The past two days I have been in Abilene, Texas. I was involved in the annual lectureship program at Abilene Christian University and made a presentation yesterday dealing with poverty, compassion, justice and faith.
The "jumping off" place for my speech was Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans and the national response to the tragic storm.
After I spoke, there was a time for questions and discussion. It turned out to be quite lively.
One young minister from the Dallas-Fort Worth area stood out.
He described all that his church was attempting to do among working, low-income families who came to his church again and again for assistance.
"The people we are serving out of our food pantry come to us time after time--the same people," he explained.
"Our volunteers are asking me, 'Why do these people keep coming back? They use us as a grocery store.'" he continued.
"We are paying lots of utility bills and providing rental assistance to many families," he went on.
"We are asking ourselves if we are really doing anyone any good," he said.
As he expressed his concerns, a couple of things became clear to me.
First, this church regarded its ministry to the poor as primarily a compassion ministry to be utilized in acute situations. The church's food, assistance funds and benevolence was there for people in times of emergency.
What this church discovered in the community was something far different than acute or emergency needs.
The needs of this community were chronic and deepening.
I tried to encourage my friend to reframe the effort for his church. Possibly regarding their food pantry as an alternative community grocery store was not such a bad idea. Working people in his neighborhood simply don't earn enough to make ends meet. Their need is chronic and it is not going away anytime soon. The church's ministry is likely to be literally holding families together and keeping them off the streets.
Second, and more troubling, this church cannot continue at its current pace. The need is too great.
As the minister said at one point in great frustration, "A church could easily go broke like this!"
Of course, he is correct.
The situation facing this fine young minister and his church is very, very instructive.
As federal and state lawmakers and executives continue to cut funding from the budgets of programs designed to serve and to lift the poor, they often tell us that the work they are eliminating from public obligation should be done by the church.
Such expectations are naive at best and based on a cruel and knowing deception at worst.
The fact is, the church cannot bear the burden of the poor in America alone.
The church has an important role to play.
The church could and should do more.
But, the scale of the problem is far too large for the church. The vast majority of churches today are not equipped to handle the need in terms of volume or complexity.
It is simply not true to continue to say that the plight of the poor in America can be managed by the church without the involvement of public, government institutions.
It is just not true.
And, promoting this deception helps no one.