Word from Winkler — Tackling poverty

Editor's note: The following is excerpted from remarks Jim Winkler made last week at the beginning of the United Methodist interagency “Ministry with the Poor” focus area meeting in the United Methodist Building in Washington, D.C.

As all of us know, hundreds of scripture passages relate to poor people. Throughout the Bible, it is made plain that God favors justice for the poor. For example, Psalm 140:12 states, “I know that the LORD will maintain the cause of the afflicted, and justice for the poor.”

There are consequences if we do not address poverty.

There are consequences if we do not address poverty. Isaiah 10:1-3 states, "Woe to those who enact evil statutes, and to those who continually record unjust decisions, so as to deprive the needy of justice, and rob the poor of My people of their rights ... Now what will you do in the day of punishment, and in the devastation which will come from afar?"

Tackling poverty is incredibly challenging. I realize some might say that being in ministry with the poor is not exactly the same as trying to end poverty or helping people emerge from poverty. But if I were poor, I know I would want to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ was manifesting itself in my life in part by helping me and my family have some financial security.

Ezekial’s ‘dry bones’

One of our interns, the Rev. Ande Emmanuel, preached Dec. 5 in our weekly chapel service in the United Methodist Building. Ande is an elder in the Nigeria Conference and a student at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C.

He was set on a path that has enabled him to reach his potential.

Ande’s scripture passage was that of the dry bones from Ezekiel 37:1-14; his title was “There is still hope for the hopeless.” Ande told us of the extreme poverty in which he grew up, of days when all he would have to eat as a child was a glass of water and a handful of nuts, of not having any shoes to wear for years on end, and of not having any hope.

When the Iowa Conference established a partnership with the Nigeria Annual Conference, however, Ande had the opportunity to go to school. He was set on a path that has enabled him to reach his potential.

Praise be to God! This is a great example of ministry with the poor that raised someone out of poverty.

Not easily measured

The “Ministry with the Poor” focus area of The United Methodist Church is not as easily quantified as “Imagine No Malaria” or new church development. These have very specific numerical goals: raise $75-$100 million to eradicate malaria or create 600 new churches and faith communities.

I suspect most of our churches are involved in some way in efforts to be in ministry with the poor. Food banks, food kitchens, soup kitchens, homeless shelters, clothing drives, Habitat with Humanity, Volunteers in Mission, tutoring programs, job training. We could go on and on.

Some few congregations may even challenge the city council to ensure affordable housing, a livable wage and adequate health care — measures that would go a long way to alleviate poverty. We don’t need to claim credit for what United Methodists are doing in terms of ministry with the poor. Maybe we don’t even need to attempt to map it all out or develop data bases that tell us who is doing what and where.

I remember when the bishop’s initiative on children and poverty commenced in 1996. At first, annual conferences and local churches trumpeted their children’s ministries and programs. Later, the bishops attempted to emphasize the poverty aspect of the initiative. There was less receptivity to that.

Structural problems

We face some structural problems in being in ministry with the poor in The United Methodist Church. Jay Brim, Southwest Texas Conference lay leader, wrote in his weekly column last month in the conference paper that our denomination doesn’t have a working model of congregational life to offer to a community in poverty:

If we hope to build a self-sustaining new church somewhere, we aim for a location in a neighborhood where we can get 125 regular members in attendance, because that’s how many it takes to get the financial support to pay for an elder of the church on average. Those 125 have to be at least middle class, as well, in order to give offerings that will be enough to sustain the cost of an elder.

This is not because we are paying our elders huge salaries, either. Unfortunately, there are pastors serving in churches in Southwest Texas who have been receiving food stamps because their families fall below the poverty line. There are also many young pastors who are carrying large debts from their years in seminary, thereby making their salaries smaller by pre-existing debt. All of these factors are in play as we consider where to start new United Methodist congregations.

What we cannot do as a conference, under our current circumstances, is place clergy in poor neighborhoods to start congregations because those neighborhoods will never be able to support the clergy assigned to them. It is possible for individual congregations to send clergy out to serve those neighborhoods, which is happening, and it is possible for individual clergy persons to choose to serve in those circumstances.

Perhaps one of the matters we can address over this next four years is how the church might address these structural impediments. After all, it’s sometimes said that UMC stands for Upper Middle Class. If we are not doing everything we can and should to be in ministry to the poor, we’re not going to grow our church here in the United States.

Letter to the Editor