Near the close of Passover seders, Jews traditionally say, "Next year in Jerusalem." That means they hope that within a year the Messiah will have come. Christians similarly should always be prepared for the Messiah's return, and hoping for that event.
But New Year's resolutions, if we make them, should look not only to how we can love God but also how we can obey God by loving our neighbors. Across the United States, when concluding various speeches over the past eight years, I've often asked, "Can you see in your mind's eye a poor person whom you have personally, directly helped during the past year?"
I'm pushing for more than contributing some dollars or even dishing out food at the soup kitchen on Thanksgiving-and it's been gratifying to see how many people can say yes. Many have tutored illiterate kids, coached boys without dads, been foster parents, helped a young woman go through a crisis pregnancy, or mentored adults coming off welfare or out of prison.
Many, though, say no, and in that case I hope that they resolve to do more over the next year. This is more than a personal issue. Providing effective compassion to the struggling poor is both a biblical imperative and a key public-policy issue. From the 1960s through the 1980s across the United States, battle lines on that issue were drawn. One side pleaded for more government spending for the poor, while the other side, increasingly fed up, said we had already spent enough.
Lately, the fed-ups have been winning. Even liberal San Francisco residents last month showed their appetite for change, voting to reduce the monthly, no-questions-asked cash allowance for homeless single adults from at least $320 to $59. But since 1990 a third side has gradually emerged. The third side says that both the pro-spending and the anti-spending factions are stingy, because the real need in poverty-fighting is for challenging, personal, and often spiritual help.
That third, up-close-and-personal way has a lot of historical precedent going for it. In colonial days, government bodies-for example, the Fairfield, Conn., town council in 1673-saw it as their obligation to connect homeless individuals with those who could provide beds in their homes. In the 19th century, as cities grew and social problems became more intense, Americans developed thousands of private or religious organizations to help the poor.
These groups would first try to connect those in need with family members or others who knew them and were willing to become personally involved. If no such bonds existed, a volunteer from the group would agree to work with him one-to-one, sometimes with a subsidy from the organization for out-of-pocket expenses. Since people did not expect the government to do the job, organizations found lots of volunteers. For example, in Baltimore in 1891 the Association for the Improvement of the Condition of the Poor had 2,000 volunteers to work with 4,025 needy individuals or families.
The volunteers knew the needy as individuals, not as numbers. They used "compassion" in its literal meaning of "suffering with" a person in need by spending time with him, not just giving to him. They treated poor individuals not as pets (put some food in their bowls and let them lie around all day) but as men and women created in the image of a wonderful God and thus capable of doing wonderful things themselves.
The volunteers, seeing psychological and spiritual problems among the homeless especially, pushed them to fight alcoholism and opium addiction and to encounter both the demons of their pasts and the God who could transform their self-images and in that way change their futures. Nor were the volunteers afraid to say no. Boston volunteers during the 1890s gave assistance to three-fourths of those who asked for help but found one-fourth "unworthy" because they showed "no desire to change."
These historical examples are relevant to us, for poverty problems are no worse today-materially, they are much reduced-than they were a century ago. But we need to be more than taxpayers or grumblers: Each reader of this column should find a way to be personally involved, in a tenderhearted but tough-minded fashion, with a poor person who needs help.
Few of us want to do this naturally. Church-growth specialists emphasize the importance of homogeneous congregations, which in affluent areas means not having to encounter on Sunday someone who's not well-scrubbed. It's natural to avoid trouble-which is why at this time of year it's good to make resolutions, in humble reliance on God's grace, to do what the Bible tells us is right.