When my daughter was in high school, she brought home a friend who had grown up in a home with no religious affiliation or training. The girl told me, ‘I am kind of interested in Jesus, but only if he really makes a difference in the world.’ I was struck by her statement for two reasons. First, I think that statement contains the cry of her generation. Only a little over half of US residents in their twenties and thirties identify as Christian; one of the reasons for this drop compared to the past generations is their perception of the church as being judgmental and hypocritical, not known for making a positive difference in their society or for responding with love to the poor and the marginalized.
The second reason that I was impacted by her statement has to do with my own background and experience. I also grew up in a home with no religious affiliation or training. My grandparents came to the United States from Mexico City and Ukraine; they were part of the anti-church movements in their respective countries. I came to know Jesus as Lord and Savior in the Jesus Movement of the 1970s. In that movement, I was introduced to a Jesus who saves our souls for heaven. It was only little by little over the years that I came to understand that Jesus promises us both eternal life and abundant life.
We have a Savior who transforms the whole person, in the whole family, in the whole community, in the whole world. The whole gospel includes the proclamation and demonstration of the powerful love of God in Jesus Christ, the Lord of the Universe.
What Do We Mean by Transformation?
For many in the Global North, the promise of abundant life is limited to individual lives, which may in turn affect other individual lives. In contrary, the Scriptural worldview sees individuals in the context of communities. In Jeremiah 29, the exiles are called to work for the shalom of their community because the wellbeing of their individual families depends on the wellbeing of their community. In Isaiah 65, we are given a beautiful vision of a community experiencing abundant life. There will be no more weeping because the people will enjoy long lifetimes. They will build houses and dwell in them, plant vineyards and eat their fruit, enjoying the results of their own labor. No one will be able to take away their homes or their farms. Their children will not be snatched away from them nor doomed to misfortune.
Do we not all want to live in such a community? For those who have experienced violations and violence, that hunger is particularly intense. In The Gospel in Solentiname, a collection of Bible study transcripts by Ernesto Cardenal from a base Christian community, a young man who is reading the Magnificat for the first time remarks, ‘The hungry are going to eat.’ What good news for someone whose fruit of labor has been exploited by the feudal landlord and whose children have suffered hunger and malnutrition.
However, we do note that in communities across the globe, even in countries with Christian leaders, this vision of shalom has not come to fruition. People in poverty die prematurely, unnecessarily, and unjustly. In 1986 when I was a missionary in the Philippines, I served as a hospital chaplain at two hospitals about a mile apart. The National Children’s Hospital (NCH) served the children of the poorest families in the city. St. Luke’s Hospital was operated by the Anglican church and provided an excellent quality of service to primarily middle-class and upper-class families. One day, when I was visiting patients at the NCH, a doctor came up to me and asked my help in delivering the news to a family that their toddler was probably going to die. This toddler was suffering from pneumonia, which can normally be cured by using antibiotics. However, he was allergic to penicillin, the only antibiotic available at this hospital. One mile away at St. Luke’s, a Christian hospital, there were twenty different antibiotics available to those who could afford them. Not being among those who could afford them, the toddler died. That child’s death was premature, unnecessary, and unjust.
What Do We Do About the Gap?
There is a gap between our reality and God’s promise, between the lives that we live and the vision of communal abundant life that God wants for his people. What do we do about this gap? I believe that this is a question of stewardship.
What did Jesus give? He gave his time, his gifts, his energy, his heart. In the end, he gave his life—everything he had to give. If we want to follow him, we must do the same. The call of love is not limited to a specific set of activities. We are not merely called to love with our hearts; we must use our minds as well. We must love as intelligently and effectively as we can. In the process, we must recognize the truth of the words that Jesus spoke in John 14:12, ‘Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works that I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.’ Jesus did not have access to antibiotics. We do. Modern medicine, as well as the science that it is based on, is a good gift. All good gifts come from the one Giver. How do we use all our good gifts in the service of the love of Christ?
When we see a hungry person, love compels us to respond. The first and most natural response is to share our food. In the language of the social sciences, we would call this direct service. It might be more intelligent and effective, though, to ‘teach them to fish’. That is often called individual development. In some circumstances, it might be even more effective to ‘fish together’—community development. Of course, if we take our fishing poles down to the river and find a wall that prevents entry, it is not enough to know how to fish. We must gain access to the river. The barriers to resources that could end hunger are often created or lowered by public decisions. Private decisions affect our personal lives. Public decisions affect our common life, our life together. Can a poor child go to school? If the public decision makers decide that schools will be available at a price that all can afford, then that child can be educated.
The stewardship question is whether we have a role in the process of public decision-making. A democracy is a system of government in which everyone has a voice in this process. Advocacy is the process of influencing public decision-makers in order to call them to accountability, so that they make decisions that increase the wellbeing of the whole community. Community organizing means bringing people together to unite their voices and their influence in addressing public decision-makers.
