Does the Church Confuse Mission with Charity?

One November several years ago, I was attending a conference in downtown Atlanta, Georgia. It was late in the afternoon on Sunday. I had bowed out of a couple of sessions to finish some paperwork in my hotel room. Time slipped away from me and when I finally took to the streets to find a place to eat, I found that the only thing open late on a Sunday was a McDonald's. Fast food is not at the top of my list in reference to bill of fare, but it was going to have to do.

As I approached the entrance to the restaurant, a young man, who was obviously homeless, approached me asking if I would give him money for something to eat. A police officer stepped in to keep him from bothering me. I told the officer that I very much appreciated him doing his job, but that it was OK; I would talk to the young man.

Instead of giving him the money, I offered to buy him dinner. So we took our place in line and when we reached the counter we both ordered our meals. As we left the counter with our respective trays in hand, he looked somewhat watchful, seeing where I was going to sit, and then he started to walk away to sit somewhere else. I invited him to join me and with a look of surprise on his face, he accepted.

I must say, that in one sense, it was very difficult to enjoy my meal. As a homeless man, he had not bathed in quite a while and the taste of my food was laced with the smell of foul body odor. But in another sense, it was one of the most profound moments of my life that completely changed my perspective on the nature of Christian mission.

As we talked, he told me that he was from south Florida, and he came not just from a broken family, but a dysfunctional one. His father was nowhere in the picture, his mother was constantly strung-out on drugs and alcohol, and his mother's live-in boyfriend had been verbally and physically abusive. He did, however, have a sister, still in Florida, of whom he spoke fondly. In such an unlivable situation, he decided to strike out on his own ending up in Atlanta, where he had a job for a little while; but since he had no place of residence, he was let go. It was very clear to me as we talked, that he was very intelligent and articulate; and while all persons are ultimately responsible for what they make of their lives, I could not help but think how this young man's life would be different had his home-life been different.

As we continued to talk, I offered to drive him to the bus station and pay for a ticket back to south Florida. It had been unseasonably cold in Atlanta; at least he could go to Florida and be in a warmer climate. Sleeping on the streets is not an attractive prospect, no matter where it is, but if that was going to be his situation, at least he could go somewhere with a milder climate. Perhaps, I suggested, his sister would help him get on his feet. He declined my offer and said something that made my heart sink—"Nobody back home wants me."

We talked for a little while longer, and as we prepared to leave he thanked me for dinner, and then he said something that completely rearranged my thinking and approach to the church's mission. I paraphrase his comments, but in quotations marks: "You know, everyone who buys me dinner takes their food and sits somewhere else leaving me to sit by myself; but you sat with me and talked to me and spent time with me. I often feel very lonely and I have gotten used to rejection and to being ignored. Thanks for your time."

The most important thing to this young man was not that I filled his stomach for a few hours, but that I was able to fill a few moments of his time in relationship.


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