Ron* had been an alcoholic for decades, but he had a turnaround at our Ministry Center in New York City. It started with a prayer in a park, but it wasn’t easy. After an agonizing time in detox and rehab, Ron entered recovery.
Baptists do Bible study, so it was a rough moment when Ron finally told us in the group that he hadn’t actually been forgetting his glasses. He simply couldn’t read. At all.
Ron wasn’t big on sharing feelings, and so it wasn’t until I went with him to start a specialized reading program that I really got to know him. As we waited for the subway, he pointed out the tunnel where he used to sleep when he was homeless. “The rats in there were terrible,” he said, and then he remained silent.
He also told me a little about his alcoholic dad. When he was a kid and his dad was at home, his dad used to knock him out of his chair if he didn’t put the fork on the table in just the right place. Ron shrugged as though it wasn’t a big deal.
As we traveled to another part of the city, I had never thought about how totally frightening an unfamiliar subway station would be if you couldn’t read. The signs on the walls would mean nothing. Maybe he wasn’t standing in the right place on the right platform, just like when he used to put the fork in the wrong place. I watched Ron fight not to show how scared he was.
The interviewer at the reading program was gracious, telling Ron that at one time he was not able to read either. I left the two to work together on filling out the application. A little while later, the interviewer came to fetch me. “You better come,” he said with a worried look.
There was Ron, who always tried to act so tough, with his face in his hands, sobbing uncontrollably.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, as I sat beside him.
It took Ron a while to be able to speak. Then he said something very simple, something that crystallized for me what our mission is all about.
“I just can’t believe I am somebody,” he said between sobs.
To be somebody. In Ephesians, the goal of ministry is to help each Christian grow into, as some translators say, a “mature person to the measure and stature of the fullness of Christ” (4:13). We are actually God’s “workmanship,” even God’s “masterpiece” (2:10).
Send Relief is a collaboration between the International Mission Board and the North American Mission Board. It is a compassion ministry. It works to help people become “somebody” in Christ Jesus.
To share Christ’s love in a tangible way is an important avenue to make a connection with so many. Even when there are huge gaps between people, kindness tends to cross many cultures. In the end, Paul says, it is God’s kindness that brings us to repentance (Rom. 2:4).
Send Relief has five focus areas.
- Strengthen communities. Send Relief walks with people in under-resourced communities to help develop the local neighborhood and beyond.
- Protect children and families. Send Relief comes alongside vulnerable families by caring for children in foster care, the orphan, women in a crisis pregnancy, and families needing restoration.
- Fight human trafficking. Send Relief works to assist those who have been caught in a web of human manipulation and exploitation.
- Care for refugees. Send Relief helps the churches be the hands and feet of Christ in walking with refugees through their resettlement process.
- Respond to crisis. Send Relief helps equip and train churches to address the crises that affect our communities—from national disasters to pandemics to other conflicts.
These focus areas help us organize and work more effectively. However, we can’t really isolate these areas. These focus areas can’t really be called “buckets.” They are a river. They connect integrally with each other. Being involved in strengthening communities often leads to care for refugees, which can mean protecting children and families, which may lead to fighting human trafficking. These are sometimes the very communities that are least able to respond to major crises.
Furthermore, to honor human dignity for each person, Send Relief is expanding its ministry sites on the national front. These Ministry Centers work to execute, model, and multiply missions for all the churches in our convention.
Opportunities to uphold human dignity
I see two opportunities in this new phase of work.
A renewed understanding of wholeness: First, in compassion ministry, there is a renewed understanding that we can do more together than we can do separately. The Word of God binds us together. In some of the most controversial issues in our world today, we may find around 10 or so Bible verses that address that specific issue. However, there are more than 2,000 verses in the Bible that talk about helping the poor.
The current generation understands that the gospel has an amazing coherence in terms of our outreach. Ephesians 1:10 tells us that God’s plan is to unite all things in Christ, things on heaven and on earth. All things—that relates to salvation and sewage, housing and heaven, crime and the cosmos.
Jesus didn’t go out and meet needs one day and share the gospel the next. Everything he did revealed the truth of the gospel—from feeding, to teaching, to healing, to challenging religious leaders, to preaching on the need for repentance and salvation. The kingdom wasn’t carved up.
Of course, as one friend told me, “This is not new. It is just new to you.” Yet we do have a renewed sense of the health of the living Word of God as it relates to the inestimable dignity of each person. Many young people understand this wholeness intuitively. We have a window of opportunity. We can take action for the chance to help each person realize their own human dignity and truly be “somebody.” Then, Christians can be known again for what we stand for, not just what we stand against.
The biblical understanding of being human: The second opportunity relates to our biblical view. In these turbulent times, the Bible helps us understand both our nobility and our savagery—nobility because we are created in the image of God and savagery because we are fallen, which has made human history so tragic.
Just as Ron said in the beginning story, “I am somebody,” so Genesis 1 lets us know how special we are. As one poet put it, “We feel that we are greater than we know.”
We sense that we are not just a zero. We are not merely a chance glob of protoplasm, or as one physicist put it, “just a chemical scum on the side of a moderate-sized planet.”
In my neighborhood in New York City, we remind people that they are not just a trash can with a hairy lid. Sometimes the women in our group tell each other that according to the Word of God, they are each a precious diamond, not plastic jewelry. Because tangible addictions and homelessness have been high in our area, I often remind myself of one Bible teacher’s phrase: We are “magnificent even in ruin.”
We have such value. As the TV shows about antiques and pawn shops remind us, something is only worth what someone is willing to pay for it. According to the Bible, for us, the price paid was infinitely high—the life of the Son of God.
The reason for the ministry
When I first began working in compassion ministries in New York City, the challenges of homelessness seemed totally overwhelming. I read a story about a man named Muretus that helped give me strength.
Muretus was a wandering and poor scholar in the sixteenth century. In Italy, he became sick and was taken to a place where the destitute were kept. The doctors looked at his situation briefly and spoke together in Latin, the language of the educated. They assumed that others would not understand what they were saying.
In essence, the doctors looked at each other and said that it was unnecessary to expend time and money on this worthless human.
Muretus sat up in his bed, looked them in the eye, and said in clear Latin, “Call no person ‘worthless’ for whom Christ died.” Then, he lay back down again.
That is the reason for our service at Send Relief, regardless of the challenges and frustrations. No one made in God’s image is worthless. No one for whom Christ came, lived a perfect life, died, and now invites to trust in and follow him is to be cast aside. Because of the imago Dei, each of us can see ourselves as “somebody.”
*Name changed for privacy purposes.
Published March 14, 2022