A few weeks ago I was leading a Bible study group on Jesus’ mission statement – often termed the ‘Nazareth manifesto’ – as found in Luke 4: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour” (Luke 4.18-19). As part of the Bible study that evening, I read some words of Pope Francis:
“Evangelization is not just about words, it is about action too. The proclamation of the gospel has a very clear social content. It is not just about a personal relationship with god, it is also about caring for others. Right at the heart of our faith in Christ is a call to follow him in his care for the poor and the outcast. We are called to hear their cry and to stand in solidarity with them. Sometimes solidarity is misunderstood – it does not just mean occasional acts of generosity, but requires an entirely new outlook which thinks in terms of community, not just the appropriation of goods by a few. We are not just called to hear the voice of the poor, our dream soar higher than this, we yearn to give them access to education, access to health care and employment”.
The temptation for some Evangelicals is to spiritualise ‘the poor’. If we are not careful, we interpret Luke 4.18-19 in the light of Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes, which speaks of those who are “poor in spirit” (Matt 5..3). The poor then are deemed to be those who know themselves poor, and precisely because of their poverty and their resultant powerlessness they cast themselves upon God and his grace. However, I believe that on the day in Nazareth when Jesus outlined his mission, he had in mind not just the ‘poor in spirit’, but ‘the poor’.
All this came to mind when we were visiting our eldest son in Vancouver. On one particular morning we decided to walk along the sea wall in West Vancouver. We ended our walk at the ‘village’ of Dunderave, which we discovered was one of wealthiest areas in Vancouver – the grocery store was not as large as Harrod’s Food Hall, but it certainly equaled it in terms of quality. Later that afternoon we had to drive through ‘Downtown Eastside’, an area notorious for its open-air drug trade, sex work, poverty, mental illness, homelessness, infectious disease, and crime. Most of Vancouver’s 1000 ‘street sex workers’ operate here. There are literally hundreds and hundreds of people with chronic mental illnesses – indeed, according to one report there are over 3,500 people at “extremely high risk” due to severe addiction and/or mental illness. At any time of day or night there are dozens of people shuffling or staggering, all clearly under the influence of alcohol or drugs, many in dirt-streaked clothing that hangs from their emaciated frames. Caroline and I were horrified at the sight – and all the more so because that same day we had been in Dunderave, where there are no beggars, where everybody dresses beautifully, and where the coffee shops are booming. The contrast between the rich and the poor was acute. To be fair to the city of Vancouver, numerous efforts have been made to improve the neighbourhood. Millions of dollars have been spent -but to little avail.
Currently there are some 260 agencies seeking to help the people of Downtown Eastside. I was delighted to learn that churches are the forefront in offering advocacy, running foodbanks and homeless shelters, meeting not just practical needs, but also providing a sense of community. Clearly for them mission involves caring for the poor in all kinds of ways
What is true for the churches of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside needs to be true of every church. For although few churches serve in an area of such dire need, nonetheless in every community – even in Dunderave – there are people in need of love. Mission is not just about words, it is also about actions. Maybe each church needs to ask the question: ‘Who in our community are the poor, the marginalized, the bound, the blind, the oppressed – the ‘no-hopers’? How can we help them to discover that the Good News is for them – for life can be different, life can be transformed, the blind can find sight, the oppressed can find release.