‘If we … do not speak up in defense of the poor …’
Since Hurricane Katrina, the world’s view of America has changed. The disaster has exposed some shocking truths about the place: The bitterness of its sharp racial divide, the abandonment of the dispossessed, the weakness of critical infrastructure. But the most astonishing and most shaming revelation has been of its government’s failure to bring succor to its people at their time of greatest need.Those aren’t my words. I came across them in this week’s lead editorial in The Economist, hardly a bastion of liberal thought. Everyone, it seems, has discovered what many had been predicting: The ideologues who surround President Bush have accomplished their mission of deconstructing government into an irrelevant and inefficient entity that serves no one but the people in power. It is sorely tempting to join the throngs of commentators, politicians and people on the street in decrying the despicable inaction of our governmental leaders, the cronyism that has infused our public institutions with inept management, the outrageous legislation from this Republican- controlled congress that porked up a Transportation Bill with $24 billion of larcenous largess, the out-of-control federal deficit that will burden our descendants for decades to come and, of course, the unmanageable, unending war.
It is sorely tempting, but, while I didn’t come to praise Caesar, I also didn’t come to bury him.I will, however, praise a traditionally conservative institution that has risen to the challenge with an effective and efficient system that is meeting the needs of tens of thousands of displaced people. I write of the church, specifically specific congregations who have opened up their doors and hearts to people in need with amazing acts of hospitality, kindness and grace. Rick Warren, author of the mega-selling “The Purpose Driven Life” and pastor of the mega-member Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif., managed, virtually overnight, to rally hundreds of independent Christian congregations to begin reaching out with helping hands even as the government seemed to be sitting on theirs.This awesome display of compassion is something of a new and very welcome addition to the evangelical Christian identity which, in the past, appeared to focus on dreams of the great by-and-by rather than the problems in the more mundane here-and-now.
Judging from the response to Hurricane Katrina, as well as the impressive relief work accomplished after last year’s tsunami, hard-pressed charitable organizations have a new and effective ally in evangelical Christianity. As of last weekend, officials at the Southern Baptist Convention Disaster Relief, in Alpharetta, Ga., reported raising $1.8 million online so far, but expect that number to rise dramatically after donations roll in from its 40,000 churches. They believe it will be the most the group has ever raised after a disaster.Of course, mainline religious organizations have a long and honored tradition of responding in times of crisis. Millions upon millions of dollars are raised annually in congregations to fund ongoing campaigns against hunger, poverty, AIDS and much more. Thrivent Financial for Lutherans has just announced a gift of $100 million to Habitat for Humanity with an additional $10 million designated for New Orleans. Catholic Charities has raised $7 million as of this writing with much more on the way. The United Methodists have raised $1.7 million. The Presbyterian Church in the USA is hoping to raise $10 million. My own denomination of Lutherans is up to $2 million and counting. United Jewish Communities have already raised an impressive $4.3 million.
The dramatic addition of evangelical organizations is a hopeful sign for those who have sought to find ways of engaging people of faith in constructive social change. Earlier this summer, Pastor Warren was quoted as saying, “I deeply believe that if we as evangelicals remain silent and do not speak up in defense of the poor, we lose our credibility and our right to witness about God’s love for the world.” Evangelicals are getting it right. Now if we could only convince the politicians. Rich Mayfield writes a Saturday column. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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