Sometimes, after taking an hour-long tour of our several locations and initiatives, including health care, legal services, workforce training, after school programs, and food delivery, someone will ask, "Now where do you do the ministry?"
This question always causes me to smile.
Of course, I know what is intended.
People want to know if we are "witnessing" to those who come to us for assistance. They want to know if we are teaching people about the Christian faith. You know, driving folks toward conversion or a "decision of Christ." This is especially true of more affluent church folks from outside the neighborhood. It is as if "sharing the faith" is all that matters, and once completed, they are "off the hook" and can return to their comfort and luxury without further concern.
I have to tell you, I wish it were that easy.
Across the last 15 years, I've come to understand that questions like these reflect a basic misunderstanding of the nature of the communities where we are working, as well as the individuals who compose these neighborhoods. In addition, these concerns misunderstand how we relate to all who come through our several doors.
Not long ago we received the following message from a prospective donor:
Again, I say thank you for the effort and time, which you commit to the ministry of people. In a recent meeting. . .we were able to discuss the opportunity of partnering with Central Dallas Ministries. Based on the principles and guidelines of our organization, we don’t believe that such a partnership would be the best possible use of the funds that we give to charitable causes.
The primary focus of ministries that we support must include spreading the gospel of Jesus to those that do not know Him; we believe that "loving God with all your heart, and your neighbor as yourself” is what we should try to do.
While Central Dallas Ministries strongly and actively promotes the second half of this philosophy, I don’t believe telling others about God is a priority to Central Dallas Ministries. People must have the opportunity to know and love Jesus, and we see humanitarian aid as an avenue to promote this agenda. It is an opportunity for them to see Christ in us, and for us to share with them an eternal hope that will greatly exceed what we can give them materially and socially.
I trust I have not offended you in any way, as it was certainly not meant to; however, I thought that I certainly owed you an answer and explanation, considering your efforts and consideration. I wish you and Central Dallas Ministries the best in your future endeavors and know that you will be a blessing to many.
What this person and group do not understand is the simple fact that the vast, vast majority of the people we work among claim a clear commitment to Jesus and self-identify as Christians.
The fundamental question in our community is not whether folks have faith in God.
The major questions we deal with have to do with survival as individuals and families.
In my view some of our "Christian groups" need to read more of Jesus and his early followers.
For us and our organization the key concern is not what others believe. The key issue is what we do because of our faith in response to the pain of our neighbors, most of whom are our brothers and sisters in faith.
I love what John wrote so long ago:
If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? (1 John 3:17) Translation: talk is cheap, especially when it is holy talk or God-talk.
Or, consider these words from James, the brother of Jesus:
What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, 'Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed,' but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. (James 2:15-17)
Every day we engage, embrace, hear, encounter, hug, love, challenge, pray with, encourage, urge on, call (and did I say love?) the urban poor here in the heart of Dallas. The people we face day-by-day have and know Jesus. What they do not have is opportunity, enough food, education, a way to receive health care, respect and a realistic chance to care for themselves and their families.
To "share the gospel" and walk away is pure foolishness, as well as faithless.
I suppose we are very Franciscan.
St. Francis once challenged his followers with these words, "Preach the gospel at all times. Use words only when necessary." This is our creed.
If that is offensive, come live with us for a while and see how it works out a life at a time in our very real world.
By the way, today in a meeting with volunteers, one of our long-time partners who has come every week for 14 years to serve and to love shared a moving testimony about "prayer time" she had enjoyed with very poor neighbors who had come to our food pantry for help. Tears flowed and everyone understood what kind of ministry she was up to among our dear neighbors who came to unload burdens and receive hope for another day.
If that is not spiritual enough for some donors, I simply regret that they don't understand and that they have no willingness to experience our reality.