“for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matthew 25:35).
Each day that I come to work I am mindful of these words that Jesus spoke, and each day I try to remember that in the community where we are privileged to walk are human beings. Their circumstances do not need to determine their destiny.
I am also mindful that to walk with those who are poor requires compassion. That means the ability to find the poverty within you so that you never lose sight of the fact that while our physical or material circumstances may be different we are all in need.
For me that kind of articulation and understanding keeps me humble so that I never find myself looking down upon someone.
To walk with those living in poverty requires great patience on the part of those of us who serve. I keep remembering that I always need to hear people’s stories, to be sensitive to their struggles and recognize that poverty has so many layers and impacts people on so many levels. Whatever my hopes and expectations may be for someone, change will not happen until that individual is ready.
The other thing that I have found is the importance of learning someone’s name. I think that’s true in any ministry context but particularly when you are serving a community where those outside of the community do not see the individual stories but choose to lump them into one monolithic picture that is often negative.
Not long ago we gathered over 240 guests who utilize our services to have a discussion about inappropriate language and behavior that frankly was troubling. It was so troubling that we were ready to limit the number of people that we were serving from our food pantry.
I will never forget that, when I laid the issue out before those men and women gathered in the sanctuary, one man stood up and spoke. He started out by saying that this is our church. This is our ministry and we have to step up to the plate. We have to check ourselves and check each other when we come into this building.
Then he said, “I go to a number of pantries, not because I want to, but because of need. Out of all of the pantries that I visit, Cross is the only one where the staff and the volunteers know who you are. They know your name and they greet you with a smile.”
The great lesson in that for all of us who are staff is to allow the community to share in the decision-making process. Simply because people are poor does not mean that their minds are bankrupt. Many of these people are creative and they want to participate in their well-being.
Recently, in a public gathering I said that when you choose to walk with someone and they allow you to walk with them, you soon realize that it becomes difficult to just remain at the periphery. In the case of our ministry, food becomes the entree for many people who come through our doors. As time goes on and trust begins to deepen, we find ourselves advocating for tenant rights on behalf of someone who is being taken advantage of by unscrupulous landlords, visiting folks in hospitals and prisons, presiding at their funerals or the funerals of their loved ones and walking with those who have decided to enter treatment because of an addiction.
Pastor Frank from one of our partner congregations said to me, “Everytime I am in the presence of the poor in this community I feel as if I am standing in the presence of the holy.” The comment reminds me of a similar statement made by Mother Teresa who said that when she was cleaning up the dried-feced body of a poor beggar lying in the streets of Calcutta, India, that she was cleaning the body of Jesus.
I believe that Jesus offers himself to us in those who have become the scorn of the world. Men and women who come as the huddled masses. By no means does their condition of poverty make them any more noble than someone who is not poor. There is much in their lives that is challenging, chaotic and confusing, but there are many days where I come away having some sense of what Mother Teresa and Pastor Frank were describing. In spite of the challenge and the chaos, we often get a glimpse of the presence of God who comes in the broken and wounded bodies of those who are poor.
Ken Wheeler is a retired pastor. He most recently served at Cross Lutheran Church, an ELCA congregation in Milwaukee, where he is now the director of the Bread of Healing Empowerment Ministry. He served 18 years as an assistant to the bishop of the Greater Milwaukee Synod of the ELCA.