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Saturday, February 1, 1997

Readers offer variety of views on role of churches in helping the poor


Knight-Ridder Newspapers

"Never turn away the needy; share all your possessions with your brother, and do not claim that anything is your own. If you and he are joint participators in things immortal, how much more so in things that are mortal?"

The advice comes from the Didache, a Christian manual on morals and church practices, written in the first or second century.

Today, the words seem out of sync with contemporary themes of personal freedom, individual responsibility and unbridled con- sumerism, which themselves can seem contrapuntal. Never turn away the needy? Oh, sure - and have them beating down the doors for handouts. Share possessions? Don't claim anything as your own? What are you, a com- munist?

Nonetheless, this question won't go away: What responsibility do churches - as well as other non-profit groups - have in providing assistance to those in need? I've raised the question in part because of the inevitable role religious groups will be asked to play as government programs for the poor are reduced or eliminated.

And, as I've requested, readers have weighed in on the subject. Two weeks ago, the Rev. Dennis Hesselbarth of Hilltop Evangelical Free Church in Wichita, Kan., took aim at both conservatives and liberals for failing to help. Conservatives want to blame the poor and thus ignore them, said Hesselbarth, while liberals want to spend tax dollars for someone else to take care of them. What's missing, he asks? Personal involvement.

"Many walk alongside of them to pick them up when they falter and encourage them to stay the course," Hesselbarth says. "Finding those who will 'walk along side' is a tall order." In- deed.

Other readers offered their in- sights:

"Who should help the poor if it isn't the church?" asked John Osborne of Wichita. He observed that Jesus told his followers to visit the prisoners and, if his followers had two coats, to give away one. "Nowhere does he talk about the government doing what the church should do."

Osborne criticized churches that "have decided to serve themselves for the most part or give money to missionaries to help those folks off in some other land, to feel good about their effort in helping the have-nots." But that's not what personal in- volvement is about, he said.

"If Jesus said that the poor would always be with you, then our task is simply to serve the poor," Osborne said.

Blaine Lair of Wichita con tends the needs of the poor are far greater than the combined ability of all churches - an ob- stacle, he noted, that is made more difficult by the fact that only a fraction of congregants actually contribute to their churches' financial needs.

Still, he said, the role of churches is clearer when mem- bers recognize the connection between a person's physical and spiritual needs.

"These are inseparable goals, one is not exclusive of the other," Lair said. "Serving the poor without relating the two is to be uncaring for their (the poor's) permanent needs."

Some readers questioned the premise that government should help the poor at all.

Referring to churches, John Ponder of Tucson, Ariz., said the government has "usurped our role of ministering to the poor." A cut in taxes, he contends, would help churches have more resources to help the needy.

"Taking care of the disadvan taged is not the only purpose of the church, according to Scrip ture," he said. Even so, the help that churches do provide is "seri- ously underfunded today."

Other readers say that caring for a person's spiritual needs su- persedes caring for physical needs.

Only programs "that lead to Jesus Christ have any lasting values," insisted David Cox of Elmwood, Ill.

He recalled a television show about an inner-city church in Philadelphia that helps educate unemployed males even as it shares a gospel message with them.

"Three years after accepting Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, these people were no longer in poverty," Cox said the show re- ported. Compare that church's result, he said, to statistics that show governmental programs for the needy have not reduced the number of people living below the poverty level, and there's one obvious conclusion: "The problems we face will never be solved by man."

Those who favor churches' taking a more active role in helping the needy are under- scoring a national belief that non-governmental sources offer the best hope for solving social problems. A recent survey found that less than one-fourth of Americans said they trust local government to solve problems; they trust state and federal governments even less. Most put their faith in church, community and volunteer groups to do the job.

So, what can churches and other non-profit groups as well as you and I do to tackle these problems?

Let's keep the dialogue going. Write to me and tell me what you or your group is doing to help those in need, and I'll share some of that information in an upcoming column. You can reach me:

by mail, Tom Schaefer, c/o The Wichita Eagle, P.O. Box 820, Wichita, Kan. 67201;

by fax: (316) 268-6627; or

by e-mail: wenews(at)wichi- ta.infi.net

(Tom Schaefer writes about re- ligion and ethics for the Wichita (Kan.) Eagle. Write to him at the Wichita Eagle, P.O. Box 820, Wichita, KS 67201.)

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