A lot has been said about the affect of the current economic crisis on Wall Street and Main Street. Those who will likely end up bearing the brunt of the burden in the wake of this crisis live on streets lined with low-income housing and along dirt paths in the most underdeveloped corners of our globe. Ultimately, the cost of the crisis could very well be passed onto the poor in the United States and beyond.
Even before the bottom fell out of the stock market on Monday, the poor in the United States were struggling the most in our already sluggish economy. This spiral began when people across the country, a disproportionate number of whom were near or in poverty, could not make payments on adjustable-rate mortgages designed to grow larger and more burdensome over time. The situation grew more desperate for our nations’ poor when the price of everything from gasoline to bread dramatically increased in recent months.
Incredibly, now the picture for the poor looks even more bleak. The tightening credit market brought on by the collapse of Wall Street banks means that businesses on Main Street USA won’t be able to get the loans needed to purchase new air conditioner units, buy new computers, or hire new employees. Businesses unable to grow will mean more people will lose jobs and end up in poverty, and those already in poverty will find it even more difficult to find good jobs to pull themselves out of poverty.
A similar spiral is taking place around the globe as well. The credit squeeze in the United States has perpetuated a credit squeeze across the world. This means, for example, that a non-governmental agency that may be trying to build well in regions of Africa may not be able to get the money needed from credit agencies there to accomplish such desperately needed work.
The $700 billion bailout program could put those in poverty into an even deeper economic hole. Jim Lehrer on Friday night at the first presidential debate between Senator McCain and Senator Obama asked the candidates where federal government spending would be cut in order to pay for the bailout. Senator McCain proposed a spending freeze on "everything but defense, veteran affairs and entitlement programs." Senator Obama confessed that "there’s no doubt that we’re not going to be able to do everything that I think needs to be done." Whether come January it is either President McCain or President Obama in the White House, programs designed to aid the poor in the United States could be cut or delayed to make room for this unexpected $700 billion expense.
I present this foreboding forecast not to incite panic, but to compel people, particularly people of faith, to action. This is a defining moment for the church and this new generation of Christian voices. Will we ignore the suffering going on around us? Or, will we bravely respond to and comfort the poor and hungry in our communities? Will we discover radical ways to support those in our communities of faith who may fall on very hard times in the days ahead? Will we answer the call of the Psalmist who urges us to "defend the cause of the weak and fatherless; maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed" (Psalm 82:3).
Obviously, this means that people of faith, even during this difficult time, must give generously. If we follow Christ’s teachings, we should flood social service agencies with monetary gifts and volunteers. This is a time for churches to open their doors to all and offer a free meal as often as possible. This is a time to send money to those running programs in developing nations that help people learn sustainable farming techniques or educate girls.
Another step communities of faith can take to help in the midst of these hard times is to be radically hospitable to the poor. What people enduring great hardships and dramatic life transitions may desire as much as assistance with physical needs is a place of authentic acceptance. This may sound like a simple task, but most churches struggle to create a welcoming environment. It was once said that the most segregated hour in America is the eleven o’clock hour on Sunday mornings. Numerous examples exist which indicate that churches across the country have taken steps to become more racially integrated in recent years. However, congregations still remain deeply divided along socio-economic lines.
Oftentimes, it is through more subtle expressions that a congregation’s position on the socio-economic ladder gets communicated. You’re unlikely to hear a minister proclaim from the pulpit, "this is a church that caters to the upper-middle class." However, that message can be delivered loudly and clearly in other ways. Expectations about what an individual should wear to worship states what type of person is welcome at your church. The cost of activities for youth or even the price of a mission trip tells people what it costs to truly participate in the life of your congregation. Churches seeking to serve the poor, both beyond and inside its walls must first and foremost be genuinely hospitable. That may mean tearing down those oftentimes hidden barriers that keep those with limited economic means at arms’ length.
How God’s people react to this crisis and its fallout will be one of the greatest tests of faith of our time. I pray that with Christ beside us, we will meet these new challenges before us.