Sunday, September 02, 2007

Thinking about Civic Ministry

I write a monthly column for my church newsletter. Occasionally, I like to share a topic that seems suitable for general consumption.

By Liz Nealon

This month we would like to consider two promises in our parish Vision Statement as they each relate to our obligation to reach outward to the community around us.

We are a center of civic ministry. We need to be a beacon, open in ever expanding ways to our community.


We are a place of compassion, a congregation whose mission is deeply rooted in concern, care and action to the needs of others.

Each of us has something to offer to others. We can give our money and our time to charity, be a friend to someone who is sick or lonely, do volunteer work, or be a peacemaker, teacher or lay minister. We may give unselfishly of our time to our spouse, children or parents. We might choose a service-oriented occupation, or we may just do our everyday jobs with integrity and respect for others. At St. John’s, our civic ministry includes our support of feeding programs like the Good Shepherd Soup Kitchen, our willingness to allow community groups involved in self-help to use our facilities, and our openness and willingness to support one-time and recurring civic concerns such as the Communities That Care program.

Logic dictates that the more we give to others the less we have, but in fact, the opposite is true. Service to others and spiritual leadership in our community bring meaning and fulfillment to our lives in a way that wealth, power, possessions and self-focused pursuits cannot.

The idea that St. John’s should be a place of civic ministry, a beacon of God’s love and compassion in our mid-Hudson community, made me think about the book GOD'S POLITICS: WHY THE RIGHT GETS IT WRONG AND THE LEFT DOESN'T GET IT (HarperCollins, 2005), written by Jim Wallis, publisher of Sojourners magazine, God's Politics Blog, and a public theologian, preacher, speaker, activist, and international commentator on ethics and public life.

Wallis objects to the idea that any political institution, Conservative or Liberal, Right or Left, can claim to have a monopoly on representing God and His wishes. Instead, he evokes Jesus’ continual reminders, throughout the Bible, of our obligation to serve the Poor. In his book Wallis writes: I am always amazed at the debate about poverty, with one side citing the need for changes in personal behaviors and the other for better social programs, as if the two were mutually exclusive. Obviously, both personal and social responsibility are necessary for overcoming poverty. When this absurd bifurcation is offered by ideological partisans on either side, I am quickly convinced that both sides must never have lived or worked anywhere near poverty or poor people. That there are behaviors that further entrench and even cause poverty is indisputable, as is the undeniable power of systems and structures to institutionalize injustice and oppression. Together, personal and social responsibility creates the common good. Because we know these realities as religious facts, taught to us by our sacred Scriptures, religious communities can teach them to those still searching more for blame than solutions to pressing social problems.

Wallis goes on to say that: Recovering the faith of the biblical prophets and Jesus is not just about politics; it also shapes the way we live our personal and communal lives. How do we live a faith whose social manifestation is compassion and whose public expression is justice? And how do we raise our children by those values? That may be the most important battle of spiritual formation in our times… Our religious congregations are not meant to be social organizations that merely reflect the wider culture’s values, but dynamic countercultural communities whose purpose is to reshape both lives and societies.

We all know this from Jesus’ words in Matthew Chapter 25 – “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Or as James Forbes, the pastor of Riverside Church in New York City, put it, “Nobody gets to heaven without a letter of reference from the poor!”

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