Yesterday, I had a fascinating conversation with some folks who are trying hard to understand how their downtown congregation can effectively be “salt” and “light” for their community and region. They’re compassionate and generous people who genuinely want to make a difference. Their commitment inspires me, and their questions challenge me.

They wonder, as I do, what kind of ministry actually helps the people who struggle the most.  With people who are homeless, hungry, addicted, unemployed, lack adequate healthcare (including mental healthcare), or marginalized in some other way, our impulse is meet immediate and apparent needs: temporary shelter, a meal, clothes, or transportation to a clinic. Sometimes, churches provide these kind of help directly; often, they do so in partnership with agencies which a cluster of congregations support. 

Many churches are particularly focused on children and their families. They provide spaces in their weekday childcare ministries at reduced cost for households trapped in poverty, offer after-school tutoring, or serve as mentors (Big Brothers, Big Sisters, for instance) to children who need the steady presence of another caring adult.

As we do these kinds of things, the voices of activists and advocates like Robert Lupton, author of Toxic Charity: How the Church Hurts Those They Help and How to Reverse It, echo in our minds and hearts. From them, we’re learning that what we have long-intuited to be true is factually demonstrable: the work many churches—and, for that matter, governments and social service agencies—do with the marginalized has the unintended effect of increasing dependency rather than empowering healthy interdependence (I think that the idea that any of us in “independent” is an illusion).

We want and need to respond to immediate needs with mercy, but, even more, we need to learn how to pursue and achieve justice. Mercy responds with tangible and tender-tenacious assistance to immediate needs.  A passion for justice drives us to seek change in the conditions which continue to generate those needs. Mercy feeds the hungry; justice brings an end to hunger. Mercy shelters the homeless; justice turns them into homeowners. Mercy prays for the soldier and the civilian in harm’s way during the tragedy of war; justice pursues the “things which make for peace”; it longs and labors for the day when “the nations will learn war no more.” 

An often-used analogy suggests: “If you see a person drowning in the river and rescue him, that is mercy. But if, day after day, you continue to pull drowning people from the river, eventually you will go upstream, find the people who are throwing them in the river, and demand that they stop. That is justice.”

In our culture, the longing and labor for justice necessarily involve people of faith in conversations about policy, politics, economics, and social structures. Because such conversations are likely to surface significant differences and to lead to difficult conflict, we tend to avoid them.  Somehow—and it will not be easy—we have to find ways to have civil and serious exchanges with each other and with people of goodwill in many contexts and organizations about creative and collaborative approaches to address the problems which struggling people face.

I don’t have answers to these hard questions, but I do know that we won’t discover them if we continue to avoid challenging conversations which the Spirit could use to guide us to better answers than we currently have and, likely, to wiser questions, too.