Why Do We Travel So Far to Serve?

The King's Jubilee posterAren’t there poor people right here in Souderton? Why go all the way to Philadelphia? The short answer is that is where the 150 inmates in the Bible study I led at Graterford Prison, with one voice, told me to go in 1989 when I laid out the vision for The King’s Jubilee. Of course, since then, we have started and spun off ministries in Upper Darby, Pottstown, Stowe, East Greenville & Bethlehem, PA, as well as in Columbia, SC. It is probably more instructive to know why and how we started those.

None of these other ministries looked exactly like what we do in center city Philadelphia. Upper Darby was the closest in similarity and Bethlehem was the least similar. In every case, it was not a matter of looking at a map and choosing a place that was close to the church where the volunteers attended. Many pastors think they should be serving the poor in the same neighborhood or town where their building is located. Many look on this not so much as unrequited service as they do outreach for growth of the church. There are at least three flaws in this thinking. First, none of us goes to a village church, especially in the Orthodox Church. Members are scattered far and wide and drive some distance from work and home to come to church. Thus, the “community” where the church is located is far more widespread than the town where the building is located. Second, ministry to the poor has to happen where poor people live and additional ministry needs to happen where it needs to happen, not where it is convenient to us. Third, we serve the poor not to evangelize them, but we do it in obedience to Christ to evangelize ourselves. The people we serve are not rats and the food we serve is not bait.

We had been serving dinner on the street in center city Philadelphia for a couple of years when Nanci started to come with us down to the city. She had had a pretty rough life and spent a good bit of time on the streets of Pottstown. She approached me to see if The King’s Jubilee could start a work there. I told her to pray, while I spent two solid weeks at all times of day and night in and around Pottstown. I interviewed the director of the Salvation Army, and spoke with all of the churches and social service agencies that were working with the poor in Pottstown. I met people on the street: hookers, drug dealers, mothers with children, young people, policemen and shop owners. I asked all of these people what was already happening for the poor in Pottstown and what was not happening that they would like to see happen. I found out that there was a rotation among the downtown churches that provided some kind of meal in a church hall on every day of the week except Wednesday. I also discovered that there was a small group of homeless teenagers who kept an extremely low profile. They did not want to be caught by the authorities and sent back to abusive homes, either their own or their foster homes. I found that there were two neighborhoods that had a lot of poor children who could use a hot, nutritious meal, as well as clothes and school supplies. Their parents could use some clothes and some foodstuffs from time to time, as well. The fact that it was needed on Wednesday presented a problem. So we prayed for the Lord to multiply our team and our food supplies and send someone with a van we could use.

Within a week, we had willing people to make sandwiches and soup and to drive their van. We made no commitments. We wanted to see how it would go and see if it was welcomed in the neighborhoods; to see if it was meeting a need. It was a smashing success! Soon we found a dry place to leave a box of food and toiletries for the teenagers. They picked it up, then returned the box with a thank you note in it! That ministry, in turn, multiplied into more.

A young, married couple who were involved in the Pottstown ministry moved to South Carolina. They missed the joy of serving on the streets like they had done in Philadelphia and Pottstown and Stowe. They got involved in a church. Then they scoped out the situation there much as I had done in Pottstown and Stowe. They asked me if The King’s Jubilee would help them get something started down there. We replied, why not? So we helped them with some start up money to buy some equipment and supplies and helped them publish a flyer and cover letter to appeal to area churches and individuals to get involved and support their work. Within a month they were serving hot meals and giving away clothes to over 150 homeless people once a week at two sites, one in Columbia and one just outside of Columbia.

I tell people that it is because of the homeless that I am Orthodox today. Read on to learn why.

For years, I was looking for the body of Christ, the Church that Jesus said he would build that the gates of hell would not prevail against. We tried various places. Everywhere we went someone would ask us, “How many of the homeless become Christians and join the church?” (Or something to that effect.) I would always reply, “The food is not bait and these people are not rats. I am there to save me, not to save them. They save me.” Evangelicals generally don’t take so well to such answers. Even among the Mennonites, who used to have a theology about serving the poor, I was asked this question. Why this is so important is that if I am there to garner professions of faith and make converts, then the service I offer has turned into a con. It has become quid pro quo. I learned this the first month I was in prison ministry. The inmates could smell it a mile away and were more than willing to play that game, but no lives were changed. What God offers us is unconditional love. His mercy is offered again and again whether or not we recognized it as such and gave thanks the last time or not. It is the tender mercies of God that lead men to repentance. So we enter the paradox by serving in such a way that it is evident we expect nothing. This so affects men’s hearts that some do find their way to repentance.

Church people would also call us radical for helping the poor in the way that we did. As soon as you label someone radical, you have excused yourself from joining in a similar work. I found none of that in Orthodoxy. It is expected that we should serve the poor, expecting absolutely nothing in return. As far as “radical” goes; the saints whose icons are on our walls are normal. We haven’t even approached being normal, much less radical. Another paradox is that what we do an hour away from St. Philip’s way down in center city has actually helped St. Philip’s gain converts. In the last several years, more than half a dozen people have told us that they took a closer look at our church because of this ministry. They were hungering for something real and figured a church that has people who are going that far out of their way to serve the poor must have a handle on something real.

I didn’t even mention how our name comes into this: The King’s Jubilee. The suburbs have become prosperous in the main due to white flight and job flight from the city. Hundreds of city churches have closed. Many that are still open are just barely scraping by and cannot deal with the overwhelming poverty that surrounds them. Most suburban churches who are there, because of this flight, are also filled with relatively prosperous people with few needy people in their towns. Almost all of these churches want to do something in their own neighborhood for the poor, oblivious to the facts that zoning and vagrancy laws and highways (the very things that attracted them to the suburbs to get away from the rabble in the city) mean that there are very few poor who need serving. There may be a few gaps in service here and there that need filling, but nothing like what we generally do. For example, there are meal ministries in Lansdale and North Wales that have waiting lists of people who want to serve. The jubilee of the Old Testament, of which Christ and his Church are to be the fulfillment of, was when all the slaves were freed and each could return to his own land again. It was a second chance that involved great inconvenience and expense to those who had accumulated wealth. It let the resources flow from where they had accrued back to where they had come from, giving everyone a fresh start. Isaiah foretold that the Messiah was to be the fulfillment of this and that there was to be a continual jubilee: “the acceptable year of the Lord!” It is up to Christians to get out of our comfort zone, be inconvenienced, to work this out. It is not just a relic of the Law. It was given for our admonition. We are called to be “coworkers with God” to be The King’s Jubilee! 

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