Local Compassion

cup-of-cold-waterTarget Audience: Evangelical Christians

I attend a church just west of Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The size or denomination of the church does not matter. What matters is the vision shift that has taken place in churches, like the one I attend, over the past twenty or thirty years. While the concept of a “local” church is all but gone in 2017, the idea of a local assembly of believers that meet to edify one another and equip one another to serve Jesus is far from dead. What seems to have died, along with the Wednesday night Bible study, is local compassion. 

Let me make myself clear: writing a cheque (sending money) is not really what Jesus had in mind when He talked about meeting the needs of others. 

My church is probably well within the norm for churches in 2017. We have just launched a “Peace Project” that involves sending several hundred thousand dollars to third world countries. Along with the money we will also be sending packages of toiletries and other commodities that are in short supply in those countries. What could possibly be wrong with that?

Let’s unpack this practice for a moment. First, though, let me make myself clear that I am not against helping people in regions of the world who live in poverty that I cannot imagine. I am not against sending medicine and technology into areas to curb hunger and disease. 

I think churches need to take a step back and examine the larger picture. How much money is enough? Will there ever be an end to the need? Are the people in these regions more capable now of feeding themselves and living independently than when the church began to give? How much longer will they need our support?

These are now questions that people ask governments when they take their military into combat. When will it end. The truth is that over the last forty or fifty years, while there has been some progress, churches and service organizations, are sending exponentially more support to solve the same problems they set out to solve when their support began. I will be honest enough to admit that I do not have the answers, but I can see the problem.

When a church gladly spends ten times or more of its giving on foreign compassion projects as it does on local compassion, it has a logical negative impact on the ability of its members to follow Jesus. 

Many churches, including mine, have shifted their focus away from local compassion to foreign projects.  They get to show tear-jerker videos of starving children living in abject filth that we cannot even imagine. We see the squalor of Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Rwanda, and various other countries around the world where disaster and poverty seem to visit on a frequent basis. Our tears flow and so does our money. 

This is actually a first-world dilemma, created entirely by wealth and the breakdown of community. We find it so much easier to write a cheque, hand someone a gift card from a grocery store, or send medical supplies (all needed I might add) than it is to buy food and deliver it to a needy family, take someone to a hospital, or offer someone a cold glass of water. Isn’t that exactly what Jesus instructed His followers to do, though?

In Matthew 25:34-40
I think the most significant point that emerges from this passage is that Jesus wanted to motivate His followers to do things for other people. He states very clearly that what we do for the least of these, my brothers and sisters, we do for Him. Of course, doing can be writing cheques, and sending aid to foreign lands if that is the burden God has placed on your heart. My point is that we have become so focused on foreign lands we have lost sight of those in need in our own communities, people sitting next to us in church, our neighbors, friends, family, colleagues at work and school. 

A few years ago, when I was living in Moncton, New Brunswick, I was part of a dynamic Baptist church. I loved their teaching and found a home in that church. What I had trouble finding was a job. One would think that the family of God, God’s army, would rally around one of its own, network, and be active in finding someone a job. You would think that, right? Well, that didn’t happen. I remember one person who responded to my need by telling me I should talk to the government or seek help from the government. I am not sure if this person was in leadership in the church or not, but I was stunned at the indifference and apathy that existed in this church. I have spent holidays alone when people in my church could have invited me to their homes to be part of their holiday festivities. There were many situations, not just in New Brunswick, but here in Ontario, where the church I was attending missed opportunities to hand me a cold cup of water. At times, it wasn’t even money or anything material, but the support that God designed the church to offer that I needed. 

A few years ago I entered a coffee shop in Toronto. There was a lineup and I approached the last person in the line and told him that due to physical disabilities I could not stand in line. I then told him that I was going to sit down and would join him when he was first in line. I sat down and a moment later he asked me how I took my coffee, then said he would be happy to get it for me. He returned, handed me my coffee and wished me a good day. I tried to hand him the money for the coffee, but he waved it off. He was gone before I could make a second attempt to give him the money. I didn’t know the man and never saw him again. I was volunteering at my church and when I got there, I told everyone about the man who bought me a cup of coffee. The Good Samaritan didn’t ask the wounded man to discuss his portfolio with him before he helped him. He saw the need and responded. For all he knew, the wounded man might have been wealthier than him. I am as guilty as anyone else when it comes to trying to “vet” the people who need help. The man who bought me that cup of coffee saw that I had the money to buy it and didn’t need his generosity, but he was generous anyway. 

I want to call those who read this post to act, not to write cheques, but to act personally by making a commitment then doing acts of compassion, big or small, in your local community, to make a difference in the lives of people around you. It doesn’t have to involve money. If you are physically fit, help an older person carry groceries, or hold the door for someone whose arms are loaded. There are probably hundreds of opportunities that pass us by every day to show kindness and compassion to other people that we let pass by for a host of reasons. This is as challenging to me as to anyone else. In fact, I feel like a total hypocrite writing this because I am afraid of failure, afraid that I might not be compassionate enough, might not be consistent enough in what I give. 

Let me finish by repeating a point I made earlier. Local compassion does not mean we stop giving to people in need in other countries. It might mean that we take a step back to examine the bigger picture once in a while, but it does not mean we stop giving to people in poverty-stricken countries. I wanted to end on this note so people wouldn’t write me telling me that foreign missions are important. They are, but I think we have lost our vision of local compassion.