I always knew that the poor were present around me, but I assumed that God had called me to minister in the mainstream of society. I admired those who did minister on the margins, but my assumption was that God had placed them there and he had placed me comfortably in my middle-class context. I really enjoyed my ministry situation, and I wasn’t too preoccupied with the vulnerable and marginalized. It seemed to me that I was ministering where the real ministry action was.
I do recall one very significant encounter with God when I was in my early twenties. I was attending a summer training program with the Navigators in College Park, Maryland. One weekend I found myself reading a booklet on how to be empowered to live like Jesus. As I finished reading and reflected on what I read, I questioned how I could truly follow Jesus with all my heart. That moment, Luke 4:18-19 came to mind. Jesus was announcing the launch of his ministry when he stood up and read,
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me and He has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” Isaiah 61
The thought flashed through my mind, “I will never understand how to really follow Jesus with all my being until I understand what Jesus meant when he said, “Bring good news to the poor.” What did he mean by the poor? What is good news to the poor?
That moment at the University of Maryland fraternity house would revisit my thoughts over the next twenty-five years on numerous occasions. Truthfully though, I would often push my questions aside by saying something like, “I don’t know what to do with this.” During this period our ministry to the mainstream was flourishing, and I had little reason to reflect on the good news to the poor. I was sure that God was at work in what we were doing and I didn’t have the capacity or maturity to try to fit Luke 4:18-19 into my thinking. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to include it in what I was doing as much as it simply didn’t seem to be a priority.
All of my lack of urgency to understand Jesus’ announcement came to a screeching halt in my mid-forties. Up to this point in my life, our ministry was fruitful and flourishing. I had never experienced significant suffering in my life. I wrongly felt because I was doing what God wanted me to do, I was living in God’s protective bubble. I now wonder how I could have concluded that suffering was not in God’s equation for me because I was somehow obedient.
Ready or not, pain and suffering did show up in our lives. It hit me where I expected it least – in my family. We have three beautiful girls, and I tried to love them and be available to them for sure. However, over the next years we lived with ongoing struggles and tension in our home; some that still have not been resolved to this day. This had a heartbreaking impact on me. I remember thinking, “I have friends and support on all sides, and yet my heart is shattered.” It seemed that no one could speak good news to me, try as they may.
It was at this point in my pain I was reminded, with a great sense of urgency, of Jesus’ ministry to the brokenhearted. I was now able to ask myself a deeper question, “What about the poor? They suffer what I suffer and more and yet do they have someone to bring good news to them?” People can be poor in spirit or just poor. They can also be poor in spirit and poor simultaneously. In all such circumstances what they so desperately need is good news and hope in word and deed. From that moment in my life, all of my faculties were focused on understanding what Jesus meant when he announced his ministry in Luke 4:18-19. I was now a learner in following him in his ministry to the poor.
My next defining moment came while walking the streets of Surabaya, Indonesia. From time to time I would ask ministry leaders of a country or city if I could just have a day or half day to walk the streets of the city I was visiting. This particular day in Surabaya was loaded with experiences that taught me lessons that I still vividly remember.
One particular experience changed my life profoundly and permanently. As I made my way back to my hotel, I had to cross a bridge over a small river. I looked down at the banks on both sides of the stream and observed people who lived there on a permanent basis. The living conditions were terrible, to say the least, as people did all of their bodily functions of life in the stream. Suddenly I noticed a young woman in a small boat in the middle of the river bathing her little child. It occurred to me that she was there because that was where the water was cleanest. My immediate thought was, “This woman has hope for her child in these living conditions!”
I have no idea who the young woman was or her religious affiliation, but I do know that I saw something of the image of God as she lovingly bathed her child. Something of God’s love was present in her life. My mind went to Isaiah 6:8, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” It was clear to me that God intends to gather a portion of his people from the river banks of Indonesia, the slums of Manila, and the poorest of the poor in India. The question is who will go?
While some are called to live and walk intimately with the poor, I certainly do not believe all are called to do so. I do, however, believe that God wants all of us to carry in our hearts the poor in spirit and the poor with great compassion and love. All of us need to have a special sensitivity to the needs of those who are most vulnerable. God is deeply concerned for those who live on the margins at any level (Matt 25:31-46) . I believe, without reservation, He wants leaders to champion good news to the poor in whatever context they may find themselves. It’s all part of taking in God’s tender heart for those who are most at risk in his created world.
Grace to you,