By Al Tizon
This is my fourth conference this year; I dont have time for the poor. Upon overhearing this statement at a recent holistic ministry network gathering, I laughed out loud. After all, it was said in jest, and it was funny. But over the past several months, it has lodged itself prophetically in the center of my soul. To the extent that this jest spoke the truth about those of us in the Christian community development biz, we have crossed that fine line between loving the poor and pimping the poor.
I have no doubt that what got me into this kind of work in the first place included a gospel-inspired, Spirit-filled love for people, especially for the undeserved and underprivileged. Love drove me to spend quality time in the slums, it inspired me to form friendships there, and it motivated me to think and strategize with community residents, grassroots community organizers, pastors, and fellow missionaries to transform communities for Christ. And every once in a while, I would attend a conference or a seminar in order to pick up some new ideas, network with others, and be refreshed and encouraged. I would come away with new energy for the grueling work of holistic ministry. That was then.
Now I plan conferences, lead seminars, conduct workshops, and teach courses on the subject. Furthermore, I often get backstage passes to other enticing mission gatherings (the rising numbers of such things are astounding). Honestly, between planning and attending such events, there is little time for much else. And whats more, post-conference elation can deceive me into thinking that something grand has just been done for the poor. While conferences are certainly not a waste of time, I do wonder about the expense and energy that are put into them in proportion to what they really accomplish.
I fear that a vocation intended to serve the poor can easily slip into one that depends on the poor, i.e., If God abolishes poverty, I would be out of a job. God, forgive us for pimping the poor! A bit crass, I suppose, but that is exactly what we do if we replace caring for orphans and widows with charging people to sit around to talk about caring for them.
I point my finger (at myself primarily) not to condemn but to warn. What can we do to prevent ourselves from becoming mere conference hoppers for the Lord? First, being aware of the danger can help. God often uses strange means to communicate. In my case, he used a joke from the mouth of a fellow holistic ministry advocate who happened to be walking by. It wasnt even for me to hear, and yet the punch line has had enough of an impact that I am now and forever aware of the danger. I believe a heightened awareness of where we are in relation to that fine line between loving and pimping is half the battle.
Second, limiting attendance of conferences can leave room for real ministry. This naturally results from becoming more aware of the danger of conference hopping. We dont have to go to all of them, no matter how big time the keynote speakers are. One simply cannot attend conference after conference and still have time for anything else. We have to be prayerfully selective. I personally set a goal to be on the planning committee of only one national conference and to attend no more than two, maybe three, a year. Related to this, there has to be a way to measure the real value of conferences to the direct work among the poor. What does a post-conference evaluation form look like that measures success, not based on attendance and book sales but on increased effectiveness among holistic ministry practitioners?
Third (and perhaps the most important), remaining directly involved in ministries with, for, and among the poor can keep us honest. Im embarrassed to say it, but one can be in community development ministry without ever interacting with a poor person. The truth is, there is no substitute for the incarnational posture–real, on-the-ground identification, association, friendship, and partnership with sisters and brothers among the poor. Direct involvement keeps us honest and enables us to do conferences and seminars with Christ-centered integrity.
This is my fourth conference this year; I dont have time for the poor. The person who said this meant to be funny, and he was. But I have never taken a joke so seriously before. Meditating on it has given me the power to resist the impulse to sign up for every conference that comes to town. It has inspired me to remain faithful to Christs call to love people by truly being there with them. And it has renewed my commitment to the kingdom that Jesus is building, one whose doors are open to all, but especially to the poor, the oppressed, and the lost.
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Al is director of ESAs Word & Deed Network (formerly Network 9:35) and assistant professor of holistic ministry at Palmer Theological Seminary in Wynnewood, PA.