Skip to site content

‘Compassion, Justice and the Christian Life: Rethinking Ministry to the Poor’

Many of us who seek to minister to “the least of these” do so by giving our time, talents and funds. Sometimes we work in or donate to soup kitchens, clothes closets or other charitable ministries. Seldom do we realize that our compassionate response may be undermining the road to recovery for an individual or a community in need of redevelopment.

Those words of Jesus ring down through the centuries, calling to those of us who claim his name. Second in importance as a commandment only to loving God “with all your passion and prayer and intelligence” (from Matthew 22, The Message), loving our neighbor places constraints on our priorities for giving as well as for living.

Robert Lupton has taken those words to heart as he has sought to be a loving neighbor, living and working as a community developer for 34 years in inner-city Atlanta. He directs Family Consultation Service Urban Ministries where he seeks to match community resources with community needs.

Lessons that Lupton has learned about “neighboring” in his years of ministry prompted Compassion, Justice and the Christian Life: Rethinking Ministry to the Poor (which was originally published in 2000 as And You Call Yourself a Christian).

Lupton, according to the biography on his book, has “developed three mixed-income subdivisions, organized two multi-racial congregations, started many businesses, and created housing for hundreds of families,” among other things. He holds a doctorate from the University of Georgia in psychology and speaks at churches and conferences, in addition to consulting with others seeking to serve in similar ministries.

Many of us who seek to minister to “the least of these” do so by giving our time, talents and funds. Sometimes we work in or donate to soup kitchens, clothes closets or other charitable ministries. Seldom do we realize that our compassionate response may be undermining the road to recovery for an individual or a community in need of redevelopment.

Lupton asks his readers to rethink what he calls non-reciprocal services and programs in the light of Jesus’ call to “neighboring.” He begins the book with a telling anecdote about his visit to an unnamed Bible college where he challenges the students about what they are primarily called to do as Christians, particularly as those called to the ministry. They were surprised when their immediate responses of evangelism were challenged by Lupton as he directed their attention to the above-referenced verses.

After a foreword by John Perkins, president of the John M. Perkins Foundation and Chair Emeritus of the Christian Community Development Association, and an introduction, the book is divided into four sections: What’s Wrong with this Picture, Is it Time to Consider a Change, Toward Responsible Charity, and Final Thoughts.

Dealing with the changes in inner-city landscapes, the challenges of gentrification and re-gentrification, even the expansion of parking lots for urban churches, Lupton asks his readers to do some difficult self-examination, both of ourselves and the assumptions we have made about the best ways to be the kind of neighbor Jesus calls us to be.

In a chapter on clothes closets, Lupton refers to “ancient Hebrew wisdom” and describes four levels of charity.

“The highest level is to provide a job for one in need without his knowledge that you provided it,” writes Lupton. “The next, lower level is to provide work that the needy one knows you provided. The third level is to give an anonymous gift to meet an immediate need. The lowest level of charity, to be avoided if at all possible, is to give a poor person a gift with his full knowledge that you are the donor.”

“Perhaps the deepest poverty of all is to have nothing of value to offer in exchange,” Lupton continues. “Charity that fosters such poverty must be challenged. We know from 40 years of failed social policy that welfare depletes self-esteem while honorable work produces dignity. We know that reciprocity builds mutual respect while one-way giving brews contempt ¦”

Putting those principles and the hard-learned lessons from Lupton’s experiences to work in real life is not easy, and Lupton doesn’t promise that it will be. Instead he asks us to be aware that one person or organization’s idea of progress is not necessarily that of the community or individual who will be affected by that progress.

Sensitivity to one’s neighbors, clothed in godly love, should enable all that we seek to do.

Sara Powell of Hartwell, Ga., is a member of the Baptist Center for Ethics board.