“I was shivering, and you gave me clothes…”
Martin of Tours was a Roman soldier and a Christian. One cold winter day, as he was entering a city, a beggar stopped him and asked for money. Martin had no money, but the beggar was blue and shivering with cold and Martin gave him what he had. He took off his soldier’s cloak, worn and frayed as it was; he cut it in two and gave half of it to the beggar.
That night Martin had a dream. In it he saw the heavenly places and all the angels and Jesus in the midst of them; and Jesus was wearing half a Roman soldier’s cloak. One of the angels said to him, “Master, why are you wearing that battered old cloak? Who gave it to you?” Jesus answered softly, “My servant Martin gave it to me.”
We do not have to do big things to help the poor. There is a saying-“big things come in small packages”. Even the smallest things we do can make a big difference in the lives of the poor. For example, any time my mother and I have extra clothes that we want to get rid of, we donate them to the Canadian Diabetes Association. In return, the Association sells these clothes to Value Village stores. These stores, which are similar to the local Salvation Army Thrift Store, sell clothing and other household items to low income people at affordable prices.
There are other things we can do as Christians. For example, our Mother’s Union group gathers items for needy families. Last year the group sponsored a local family by providing them with clothing, useful personal items and household items at Christmas time. Trinity Church’s ACW group sponsors a foster child. Our parish supplies boxes of clothing for our Rector to use in his role as the Honorary Chaplain of the Mission to Seafarers in the Port of Liverpool and Brooklyn. In our wider community, the Salvation Army’s Thrift Store provides clothing and other assistance to the needy. Every fall the local Kinette Club offers a Warm Winter Clothing Exchange where people can donate winter clothing that they no longer need and the poor can get winter clothing at no charge.
Speaking of the Mission to Seafarers, this worldwide organization, which started as a mission of the Church of England in the 1850s, also serves the poor by providing support, emergency assistance and a friendly welcome to ships crews in over 250 ports worldwide. This support ranges from caring for the victims of piracy to caring for seafarers who are stranded in foreign ports to providing warm clothing, personal care and sundry items to the crews of ships to providing Internet access so seafarers can keep in touch with loved ones at home. Our Rector has mentioned that whenever he takes warm clothing to seafarers who arrive at the local port, they are extremely grateful-so grateful that they often take every item of clothing he has brought on board.
There are things government can do to ease poverty, especially since government decisions sometimes cause poverty. A recent report criticized the Nova Scotia government for not dealing with high taxes and its inability to control energy prices. Double-digit hikes in electricity rates and high heating oil prices are taking a bite out of household budgets, and this has led to an increase in the number of people seeking social assistance. Earlier this year, the Salvation Army’s Good Neighbour Energy Fund was fully depleted for the first time ever, largely because the provincial government reduced its annual contribution, but because the fund was depleted, the government had to contribute extra money.
In January 2011 the Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada and the National Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada sent a letter to the Canadian government urging it to adopt the recommendations of a House of Commons committee for reducing poverty in Canada. It urged the federal government to support broad measures to improve living standards for impoverished Canadians. Across Canada, committed Anglicans are dealing with the poverty issue at many levels and in many ways. They are asking for sweeping forward-looking measures that will address the root causes of poverty in the years to come. Others are continuing with traditional charitable work—soup kitchens, shelters, drop-in centres, food banks and clothing giveaways—to help the needy now.
When we serve the poor, sometimes we serve angels in disguise, and sometimes we can be rewarded by them. For example, last fall the Missions to Seafarers centre in Halifax received a donation from an ex-seafarer who had stopped at the centre in the 1960s. During that visit he lost his shoes. The chaplain at that time bought him a new pair of shoes. The ex-seafarer never forgot the chaplain’s kindness.
When we help the poor, we are answering God’s call as written in Isaiah 25:4 and Isaiah 58:6-11 to reach out to others in His name. When we do, we not only respond to God’s call, but we salt our communities with the preserving influence of the Gospel. Solving the causes of poverty requires large-scale government and non-profit action as well as the church’s compassion and social activism.
