Pastor Viewpoint: Hudson, we have a problem
"What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, 'Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,' but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead." James 2:14-17
The recent flooding on the Gulf Coast left vast destruction in its wake. Pastor Joel Osteen came under fire when some asserted that his mega-church in Houston was closed, while there were many people in his city in need of shelter (Osteen has refuted this charge). In the midst of a tragedy of horrific proportions, a lack of response (or a delayed one) from religious institutions seems, at a minimum, to be decidedly unchristian.
The truth is that responding to community need is an ongoing challenge for those of us in church communities, regardless of where we live. Tragedies, such as those in the Gulf Coast, only highlight that tension. No matter where one lives, there will always be needs in the vicinity that are not being met. There will always be someone in need of extra help or a place to stay. One might even ask, "Why aren't the doors to ALL churches left open for those hurting and in need?" Every week I take my daughter to an extracurricular activity in Minneapolis and pass a large church on the corner of a busy intersection — an intersection always crowded with homeless people — and the paradox of that always leaves me unsettled. Some of the homeless are basically begging right next to the church property. What's wrong with this picture? Yet, I'm guessing the church does many things to help those less fortunate, short of letting them move in and take over the property.
The truth is churches do what they can to be good stewards with the gifts that have been entrusted to them by their members. Of course the church exists to help with the needs of the hurting in our local, national and global communities but that help may take many different forms. At Bethel Lutheran, we host a free "home meal" twice a month that anyone is welcome to attend. We support numerous organizations and charities both near and far. We have sent donations to disaster relief to assist those dealing with terrible events such as hurricanes, flooding or fires. We do care. We care immensely. We do not, however, routinely leave our doors open 24/7 to those in need. I don't know many churches that do these days. If we did, I can guarantee we would be spending more money to keep our facility functional and would be able to send less to various needy causes. It's just the reality that building maintenance and staffing cost money and churches run on donations.
Sadly, there will also always be those who see open doors as an opportunity to steal, desecrate or demolish. When this happens, there are additional costs for cleaning, for staffing needed to take care of the facility and keep it operational, and to replace items taken or things that are broken. I don't profess to know anything about the budget at Pastor Osteen's large church, but most religious institutions run on an exceptionally tight budget, often in the red, trying to do all they can to stay afloat and continue to make a difference in the world, while still providing a place for the faithful to gather in worship, fellowship and educational activities.
Perhaps it seems hypocritical. Perhaps it even seems unchristian. Perhaps we can do better. In fact, I'm sure we can. It's always easier to judge others than to personally take the responsibility to make a difference. Channeling church resources in an effective manner to make the most difference in people's lives is an ongoing challenge in almost every community, not just in Houston. It's also a challenge in Hudson, Stillwater, Minneapolis, and in communities across the globe.
We need to continue the conversation about how we best demonstrate Christian love to those in need, not only to those who live far away, but also to those in our own neighborhoods who do not visibly see us standing up to make a difference in their lives. Beyond our church buildings and our monetary gifts, however, the church's main resource for helping others always has been and always will be our people. May all of us look in our hearts and see what we could do to alleviate suffering around us. How can we make a difference in somebody's life? It's a good question for all of us to ponder.