by Ross Decker Sr
Some time ago, when I first met Hugh Hollowell, he warned me that if I ever saw the poor, if I ever really saw the poor and marginalized, it would be like going down Alice’s rabbit hole. Once I did, he warned, I could never come back.
I had the great good fortune of having coffee with Hugh while he was in town recently. Hugh is the founder and director for a ministry to the homeless, Love Wins. We spent a good hour together which, for me, seemed like five minutes.
Some years ago he was an anonymous voice on Twitter. A Mennonite pastor to a homeless congregation. I really couldn’t grasp how that worked, at first, and I read his tweets with great interest. So, when Hugh tweeted that he was coming to New York for a ministry conference and he needed a place to stay, Liz and I were in. We wanted him to stay with us. We made the offer, he strung us along until he realized no one else would offer and a friendship was born.
We were attending a pretty conservative Evangelical church and we met in a “small group” at the time. Small groups were valued in this church because of their obvious ability to provide pastoral care without the pastor having to care. (Just because I’m cynical it doesn’t mean I’m wrong). Not one of our church friends could believe that we would do such a “crazy” thing. But, we knew Hugh was liked by another person we knew only from Twitter, so what could go wrong? It would be like the Book of Acts, where you let people stay with you based solely on the promise they were preachers.
That short visit a few was an eye opener for us. The church we went to had no program for helping the poor. Andrew Olsen, my future son-in law was helping to run a food and clothing ministry with a pair of brothers and their mother and he pretty much funded a good portion of it by himself. He invited us to come see it once. That was all it took. We were hooked. There was no church funding, no corporate donations. There was no writing a check to someone so that they could help someone you’d never have to see. It was all done person to person. Everything distributed came from pooling as much money as we could and buying what our new friends needed. It was my first sustained direct contact with the needy and marginalized.
This is what Hugh saw as our rabbit hole. One of the first things Hugh told us was that nothing, for us, would be the same again. He told us that regardless of how we tried, we would be unable to share what we saw with that church and small group. Unless they were also given a similar vision for the poor, they just would not be able to understand. And he was right.
Hugh is an advocate of working with his people in a lateral way. He maintains that when you gave food to the hungry there is a way to give food but keep power. He seeks to eat with the hungry, at the same table. It is important to give up power if you really want to serve. He feels that the American church tends to evangelize from an American perspective. It is only a first step to be saved. The full process includes the evangelized becoming more like the evangelist.
So, we looked for a church that cared about the poor in a way similar to how we did. We wanted to find a church that respected the poor for who they are. We wanted to find a church where being American middle class wasn’t the prime goal. And, we wanted to be in a church where serving the poor wasn’t this year’s trendy thing but was an integral part of who the church was. Hugh phrased it this way: “We don’t feed the poor in order to give them the Gospel. We feed the poor because feeding the poor IS the Gospel.”
We found that church in the Catholic Church. Feeding the poor and doing corporeal acts of mercy are a long time practice in the Roman Catholic Church. The Catholic church gave me focus and purpose. It gave me the sense that God’s saving mercy didn’t end with me. It was extended to me so that I could extend it to others.
The American Catholic webpage tells this story of St. Lawrence of Rome which resonated with me. It takes place after the arrest of Pope St. Sixtus II.
“As deacon in Rome, Lawrence was charged with the responsibility for the material goods of the Church, and the distribution of alms to the poor. When Lawrence knew he would be arrested like the pope, he sought out the poor, widows and orphans of Rome and gave them all the money he had on hand, selling even the sacred vessels to increase the sum. When the prefect of Rome heard of this, he imagined that the Christians must have considerable treasure. He sent for Lawrence and said, “You Christians say we are cruel to you, but that is not what I have in mind. I am told that your priests offer in gold, that the sacred blood is received in silver cups, that you have golden candlesticks at your evening services. Now, your doctrine says you must render to Caesar what is his. Bring these treasures—the emperor needs them to maintain his forces. God does not cause money to be counted: He brought none of it into the world with him—only words. Give me the money, therefore, and be rich in words.”
Lawrence replied that the Church was indeed rich. “I will show you a valuable part. But give me time to set everything in order and make an inventory.” After three days he gathered a great number of blind, lame, maimed, leprous, orphaned and widowed persons and put them in rows. When the prefect arrived, Lawrence simply said, “These are the treasure of the Church.”’
Since I’ve gone down the rabbit hole that quote has come alive to me. It’s a good thing it has. Because I can never go back.
You can learn more about the work Hugh does with the homeless by visiting the ministry website at www.lovewinsministries.org