urban exile: will compassion survive this season?

Leadership Journal published my monthly article in their newsletter this month which meant that only an excerpt appeared on the Out of Ur blog.  Hopefully enough time has passed for me to legitimately  post the article in its entirety here.

Urban Exile: Will Compassion Survive This Season?
This Christmas the failing economy will test our commitment to serve the poor.

Not that we needed it, but the news on Black Friday was enough to convince even the most financially insulated of our economy’s growing desperation. You probably saw the news I’m referring to: a Wal-Mart employee, Jdimytai Damour, was trampled to death at a Long Island store by an anxious and unruly crowd rushing for holiday bargains. The account of the economy’s collapse has thus far featured unsympathetic characters like Freddie Mac, Fannie May, and General Motors. Mr. Damour’s absurd death the day after Thanksgiving is a reminder that this story is less about institutions and governments than it is about lives that are impacted by forces beyond their control.

Many of us didn’t need this reminder. Pastors have been nervously watching their church’s budget, wondering how large the deficit will be on December 31. Elders and leadership teams are debating the right balance between financial prudence and faith for God’s provision. Lost jobs, foreclosed homes, and depressed retirement accounts feature heavily in many pastoral conversations. For many there is a sinking recognition that Freddie and his friends now have an invisible but powerful influence on mission and ministry.

But perhaps we did need Black Friday’s tragic reminder. We may have a general perception of this crisis’ major players and a more specific understanding about how it affects our congregations, but how attentive are we to those who have been most impacted during these chaotic months? The fascination with dramatic headlines (“Bankruptcy!” “Bailout!” “Billions!”) and how they affect our lives and our church may keep us from recognizing the circumstances of the increasingly desperate. Do we know people whose financial situation required them to line up at the Big Box store 12 hours before it opened on Black Friday? Have we heard the stories of individuals whose holiday temp jobs at Wal-Mart barely cover their bills?

My wife’s work at a social services agency brings her into contact with the suburb’s hidden poor. Her caseload continues to increase as jobs become harder to find. “I’m running out of options for my clients,” she told me recently. “Where are people going to live who can no longer afford their rent?” she wondered, her question very grounded in reality. Thankfully there are many churches that partner with my wife’s agency this time of year, donating time and money to serve the poor. Will it be enough this time? Our economy’s depression is deep enough that significant need will remain once the spirit of Christmas has dissolved into January’s credit card remorse.

While my wife commutes to the suburbs, I have a short bus ride to my church office on Chicago’s north side. Within the first few blocks the bus passes a gas station that serves as the morning gathering place for our neighborhood’s many day laborers. The number of men hoping for work hasn’t decreased as the temperatures drop below freezing. Closer to my office the bus drives under the interstate where homeless men and women have set up shelter with sleeping bags and cardboard boxes. These sights are a daily reminder of those most dramatically affected by Wall Street’s wild ride.

The first Christmas was filled with scenes of people under similar duress: the unwed and very pregnant Mary making the long journey to Bethlehem with her blue-collar fiancé. The vulnerable young couple receiving their first visit from the impoverished shepherds. The king’s violence forcing the young family to Egypt, refugees far from security and family. While the poor and marginalized welcomed the Christ child with awe, Herod’s presence in the Christmas story reminds us that the powerful responded differently to Jesus’ birth. Caesar, the most powerful man in the world, is portrayed as little more than a pawn in this story and Herod, a king known for his violence and clout, comes off as conniving and fearful.

History vindicates the shepherds’ response to the swaddled babe laid in a manger, but who among us would welcome the Christ child today? Would the refugee’s son inspire fear, indifference, or worship? Jesus’ teaching in Matthew’s gospel offers an answer to questions I’d rather avoid. If we are feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and visiting the prisoner today, then it’s likely we’d have welcomed Jesus then. On the other hand, if a faltering economy turns my attention inward in a fearful attempt to protect what is mine, then Herod and Caesar may be a good indicator of where I’d have stood that first Christmas. This is hard truth to swallow on cold mornings peering out the bus window at the men huddled under the interstate.

For all of our recent talk of being missional, these days of economic uncertainty may prove to be an important test. Serving and giving from a position of security is one thing; generosity to the poor despite a precarious financial position is something else. The days ahead will provide plenty of opportunities to welcome the migrant worker, advocate for the day laborer, feed the homeless, and house the unemployed single mother. Competing for our attention will be the powerful impulse to protect our own kingdoms and budgets. As Christmas approaches, should the coming of the Son of God fill us with the shepherd’s joy or Herod’s dread?

One thought on “urban exile: will compassion survive this season?

  1. I watched the documentary “What Would Jesus Buy?” yesterday and it seemed to be a timely reminder for these times. Reverend Billy is a bit over the top- I’m not one for the televangelist style- but his message of reducing our spending and remembering the real reason for Christmas still applies. The documentary was made a year or two ago so I’m not sure if Rev. Billy and his Stop Shopping choir are still touring around or not but if they are, I hope they were better received this year. Definitely worth watching.

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