The inefficiency of love
New York is a city of 8 million souls—55,000 of them, just over one-half of 1 percent, are homeless. But it’s still a lot of people, and a lot of suffering.
God warns His people to show a special concern for the poor among them. Proverbs tells us, “Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker, but he who is generous to the needy honors him.” In the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus teaches that our special concern for the poor within the household of God does not absolve us of responsibility of the poor stranger out on the street.
But the poor of whom the Bible speaks do not have televisions and iPods. Job describes them as “about to perish.” In the ancient Roman world, about 30 percent of the population lived below the subsistence level. These were the poor. Another 60 percent lived roughly at subsistence. The nobles, the patrician class, really were the 1 percent.
I took the students in my Christ and Poverty class to New York’s historic rescue missions, the Bowery Mission and the New York City Rescue Mission (NYCRM). The people we saw are the biblical poor. They have nothing: no means of support, no place even to wash. Their clothes are in tatters. Underwear is a precious gift. They are wholly unprepared to seek, secure, and hold a job. Sadly, almost all of them are alcoholics, drug addicts, or mentally ill. For the addicts and drunks, some sort of despair led them into their downward spiral of self-destruction. For all of them, something broke their connection with family. Everyone was once someone’s baby.
These rescue missions have been doing great work for 140 years. NYCRM serves meals to 300 people a day and has 240 beds for nightly refuge. Both missions strive to provide “the very best for the very least,” treating the guests with love and respecting their dignity, which, outside those walls, is rubbed raw. They also have, in addition to Bible studies, classes for computer skills and job hunting, and nice donated suits for the interview stage. But only a handful gets that far.
One may question the return on investment in doing so little for so few in a sea of need. These missions come nowhere close to solving New York’s poverty problem. But Jesus did not command His people to “solve the poverty problem.” He said to show mercy to the helpless who are in desperate need:
“I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me” (Matthew 25:35–36, ESV).
People are complicated. It takes a generation and a small fortune for a mom and dad to raise a child from infancy to adulthood, to shelter and feed, to educate, to train in the habits of hard work and charity. Any attempt to expand the scale and efficiency of this process through community day care and industrial schooling falls miserably short. So why should anyone expect that restoring adults from shattered lives and tragically disfigured hearts, even with the saving grace of God assisting as it does with our children, could be accomplished “efficiently” with a “modern” system of social services. It’s face-to-face and hand-to-hand in Jesus’ name. It’s draining. It’s often disheartening, even heartbreaking. But there is no other way.
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