Why Minister on the Margins?

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I still remember the shock I felt so many years ago, sitting on that church classroom floor, listening to the VBS teacher. I was 10 or 11 years old—it was probably the last VBS of my childhood—and, besides the Kool-Aid, I have only retained this one memory from that week. The teacher, who was the mom of one of my classmates, was telling us about Jesus, but she was saying things I had never heard before. Disturbing things.

In my mind I can still see her now, leaning down from her chair to explain to us that Jesus had really come to earth for the poor. I don’t know if she added the phrase “and not for us,” but somehow that is how the memory plays out in my mind.

I was stunned and confused. I had ferociously placed my hope in Jesus, my savior, a year prior to that and felt dismayed at the possibility that I was not included in the group for whom he had come.

On one level, I rejected what she said as untrue. Jesus, I was certain, had come for everyone. Yet, on another level, I became very sensitive to the idea of a connection between Jesus and the poor. I wanted to evaluate this new teaching. Why would she think that? What would it mean for that to be true?

As an adult looking back, I’ve often thought about how bold of a statement that was to make to a group of children. In the context of this room full of army brats living securely and rather uniformly on a military base in a foreign (and affluent) country, the idea that Jesus was for the poor excluded not just us but our whole known world.

In the years that followed, as I returned Stateside and continued my involvement in church in the deep South, I never saw anything to help me understand how, if Jesus had come for the poor, those who bore his name could be so affluent and comfortable.

By this time I was also reading the Bible for myself. I knew the story of the rich young man who loved his money more than God (Matt. 19:16-28); I knew about the poor widow whose piddling offering Jesus considered worth more than all the lavish offerings given by the rich (Mark 12: 42-44); I had read the beatitudes: “Blessed are the poor” (Luke 6:20).

And some interior voice told me that it was true. Jesus had come for the poor.

Believing something and understanding it are quite different things. While I continued to believe that Jesus came for everyone (1 Tim. 2: 1-5), I also grew to believe that Jesus had come especially for the poor … but I still didn’t know how that fit into church as it existed around me.

I think that we Americans tend to bristle when we hear someone say that “Jesus came for the poor.” Just as I did as a child, we interpret this to mean that we are somehow excluded. And so we defend ourselves:

“Certainly Jesus just meant that we are not to love money more than we love him.”

“I live paycheck to paycheck. No one would call me rich.”

“Wealth is not a sin. God rewards those who believe.”

“Doesn’t the Bible say, ‘If a man will not work, he shall not eat’ (2 Thes. 3:10) and ‘Do not love sleep or you will grow poor.’ (Prov. 20: 13)?”

But all these defenses miss the point. Jesus chose to live in poverty among the poor. He called his 12 disciples to leave their livelihoods and join him in poverty. In truth, Jesus spent the bulk of his ministry engaging with people on the margins of society… lepers, the handicapped, the infirm, women, children, Samaritans, prostitutes, adulterers, tax collectors. He identified with the poor and the excluded, and he poured himself out for them.

And in the most profound way possible, Jesus tells us to do likewise. In Matthew, Chapter 25, Jesus says that every time we feed the hungry, give a drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, invite in a stranger, care for the sick or visit those in jail, it is exactly as if we have done it for him. And what’s more, every time we fail to do these things, we are neglecting Jesus himself: “What I’m about to tell you is true. Anything you didn’t do for one of the least important of these, you didn’t do for me” (Matt. 25:45).

I titled this post, “Why Minister on the Margins,” so let me get to my point. I know there are many varied reasons why individuals leave their comfort zones to join hands with people on the margins of society. Guilt. A compulsion to “change the world for the better.” A thirst for novelty and adventure. A desire to feel important or needed. A (possibly unconscious) attempt to earn God’s love.

Let me share with you my reason: I love God.

Over a decade ago I read a book by Chuck Colson called Loving God (everyone should read it!) that radically transformed my paradigms about service and obedience. I had always followed all the rules, striving to be “obedient” and “good” because, as a Christian, “it was the right thing to do.” But Colson helped me to understand the link between obedience and service and my own love of God.

My heart changed. No longer was “doing the right thing,” my driving motivation. Obedience and service to others became a tangible expression of my love for my holy, gracious God—a way to worship him and a way to connect with him.

It was incredibly freeing. Instead of bearing the weight of trying to live up to a certain standard, every act of obedience became an act of love. Instead of focusing on how God was (or seemingly wasn’t) expressing his love for me, I began to focus on loving him well. And service became a joy. And God began to show himself around every corner. And I began to experience the reality of the truth that loving others is loving God.

And God began to talk to me and to show me ways to love him. And then he sent me to El Crucero.

I wish that was the end of the story, but this is real life and I have gotten off track. Life is busy and stressful and full of temptations to live for myself. I have forgotten my first love. But, you know what? Every week when I go to El Crucero and connect with one of the children, I find God. Every time.

God doesn’t send us “rich Christians” to the margins because he loves “them” more. He sends us because he loves us all, and it is through our interdependence on each other that He teaches us what it means to love and be loved by HIM.