My Journey in Mercy Ministries
The subject of mercy ministries first came to my attention in middle school. I remember attending a concert at the age of twelve of my two favorite bands, Switchfoot and Relient K, who had embarked on the “Appetite of Construction Tour” to raise money for Habitat for Humanity. I still remember some of the lyrics to the song they wrote for the occasion: “Every life comes with a broken heart/Dying here to be made whole/We are the lost souls with a second start/Following the builder home/There’s a temple I found in the strangest parts/Where the stones are built of souls/Where the builder himself has promised love/I’m never gonna let you go.” It was made clear to my young mind that the Gospel addresses the real needs of real people in the wit of poetry set to a catchy melody. Switchfoot continued to serve as an example to a young Christian and a young musician how to express faith in art and as they did so, they continued to sing to me songs of justice and mercy. They recounted the story of John M. Perkins on “The Sound” and sung of teen homelessness in San Diego on “Dark Horses”. Soon, the croonings of Bono on countless U2 anthems added another voice to social causes in my life. The question became for me, “What is social justice beyond a song and a benefit concert?”
Around that same time in my life, my family began sponsoring a child in Haiti through Compassion International. I also began to take advantage of a now defunct Facebook feature which allowed me to raise funds during my birthday for social causes. I typically chose providing clean water for third-world countries. It seemed the best, or the easiest, way to practice justice and mercy was to give money to organizations doing the work.
This notion was challenged in high school when I began to subscribe to Relevant Magazine. I first discovered the magazine when Jon Foreman of Switchfoot was featured discussing how Switchfoot worked with social causes. Within the pages of each issue, I found countless articles that chronicled current social justice concerns, particularly issues of human trafficking, and ideas for how to live more justly. I grew to see the importance of living a just lifestyle, particularly by taking care of where we buy our products and how they are produced, though as a high schooler, it did very little to affect my actual buying habits other than purchasing a pair of TOMS shoes at the beginning of each school year.
During my junior year of high school, I was exploring the library of my grandfather, who was a retired pastor himself. I was an avid reader even then and was searching for more material. There I found a copy of Tim Keller’s Generous Justice. In it, I found a clear biblical and theological defense for the role of mercy ministries in the church and saw how it applies the Gospel to the way sin has corroded all aspects of society. I was thrilled with the book and greatly influenced by its message, but found the church I was in did not often think of the issues contained within. In a conservative Presbyterian church, any act of mercy ministries was left to the diaconate without anyone else’s knowledge and any other discussion of social justice centered on concerns of giving handouts, making the poor too reliant on the church, or how it was not as important as people coming to faith in Christ. With that said, I grew considerably in my faith through this church. The difficulty was that I was unsure of how my recent social conscience could grow along with the rest of my faith and understanding of the Gospel.
Around the time I became involved in this particular congregation, I was beginning to explore colleges. I discovered Eastern University at a college fair and was inspired by their motto, “Faith, Reason, Justice.” I was excited by their concern for social justice and, since they had an excellent music composition program, enrolled there. During our first semester, we were required to fulfill a number of service learning hours. I was assigned to City Team in Chester, PA where we spent a considerable amount of time sorting through and organizing donations. Then the week before Thanksgiving, we helped hand out turkey dinners to people in the community. We had the privilege of praying in people’s living rooms and being as blessed by their presence as we thought they were blessed by our good deed. I found myself exhilarated by my experience volunteering, but sadly allowed the busyness of college to prevent me from doing so again until after I had graduated.
While I was excited by this experience, I also found I had internalized the culture of my home church more than I had previously realized. During a class called “Justice in a Pluralist Society”, I found myself thinking thoughts such as, “This seems impractical.” “Is this worth that must work?” “Is this really that important?” “I think you’re exaggerating the issue.” I was torn between what seemed to me to be a biblical command, but what seemed to require far more effort than I deemed important.
I did not experience this tension for very long as I left it for other theological questions and only returned to it when I began interning at Liberti Church Center City and Main Line. There, I was assigned to mercy ministries, specifically homeless ministry. On returning to the question of mercy ministries, I found the tension in my thinking had dissipated, most likely do to developing my faith in other ways, and I had returned to the social conscience I had developed in high school. Working with those experiencing homelessness, talking to them, sharing a meal together, is one of the highlights of my week.
Yet it would be unfair to say no tension remains. I currently struggle with how to relate to people with a dramatically different experience from me. Through exposure, I have become more comfortable talking to them and am learning how to better relate to them by realizing they are far more than their situation, but I still find myself uncertain in how to relate with them. My other tension is as a support raiser, I have many conservative ministry partners who do not see how this ministry is profitable as Gospel work unless it specifically results in saved souls. I struggle to know how to demonstrate to them that yes, we do preach the Gospel while also encouraging them to see the value of demonstrating the love of Christ in this manner. While I myself have largely rejected dualism in ministry, many of my supporters have not and I am endeavoring to think through how I might challenge them. I know this issue is one that will not be resolved easily, nor will it go away in the long term. As a pastor, fostering a culture of justice and mercy will always be a task God has called me to, and one which I do not take lightly.