievers. Should local churches invest significant amounts of time and money in it? Should they leave it to individuals to do it? What does the New Testament direct us to do on this question? Should we consider “mercy ministry” to be a form of evangelism? Is this the best way to reach out to the lost in our era? Or is it a distraction from evangelism? These are difficult questions to answer, particularly in light of the fact that the New Testament has to be carefully handled on this matter (as on so many others).
I can say this, though: I am profoundly impacted and challenged by work like that of the Ukrainian pastors. As a person who loves the ministry of words, I am challenged by those who selflessly and sacrificially give themselves to a ministry of deeds. I do not have the answers for the above questions at this time, and I do not endorse all that Rick or Kay Warren teach and practice, but I can say that I am challenged by their example and the example of many other faithful Christians whose names I do not know to be a merciful presence in a world of sin and sickness. Somehow, in some way, I know that I need to have such a heart, and that I need to have such a ministry, however much it causes me to shrink back from its call and claims.