In this episode of TGC Q&A, our third in a six-week series on faith and work, Amy Sherman answers the question, “How did followers of Jesus serve the poor?”
• Imitating Jesus (:32)
• Formalizing the process (1:58)
• John Calvin and the Reformation influence (2:47)
• John Wesley and the Methodist tradition (4:04)
• The influence of Octavia Hill (5:00)
• Maggie Walker’s bank (7:08)
• Explore more from TGC on the topic of poverty.
Amy Sherman: Church history is replete with examples of ways that Christ-followers have sought to reach out and effectively serve the poor. And that’s not really a surprise, right? Because the Bible is saturated, with references to God’s heart for the poor. And in Jesus, we see that that passion embodied as he fed the hungry as he identified with the poor as he reached across, you know, social boundaries, to heal lepers and the like. And clearly, Jesus wants us His disciples to imitate that compassion for the poor. Certainly, we see that in his teaching in Matthew 25, with the parable of the sheep and the goats in which Jesus profoundly identifies himself with those who are in need or in prison. So it’s not surprising that from the earliest days, we see examples of church-based response to poverty.
So in Acts chapter two, you have the believers holding things in common and sharing their resources so that none would be in need. You have the Apostle Paul going off collecting money from you know, certain congregations and in certain locations and sending those resources back to fellow brothers and sisters who were in need. That charitable impulse really begins to get more formalized and organized as we get into the third and fourth centuries, and the church is beginning to grow. For example, at the Council of Nicea, the bishops took on responsibility to establish hospitals in each of the cathedral cities, and these would be places where the poor could find housing, food, basic medical care, the homeless would have a place to stay the elderly, infirm would be cared for. And this, you know, continues all throughout the medieval period. And then it’s really picked up in the Reformation time as well, where you have distribution charitable alms to different folks in need. And I think one thing to really highlight or notice is that this generosity is not a sort of arm’s length charity, because deacons, both in the medieval and the Reformation times were sent out to be face to face interviewing people in their homes, learning about the particularities of their circumstances. So there’s an attempt to really respond in a very personalized way to folks needs in in the Reformation in Geneva, the church was faced with the challenge of many refugee families coming into the city fleeing religious persecution, having very little beyond the clothes on their backs. And you saw in John Calvin’s Geneva, a response, not only of short term relief, but again, getting to know these individuals finding out what was their previous employment, what trades perhaps were they involved with previously, and then making loans so that they could restart up their businesses as bakers or you know, blacksmiths whatever it might so here we have this kind of not only giving Amanda a fish, but teaching you know, a man to fish in the 1700s. One of my heroes is John Wesley and his many followers in the Methodist tradition. They had a real passion for social justice. One of the congregations that John Wesley led was actually located in an old foundry and he established something called the foundry society and the foundry society on Fridays would provide rudimentary medical care to poor people who couldn’t afford to go anywhere else. The society also purchased two homes in the community that they use to house orphans and elderly widows. They provided small business loans to folks they started a school for homeless children so here with the Methodist you have this very holistic, wide-ranging response to poverty with housing ministry and health ministry and each Economic Empowerment. One of my heroines in the 19th century is an English reformer named Octavia Hill. She was a Christ follower and grew up herself in straitened circumstances. But as a as a young woman, she was able to convince a wealthy friend to her purchase a couple of apartment buildings, essentially, in a slum in London. And she moved in there to be the on site, property manager, and she essentially was doing social work. So she got she gets to know these individuals, she organizes the tenants to make repairs to the to the apartment building to beautify and she gets to know them, she is able to when they can’t pay their rent, you know, find alternative ways for them to come up with money other employment or to work off their rent payments by working in the garden or performing you know, repairs and the like. So again, you have this very relational response to the poor.
One of the things about Octavia hill that always has impressed me was her incarnational presence, living among the poor and really seeing and getting to know them as friends and seeing the basic fundamental humanity and dignity of the poor. She’s famous for saying that the church was often too willing to help the poor, but not willing enough to know them, but she knew them and she knew what their needs were. And she saw their dignity. One of the things that Octavia Hill did was become a real advocate for conservation efforts because she knew that the poor just like all people need access to green space to public parks to the beauty of nature. And so she was a voice in the conservationist movement to protect green spaces and public parks so that the poor would have places for recreation and contemplation and then into the 1900s. Here on our side of the pond in the United States. One of my heroines is Maggie Walker, and Maggie Walker was the first African American female who chartered a bank. She’s the founder of the St. Luke’s Penny Savings Bank bag, he grew up in Richmond, Virginia, a daughter of former slaves, helped her mom out in her mother’s laundry business gets herself educated. And she becomes very involved in a fraternal society called the Independent Order of St. Louis. And at this point in history in the early 1900s, when black people are, you know, segregated in so many ways from the mainstream economy, these fraternal societies were established largely by churches, and they operated as kind of insurance clubs whereby members would pay dues, and then they could draw benefits when those were needed, for example, for unexpected medical expenses or for funeral expenses. But the St. Luke’s society and these other black self-help societies also involved, you know, social gatherings and education, they gathered folks together to promote different humanitarian causes. And Maggie Walker was very, very involved as she eventually grew to become the leader of the St. Luke’s society, edited their newspaper, and spent a couple of years really advocating in print for the black community to pool its own resources for economic uplift. And she was able to convince a number of society members to become founding shareholders of this new bank and then promoted the bank throughout the society so that many working-class families would, you know, put their savings into this bank and the bank then becomes a vehicle for economic uplift. Because now folks have a safe place to save, they can earn a little bit of interest on their thrift, and most importantly, they have access to credit. So she found the bank in 1903. And by 1920, the bank has made over 600 home mortgage loans. So here we have not just you know, give a person a fish eats for a day, not even just teaching the person the fish, but helping the person to own the pond, which is really the most effective way that we can respond as Christians to poverty.