Saturday, February 1, 1997
Readers offer variety of views on role of churches
in helping the poor
By TOM SCHAEFER
"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'
Still, he said, the role of churches is clearer when mem- bers
recognize the connection between a person's physical and spiritual
"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
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
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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