I've been reading
The American Way of Poverty: How the Other Half Still Lives
by Sasha Abramsky. He's a democrat writing during Obama's second term in office about issues of poverty, homelessness, healthcare, and incarceration. I picked up this book because I wanted the perspective of someone in the secular realm who was looking seriously at these issues to see how his/her perspective compares with the Church's call to compassion and social justice.
He says something early on in the book that is sticking in my mind: "Until well into the twentieth century, America's approach to poverty relied largely on religious charities and, to a point, do-gooder social workers stepping in to help poor people from absolute destitution....they brought a charity vision to the problems of poverty rather than a belief that government should step in to solve the great problems of urban poverty generated by industrialism."
I wholeheartedly agree that a model of charity isn't going to solve the problem of poverty. In fact, it seems to be more about the feelings of the one giving, rather than the one receiving. It reinforces a power dynamic rather than helping to heal the root(s) of the problem.
But as a follower of Jesus, I don't see the government providing the answer either. There's room for social programs in our capitalistic and industrialist society, but the government can't redeem brokenness. There must be some sort of middle way.
I keep returning to Samuel Wells' book
Incarnational Mission: Being With the World
. It approaches issues of social justice from a ministry of presence; that is, being with someone, helping them discover their internal and external assets in a way that empowers them. There is room for charity, but perhaps empowerment through presence and solidarity digs a little deeper at the root of brokenness and injustice.
I hope, as I'm sure you do, to be able to explore what that ministry looks like in our context as we face issues of homelessness, poverty, addiction, and mental illness on our streets. May we cultivate hearts of compassion, discernment, and wisdom in living out our faith as we look for answers and redemption.
Rev. Jenni Bales
Director of Communications
Presbytery of San Jose