Thursday, July 7, 2011

Hard Living People

This is the cover of a book I referenced in the Sunday sermon for July 3. The author, Tex Sample, is a United Methodist pastor and educator who taught at the St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City, Missouri. I first encountered him as a story-teller, who provided the introductions to challenging topics in the DVD-based educational resource "Living the Questions".

Hard Living People and Mainstream Christians is representative of Sample's lived out commitment to help bridge the gap between two very real, and very different realities. He wants to help the members of "respectable" middle class congregations, and their pastors, understand why it is that even the most well-meaning efforts to connect with "hard living people" usually fail.

Sample defines "hard living people" as "people who have abused alcohol and other drugs, have a history of violence either as a perpetrator or a victim or both, have uneven unemployment, have struggled with household or family relations, and tend to be politically alienated. They are looked down as street people, poor white trash, homeless, disreputable, drunks, addicts, winos, skid row bums, hobos, trashy women, sluts, bikers, vagabonds, the underclass, the ne'er-do-wells, the lazy, the no-goods, and on and on. These are the people who will often come to a church or a charitable agency to get food, clothing, medical care, legal services, whatever, but there is perhaps no group so hard for the church to reach in order to involve them in the active life of the congregation. While many churches serve them, few include them in the participating membership of the community of faith."

There is a sad irony that the movement started by followers of Jesus has such a hard time truly connecting with the "hard living", since the Gospels show us that Jesus spent so much of his time with the "disreputable" of his time. That's what the Pharisees meant when they said that Jesus sat at table and ate with tax collectors and sinners.

For many years, Trinity United in Oakville, the church I serve, has had an amazing ministry called the White Gift program, which provides ongoing support to low income families in our area, many of which are single parent households. The members, and many friends of the congregation are quite generous with gifts of money, and food, which are distributed with compassion and care by two dedicated volunteers. I am clearly biased, but I think the Trinity White Gift program is one of the best I have ever seen. The two women who work directly with the families demonstrate genuine love, and make a real difference in people's lives.

As grateful as I am for Trinity's White Gift program, I still wish we could also find ways to work not just from the "charity to" model, but with a "community with" model.