Editor's note: The following is the latest volume of Manna Missives, a newsletter for one of the family groups in the South Bay Church outside of Los Angeles, California.
Jesus had a special place in his heart for the poor; do you?
The number of people living in their cars, huddled beneath highway overpasses or living in squalor-filled tent camps has never been more of a problem in Los Angeles, especially in smaller neighborhoods like San Pedro, Wilmington and in Santa Ana in Orange County, where a tent city (pop. 500+) has taken root the past few years.
In his letter to the Galatians, the Apostle Paul implores them (and us) “to remember the poor.” One wonders why Christians, especially, who Paul was addressing, have to be reminded to “remember” the poor, considering human misery has always been pretty easy to find.
Poverty does not compute for most Christians
I think that most of us can’t relate to what it means to be truly poor—I certainly can’t.
Some of us grew up in poverty, but most have since become far removed from it. And there are very few of us who have seen true third-world poverty up close and personal, such as open sewers running in the streets, medieval diseases that have been eradicated in the U.S. and people living and making their livings combing through rich people’s debris in landfills. And even the poorest among our ranks are comparatively rich to most of the rest of the world and are certainly rich in relationships and willing hands ready to help in times of trouble.
Most, if not all, of us, will never know what it feels like to live in a soggy cardboard box under an overpass on a rainy winter’s day in Los Angeles.
Likewise, we can’t relate to the fear of not knowing where our next meal is going to come from, having already not eaten for several days. Or imagine being covered in lice, catching tuberculosis and having to live with it because there’s no medical option. Or ponder being doused in lighter fluid as you sleep in an alley and set on fire, as happened to two homeless men in Wilmington recently, just blocks away from the Beacon Light Mission, where some of us serve on a regular basis. Unfortunately, one of the two men died.
This is something you often hear: “Even the poorest of the poor in America are better off than the poor in other countries.” I’ve said that myself. But I’m not so sure the men and women living on the mean, dark and dirty streets in L.A., not too far from our warm and comfortable homes, would agree. Let’s be honest, a cardboard box or bits of plywood and a tarp isn’t really an upgrade from the corrugated tin shacks you see in the shantytowns elsewhere.
Paul reminded the Galatians and us to “remember” because we have been conditioned by our culture to excuse away our own inaction (“There are services if they want them,” or “He looks like he could work, why doesn’t he?” or “He’ll just use the money for drugs or alcohol”); the poor make us uncomfortable so we look straight ahead and pretend they’re not there, or we make sure we have enough for our daily café latte and roll down our car windows and drop a few shekels into an unwashed palm and assuage our guilt because we did a our good deed for the day.
Poverty is not as persuasive in our country—we are the ninth richest in the world in GDP per capita—but there are pockets of third-world poverty in the U.S., such as the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota and the Lower Rio Grande Valley in South Texas and increasingly in alleys, beneath overpasses and in washes in metropolitan areas around the U.S. Still, most of us are buffered from true poverty, stealing the occasional glimpse here or there; we have to go looking for it.
Remembering is an action verb, and part of remembering is praying about the poor, hungry and victimized in our neighborhoods as well as throughout the world. Remembering also means rolling up our sleeves and seeking out the poor and serving them.
Jesus said in Mark 14:7 that the “poor will always be with [us].” We need to remember how good we have it and out of gratefulness to God, seek and serve the poor.
This brings me the Beacon Light Mission in Wilmington, which the Torrance Community Group has cultivated a relationship with this past year.
Some of the projects we’ve taken on, on behalf of the Beacon Light Mission and the homeless men and women they serve, include:
Collected 159 pairs of men’s underwear
Worked with Skechers to secure a donation of 67 men’s windbreakers
Helped set up and serve an evening meal
On Saturday, October 23, nearly 30 members of the Torrance Community Group and some from the Johnson and Tsujimoto community groups, either cooked food in crock pots, brought food down to the Mission, set up the dining room, served food, helped with clean up or did a combination of these activities.
Because my dearly departed mother was so proud of her German heritage, I’ve started to pay homage to her memory by hosting a German-themed Octoberfest-style meal every year.
After talking and coordinating with the staff coordinator at Beacon Light, we decided that it would be a nice change to go with a German theme over the normal fare Beacon Light serves nightly to its guests—and Oktoberfeast was born. This past Saturday a handful of us took over the Beacon Light kitchen and dining area, readying both for the evening meal, while the guests listened to hymns and a sermon in an adjacent chapel. The meal included crock pot sauerkraut with kielbasa sausage, crock pot German potato salad, roasted carrots, King’s Hawaiian sweet dinner rolls with butter, German chocolate cake and sweet tea.
We heaped up the plates, which the guests appreciated because they weren’t typically used to such substantial portions, and ended up with little in the way of leftovers. The guests seemed to really enjoy the food, with several asking for seconds.
In all, we served meals to 54 homeless or displaced men and women, about nine Beacon Light staff and the seven of us representing the South Bay Church, for a total of about 70 meals served. It took all hands on deck and prayers to God to pull this off. We are thinking about making Oktoberfeast an annual thing with Beacon Light and will switch up the menu a bit next year if we do it again.
A matter of salvation?
Some, say yes. Jesus never stopped feeding people spiritually but he sometimes fed them physically as well. He often used mealtimes to convey spiritual truths of some kind. Jesus set an example for us in all areas, with the hope that we would emulate him.
Jesus’ brother, James, wrote: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27).
Moses wrote this about God in Deuteronomy 10:18-19: “He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widows, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.”
The first-century Christians were all about filling the needs of others, first, for their spiritual brothers and sisters and their children and, second, for their communities. They were known for their love—it was how they let their light shine in a dark world. If you merely attend church, regularly or sporadically, and that defines your Christianity—you have to question what you’re doing.
The Apostle John wrote these words in Revelation to the Christians in Laodicea, who had lost sight of the spiritual prize and gotten caught up in the comfortability of a wealthy lifestyle: “These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation. I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot, I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth. You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked" (Revelation 3:14).
The Christians in Laodicea were told to “be earnest and repent.” The Laodiceans stood in stark contrast to the Christians in Smyrna who John tells: "These are the words of him who is the First and the Last, who died and came to life again. I know your afflictions and your poverty—yet you are rich!” (Revelation 2:9). The Christians in Smyrna weren’t told to change a thing.
The main difference between the Laodiceans and Smyrnans—who shared the same body, Spirit, hope, Lord, faith, baptism and God—was that one group had become spiritually dull to their own spiritual condition and the needs of those around them because of their “comfortable shoes,” while the others had little in the way of worldly wealth and weren’t distracted by what they did not have; they walked in Jesus’ tattered, dusty and blood-stained sandals.