Some Christians provide shelter for the homeless or food for hungry people. Others engage in social activism or public policy advocacy.
What’s love got to do with it? Everything, many who are involved in those efforts insist. It’s all about fulfilling Jesus’ command to love one’s neighbor as oneself.
On a cold winter night in 1987, two homeless men froze to death on Troost Avenue in Kansas City, Mo., a major north-south street that historically divided the predominantly white west part of town from the largely African-American east side.
For Pastor Ken Smith at nearby Forest Avenue Baptist Church, the death of the two men marked the tipping point that spurred his church to action. Already, he had been wrestling with knowledge that some of their congregational food pantry’s clients slept in the church parking lot.
“It was a moody blue Monday, and I prayed, ‘Lord, what are we going to do with this building you’ve given us?’” he recalled.
Love for neighbors, as Jesus commanded, required a dramatic response. Smith — who had been at Forest Avenue about three years — led the church to open its educational building to homeless people as a shelter, beginning with 50 cots and 50 blankets.
Initially, the shelter welcomed single men and couples. In time, Forest Avenue Family Shelter (forestavenuefamilyshelter.org) narrowed its focus, developing into an emergency facility for single women, mothers with children, battered women and victims of human trafficking.
“We’ve rescued a lot of women from trafficking and prostitution over the years,” Smith said.
The shelter houses about 32 guests on an average night, but Forest Avenue is seeking to add beds and lockers to expand capacity to 48 clients.
While the shelter meets the needs of women and children, the church’s soup kitchen primarily attracts men — typically 30 to 40 on most Sunday evenings.
“We had to move it to another part of the church because we were serving some of the pimps in the soup kitchen whose girls were in our shelter,” Smith said.
The shelter depends entirely on a volunteer staff and on donations, since it accepts no city, state or federal money.
“All the staff are ladies who came through the shelter and who have been saved, discipled and become church members,” Smith said. “Our focus is not just on providing shelter but on growing women as disciples.”
In the last three decades, Forest Avenue Church has transitioned several times — from predominantly white to mostly African-American to a 50/50 mix that represents the changing urban neighborhood. After years as an aging congregation, the church is beginning to attract young families who have moved to the area.
Even so, Smith does not see turning half a church’s facility into a homeless shelter as a particularly good model for church-growth strategy — unless God calls a church to do it.
“I would not recommend anybody do this unless God calls them,” he said. “It’s not the way I would have chosen to grow a church.… We did it because God said do it.”
Love for neighbors means Christians should engage in public policy advocacy for the common good and develop their own church-based ministries to meet needs directly, said Christian ethicist and theologian Roger Olson.
Christians in representative democracies should apply pressure to government “to build a strong safety net for the truly needy—especially children and the indigent—and to encourage employment,” said Olson, the Foy Valentine professor of Christian ethics and theology at Baylor University’s Truett Theological Seminary (baylor.edu/truett).
“There will always be people who fall through the cracks of even the best government welfare programs, and churches should build their own safety nets for those in their congregations and neighborhoods.”
Creation of a church-based social safety net requires churches to make unselfish decisions in regard to budget, he noted.
“I think that ideally a church should strive to spend one-third of its income on itself, one-third on missions/evangelism and one-third on physical relief for the hungry and homeless,” Olson said.
“That’s pretty idealistic, but I don’t see anything in the New Testament that encourages churches to spend most of their income on buildings, equipment and salaries. I see a lot there about missions and evangelism and about helping the poor.”
Must try to change the unjust systems now
Christians not only need to offer immediate relief to urgent needs, but also to look seriously at the root causes of injustice, said Charles Foster Johnson, co-pastor of Bread Fellowship in Fort Worth, Texas.
“People of faith are good at giving a person food when they are hungry. But systemic questions make us uncomfortable, ” Johnson told participants at a breakout session during the recent Together at the Table Hunger and Poverty Summit at Baylor University.
Love for one’s neighbor requires Christians to seek to change the circumstances that create poverty and hunger, he insisted. Education — more than any other single factor — enables many people to achieve socio-economic mobility, said Johnson, executive director of Pastors for Texas Children, a public education advocacy group.
Johnson began advocating for children in public schools six years ago when Suzii Paynter, then executive director of Texas Baptists’ Christian Life Commission (texasbaptists.org/ministries/clc), invited him to work in Austin with the Coalition for Public Schools (coalition4publicschools.org).
Serving with the coalition — focused on opposing the privatization of public schools and efforts to divert public money toward private education — Johnson grew passionate about the need to provide every child in the state access to quality public education. Rather than concentrating efforts in Austin during legislative sessions every two years, he became convinced children’s interests would be served better by mobilizing ministers around the state.
The coalition emphasizes the importance of building relationships between congregations and schools in their communities. As church leaders build friendships with school principals, they discover specific ways to help the schools — provide weekend backpacks filled with nutritious food for low-income students, offer after-school mentoring, collect school supplies or whatever a school needs to serve its students, he explained.
Like many congregations, Northeast Baptist Church in San Antonio responds to many people who seek help paying their bills. But one in particular captured the attention of Pastor Chad Chaddick — a woman who took out a $700 payday loan, had paid $1,800, but still owed $700.
It seemed so unjust to him — so contrary to love for neighbors. So Chaddick went to Austin to testify before the Senate Business and Commerce Committee and the House Investments and Financial Services Committee to support Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission-backed efforts to regulate the payday and auto title lenders.
Because of Chaddick’s involvement on the predatory-lending issue at the state level, Bryan Richardson, associate pastor at First Baptist Church in San Antonio, invited Chaddick to join a newly formed local group — Together for the City.
San Antonio’s business and civic leaders meet quarterly with church leaders. They share concerns about their city and ideas about how the public, private and religious sectors can cooperate for the common good.
The predatory-lending issue offered the group both an “early win” and a lesson learned from a failed effort, Chaddick noted. San Antonio’s City Council passed an ordinance regulating payday and auto-title loan businesses, and other cities have looked to it as a model they could adopt.
However, a plan for churches to offer short-term loans to low-income families as an alternative to payday lending proved “too difficult to do,” Chaddick confessed. But churches continue to support local credit union efforts to offer small-dollar loans at reasonable rates and encourage development of other alternative models, he added.
Recognizing the value of a forum where civic, business and religious leaders could talk honestly in a nonthreatening environment, Richardson, Chaddick and others kept alive the Together for the City network. Topics have ranged from human trafficking to adult education, to refugee services and resettlement, to health care, to foster-to-adoption programs, to community gardens.
Together for the City purposely has remained loosely organized and flexible. But the group has held encouraging conversations with leaders of the San Antonio Area Foundation about funds for a related entity.
“The idea is for the foundation to help us set up an idea incubator where we can bring to fruition some of the ideas raised by Together for the City,” Richardson explained. “Ideas are bubbling to the surface. An idea incubator could direct some money to some of those things.”
Apart from the idea incubator, San Antonio already benefits from the ongoing conversations that occur in Together for the City meetings, he insisted.
Ken Camp is managing editor of the Baptist Standard.