The Canadian Christian community has long been a leader in caring for the less fortunate in Canada. From church groups inspired to serve sandwiches on a local street corner to those offering a place of refuge in extreme cold or heat or the operation of multi-million dollar addictions rehabilitations centres, hostels and food service programs to conducting clothing drives for the needy or operating Salvation Army Thrift Stores, love is shared in practical expressions that meet human need. Faith-based charities such as the local Food Bank, the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund, or Chalice (which is the Roman Catholic Church’s equivalent of the Primate’s Fund) have the infrastructure and expertise to multiply the effect of government funds in the delivery of service. As a service provider to poor and homeless people, faith-based charities and their communities offer a significant experience-based resource to the government. In doing so, they also advance religion.
Why does God allow so many of his children to be poor? After all, he could make all of them rich if he wanted to, and that’s the key phrase….if he wanted to. But he does not choose to do so. He allows them to suffer and want. Why is this? One reason is because he wants to give those of us who have plenty an opportunity to show our love for Jesus. If we truly love Christ, we will care for those who are loved by him. Those who are dear to him will be dear to us as well.
What are the best ways to fight poverty? That depends on what we mean by poverty. If by poverty we mean the inability to access financial, social or political resources, then it is essential that we help the poor overcome their poverty. At the same time, we must be careful not to do for them what they can do for themselves.
If, on the other hand we mean spiritual poverty, and if restored relationships are essential to overcoming poverty, then Christ-centered, church-based community development is the foundation of sustained change. This is an example of what the church is called to do-walking with the lost and broken while embracing and restoring the whole person in Christ to reach their God-given potential. We are called to be compassionate, to love, and to carry each other’s burdens.
The criteria for judgment are deeds of mercy-food, drink, welcome, clothing, nursing care and visitation. Acts of kindness are simple and concrete. They are indiscriminate and uncalculating. They are also transforming in the lives of the recipients. Remembering acts of kindness we have received keeps us humble, makes us grateful and helps us to be more compassionate toward others in need. When we serve, our focus shifts from self to selfless.
When Jesus says that we serve him when we serve others, he is saying that when we see a hungry or thirsty person, someone in prison or without adequate clothing, someone who is sick and has no one to take care of him or her—in other words, someone not like us—when we see someone who needs what we have in us to give, we have to see that person as the presence and embodiment of Christ even if that person does not act like us. Jesus is in soup kitchen lines. Jesus is waiting at the Salvation Army to get a coat. Jesus is in the hospital, or more likely, suffering, because He cannot afford to go to the hospital (especially if the hospital is in the United States). Jesus wants us to be out in the world every day, looking to find Him in the heartache and pain that surrounds us. Church is the place where we come to feed and nourish our soul for this work, the work that calls us to minister to Him in very real and tangible ways.
It is hard to see people as the presence and embodiment of Christ when we have to deal with people who have an attitude where they expect us to help and get angry when we don’t. It is hard to see Jesus in people like that, but then we must try to put ourselves in their place, and when we do it becomes easier to see Christ in them. We can’t do anything but help, and we do so not because we feel guilty, but because we know that God loves them just as much as God loves us, and God needs us to show that love to them.
There are people who hear stories on the news about suffering, and go back to their normal everyday activities after they hear the stories. Others choose to act. In a recent article in the Halifax Chronicle-Herald newspaper, freelance writer Monica Graham wrote the following:
“None of them worked alone. As they went along, their circles of influence moved outward, inspiring more and more people to act in concert.
Interestingly, religion or faith is not often mentioned in connection with their acts of charity, a word used here in the old-fashioned sense, meaning love. These are people who do God’s work and, it appears, they humbly accept their roles. Helping others has become more than their volunteer activity; it’s an obsession and vocation.
The rest of us can watch, marvel, learn – and then follow suit. When we can’t initiate something ourselves, we can support the efforts of others. There is a lot of work that needs to be done – in Nova Scotia, in Canada and throughout the world. There may be no wages, but it pays off.”
God does watch the way we live our lives, and the way we live our lives matters. There will be a day when each of us will stand in line as God points the way to eternity. Some will be directed to the right, and they will spend eternity in heaven. Others will be directed to the left, and they will spend eternity in hell. The only goal of lasting value and fulfillment in life is serving Christ. His call to serve is unique for each and every believer. He will give us the situation, the words and the ability to do what He wants us to do. He is the one who makes a difference. We are tools to be used by Him.