The crusty South African bishop crowed that when a church loses the poor, it loses the gospel. As a seminary student interning in Johannesburg I found poverty around every corner. Able-bodied men laid out on street medians just waiting to be hired. Refugees pawning for money to start handicraft businesses. Glassy-eyed beggars who couldn’t hold a coherent conversation due to malnourishment. Poverty was everywhere. But how specifically should the church minister in such a situation? The bishop had the task of helping us seminary students reflect on ministry with the destitute. He openly worried that in South Africa the church was pulling away from the needy. He was even more adamant that in America, the church had long since left the poor.
That was six years ago. Since then I’ve become an ordained elder and witnessed enough of our denominational struggles to become convinced that this foreign observer was onto something. We’ve left the poor. And our shared witness to Christ suffers for it.
Many have sought to pin the blame for our General Conference 2019 conflicts on differing causes. We have a culture issue. Our seminaries are in different places from our laity. Politics proliferate our decisions. There are countless factors that contribute. Not to add to an already weary chorus, but what if our problem runs deeper. What if we’ve forgotten who we are?
In the days of Wesley, it was a common understanding that the Methodist movement was for the poor. The destitute were sought out and experienced God’s transforming grace within Methodist communities. The lives of the poor were noticeably changed for the better. Gambling and alcohol abuse decreased. Education and financial stewardship increased. Cell and band leaders provided regular spiritual care. Men and women experienced a deepening relationship with God and grew as Christians. It was this ‘all-in-one’ embodied proclamation that all people are sinners, all people are recipients of God’s saving grace, and all people can be transformed by the power of God. The Methodist movement was for the poor because it was for the gospel. And an embodied commitment to one gospel united the Methodist people.
As I look at The United Methodist Church today, it’s apparent that we’re not united. Our understandings of the gospel are divergent and a house divided cannot stand. Any path forward must include shared commitments that are sustained by shared practices. Renewal cannot be maintained in any other way. Ministry to and with the poor, for physical and spiritual transformation, is one of those shared practices that keeps us grounded in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
When I arrived at my appointment five years ago I inherited a church in the midst of renewal. My predecessor had put the church on a path of reaching out to the neighborhood, and it was starting to bear fruit. I noticed this fruit most noticeably through Dave (not the actual name of the individual), a borderline homeless alcoholic who liked to stretch his bum leg on our property. At first, Dave only came to the church to walk in the sun, but over a few years, he built friendships, became a volunteer in our Food Bank, and became a daily fixture at church. One day Dave pulled me aside, frustrated and excited at the same time. “Tell me the story of Saul,” he demanded. Listening intently to every word I spoke, he stammered, “If God can forgive Saul, then maybe God can forgive me.”
One month later Dave showed up in worship. Granted, his arrival was quite disruptive. For months I heard complaints about the smell of alcohol, his tattered clothes, and his weekly commentary. Yet oddly enough, as God was working on Dave, He was working on the people in the back of the church, as well. Hearts were being warmed to the presence of this disruptive worshipper. But God didn’t stop there. For a year Dave attended worship right up through the sermon, but he’d always slip out before our weekly Communion. He grew up Catholic and insisted he was far too guilty to ever come forward. Then, completely unexpectedly, after 30 years of not receiving Communion, Dave made his way to the altar. I’ll never forget that Sunday morning. Dave was grinning from ear to ear as he limped to the front of the church. When I served him the bread, he threw his arm into the air and yelled, “Boom!” I have never seen more unbridled joy at the Lord’s Table. After service that Sunday I had countless members come up to me with smiles on their faces and tears in their eyes. Dave had finally made peace with God.
Renewal in our congregation hasn’t come through forcing a program or an agenda. It’s come through doing the same kind of ministry Jesus did: caring for the physical and spiritual needs of the poor. Throughout this journey, I’ve been amazed at how God changes hearts and lives, and not just the needy. Watching elderly women have their hearts warmed for addicts that they’ve befriended, and then stand up to their friends on behalf of the poor absolutely warms my heart. By saying yes to ministry with and among the poor God has reminded us what it means to be Christian.
In the near term, Methodists will have hard choices to make about what the future of our movement looks like. Renewal will undoubtedly include much-needed reflection on orthodoxy and how best to guard and spread the faith. Yet right belief alone will not suffice. It must be sustained by right practice.
Right practices pull us out of the divisive either/or dynamics of our current situation. They ground us in constant remembrance of the gospel and reinforce what it is to believe that Jesus can really change lives. All too often people look at the church today and question our significance. Yet when we embody the work of embracing the outcast, of working alongside the broken as God heals them, and proclaim good news to the poor, the world takes notice. Our best witness in these trying times, and in all times, is to simply be about the work Jesus called us to do. Truly the only way for a sustained renewal in the Methodist movement is for regular and robust engagement with the poor.
Despite all the hand-wringing and angst of our current Methodist moment, I have hope for what God is going to bring forth in our midst. There is a glorious renewal just waiting to happen. It won’t look like sleek and well-rehearsed programs. It’ll be gritty, among the poor and homeless, the addicts and unemployed, the skeptics and religious screw-ups, the people Jesus draws to Himself. And then these folks, whose hearts are strangely warmed by God’s own Spirit, will be evidence that renewal was God’s work all along. Boom.
By Erik Grayson
May 10, 2019
The Rev. Erik Grayson is the pastor in charge at Aldersgate United Methodist Church in North Charleston, South Carolina.