After living in the Philippines under the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, I found myself deeply appreciative of the gifts of democracy. We often do not recognize that we need to be good stewards of those gifts. We bury them rather than use them for God’s purposes. Even in countries without a democratic system, there are often ways that people can come together to express their concerns that would impact their leaders. All these practical responses can demonstrate the love of Christ to unbelievers, using the appropriate tools in the context that we are in.
Conclusion: A Story of Christian Compassion
I would like to end with a story that illustrates how different activities can express and communicate the love of Christ. This multiphase story focuses on a Christian response to poverty. There are similar stories that we could tell about Christian responses to a variety of areas of communal suffering, including migrants and refugees, discrimination against women and minority populations, mass incarceration, and the destruction of the environment.
A number of years ago, I was part of a team leading a ministry with homeless people. We offered a safe place in the church for them to come in the evenings, attend a Bible study, have some simple refreshments, find a caring presence, and feel at home. On Christmas Eve, we organized a time of singing Christmas carols. A new homeless family participated in the activity that evening—a father and mother with their two little children. They had been sleeping in their car, and the weather was cold. They asked me if I could help them find a place to stay for the night. I called all the emergency shelters that I could find, and they were all full. I called home to my housemates, and they refused to let me bring in any more homeless people. I had to send them out into the cold. I have read Matthew 25 and I knew who I was sending out. I felt the cry deep inside, ‘No, this is not okay.’ The next week, I began calling all the churches in our neighborhood to see if we could work together on a response to the problem. By collaborating, we were able to create a rotating emergency shelter, moving from church to church each night, and doubling the number of available emergency shelter beds in our town. It was a beautiful testimony to the love of Christ. However, it was still at the level of direct service. We were doing something for people, not with them (not engaging their energy or gifts), and it was temporary.
A few years later, we figured out a more intelligent approach. We built a core group of peer chaplains among the homeless. They worked with volunteers from churches to design projects that would make a difference in the lives of the homeless in our community. We fixed up a couple of houses in a poor part of the city and turned them into affordable housing. The homeless people themselves were part of the process of fixing up the homes and running the program. It was an even more beautiful testimony to the love and power of Christ. However, at the celebration where we opened up those homes, I realized that we were providing affordable housing to only about 20 people, and that ten thousand people would still be homeless that evening in that community.
We then joined a project, working with a broad-based secular coalition that included the city and the private sector, to see whether we could create more permanent options for the homeless. In that coalition, we had the opportunity to be in the world and not of the world—to work side by side with the secular society, witnessing the love of Christ that motivated us in all that we had done.
In Acts 2, the believers shared all things in common, showing their faith through their radical generosity and deep commitment to one another’s wellbeing. The Lord added to their number daily. The whole gospel includes the proclamation and incarnation of the love of Christ in which the body of Christ makes him visible to the world, drawing others to become his disciples.
- This article is based on the author’s presentation at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary during its Annual Mission Week, September 2021.
- David Masci, ‘Q&A: Why Millennials Are Less Religious than Older Americans,’ Pew Research Center, January 8, 2016, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/01/08/qa-why-millennials-are-less-religious-than-older-americans/. Gregory A. Smith, ‘About Three in Ten U.S. Adults Are Now Religiously Unaffiliated,’ Pew Research Center, December 14, 2021, https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2021/12/14/about-three-in-ten-u-s-adults-are-now-religiously-unaffiliated/.
- Ernesto Cardenal, The Gospel in Solentiname (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1976), 18.
- There is a wide variety of materials which highlight holistic Christian responses in these areas of concern, including the following publications: Stephen Offutt and F. David Bronkema et al., Advocating for Justice: An Evangelical Vision for Transforming Systems and Structures (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2016); Alexia Salvatierra and Peter Heltzel, Faith-rooted Organizing: Mobilizing the Church in Service to the World (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2013); Adam Taylor, Mobilizing Hope: Faith-Inspired Activism for a Post-Civil Rights Generation (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2010); and Matthew Soerens and Jenny Yang, Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion and Truth in the Immigration Debate (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2018).
- Editor’s Note: See article entitled, ‘A Holistic Approach to Poverty Alleviation in Asia’ by Kumar Aryal, in Lausanne Global Analysis, July 2022, https://lausanne.org/content/lga/2022-07/a-holistic-approach-to-poverty-alleviation-in-asia.
Alexia Salvatierra is the academic dean of the Centro Latino and the associate professor of mission and global transformation at Fuller Theological Seminary. She has forty years of experience as a practitioner, including Christian community development, faith-rooted community organizing and advocacy, missionary service in the Philippines, leadership of local and national nonprofit ministries, and congregational ministry in Spanish and English. She is a co-author of Faith-Rooted Organizing: Mobilizing the Church in Service to the World and Buried Seeds: Learning from the Vibrant Resiliency of Marginalized Christian Communities.