One November many years ago, I was attending a conference in downtown Atlanta, Georgia. It was late in the afternoon on Sunday. I had bowed out of a couple of sessions to finish some paperwork in my hotel room. Time slipped away from me and when I finally took to the streets to find a place to eat, I found that the only thing open late on a Sunday was a MacDonald's. Fast food is not at the top of my list in reference to bill of fare, but it was going to have to do.
As I approached the entrance to the restaurant, a young man, who was obviously homeless, approached me asking if I would give him money for something to eat. A police officer stepped in to keep him from bothering me. I told the officer that I very much appreciated him doing his job, but that it was OK; I would talk to the young man.
Instead of giving him the money, I offered to buy him dinner. So we took our place in line and when we reached the counter we both ordered our meals. As we left the counter with our respective trays in hand, he looked somewhat watchful, seeing where I was going to sit, and then he started to walk away to sit somewhere else. I invited him to join me and with a look of surprise on his face, he accepted.
I must say, that in one sense, it was very difficult to enjoy my meal. As a homeless man, he had not bathed in quite a while and the taste of my food was laced with the smell of foul body odor. But in another sense, it was one of the most profound moments of my life that completely changed my perspective on the nature of Christian mission.
As we talked, he told me that he was from south Florida, and he came not just from a broken family, but a dysfunctional one. His father was nowhere in the picture, his mother was constantly strung-out on drugs and alcohol, and his mother's live-in boyfriend had been verbally and physically abusive. He did, however, have a sister, still in Florida, of whom he spoke fondly. In such an unlivable situation, he decided to strike out on his own ending up in Atlanta, where he had a job for a little while; but since he had no place of residence, he was let go. It was very clear to me as we talked, that he was very intelligent and articulate; and while all persons are ultimately responsible for what they make of their lives, I could not help but think how this young man's life would be different had his home-life been different.
As we continued to talk, I offered to drive him to the bus station and pay for a ticket back to south Florida. It had been unseasonably cold in Atlanta; at least he could go to Florida and be in a warmer climate. Sleeping on the streets is not an attractive prospect, no matter where it is, but if that was going to be his situation, at least he could go somewhere with a milder climate. Perhaps, I suggested, his sister would help him get on his feet. He declined my offer and said something that made my heart sink—"Nobody back home wants me."
We talked for a little while longer, and as we prepared to leave he thanked me for dinner, and then he said something that completely rearranged my thinking and approach to the church's mission. I paraphrase his comments, but in quotations marks: "You know, everyone who buys me dinner takes their food and sits somewhere else leaving me to sit by myself; but you sat with me and talked to me and spent time with me. I often feel very lonely and I have gotten used to rejection and to being ignored. Thanks for your time."
The most important thing to this young man was not that I filled his stomach for a few hours, but that I was able to fill a few moments of his time in relationship.
Too often the church replaces mission with charity. Charity is what we do for the poor and marginalized to make us feel good about ourselves. We put aside funds in our budget for homeless shelters and soup kitchens; we even volunteer to feed the homeless once a week, and at the holidays we prepare food baskets for the "underprivileged," as we like to call them. Please do not misunderstand me. All of this is important and necessary and part of what it means to be a faithful church. But is this sufficient? Is this enough? Can such giving become a replacement for the mission and service that is so necessary?
Instead of only providing a space in our churches to feed the homeless, what if we made it a point to join them for lunch and not only offer to them a cup of water and more in Jesus’ name, but offer Jesus himself to them in our presence? What if we invited those persons to worship, and not only invited them, but brought them to worship and sat with them?
The homeless, the poor, the marginalized will indeed take what we offer them. If we offer them a hot meal, they will take. The question we must ask as followers of Jesus, who actually spent time with those on the fringes of society, is will they take more? Will they accept our time and our presence? Are we willing to sacrifice some time in order to offer our presence in Jesus' name?
The truth of the matter is charity is what we do for ourselves in order to make ourselves feel good; true mission is what we do for others because we the church exist for others. Above all things, Jesus Christ desires to be in relationship with all persons. He cannot be in relationship with others unless we are in relationship with them. Evangelism is not about only conveying information about salvation; it is not about leaving tracts on park benches. Evangelism is about being in relationship with those whom Jesus wants to be in relationship.
Such mission and service is indeed risky. It forces us to be vulnerable, to step outside of our comfort zones; but our lives, as well as the lives of others, depend upon it. When the church is willing to step out and take the risk of such mission and service, it will discover a kind of joy and satisfaction that far surpasses the momentary thrill of charitable giving, because it will have discovered the adventure that is the gospel!
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I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)