Shared Goals Bring about Positive Action
By Craig Nash
I’ve spent my life in church. In fact, I’ve been in church so much that the first sentence of this paragraph could ALMOST be read literally. One thing I’ve learned from this lifetime in church is that when we are doing things right, the way Jesus told us to do them, and taking care of “the least of these,” feeding the poor, clothing the naked and visiting the prisoners, we take great pride in this. And you know what? We should. The history of Christianity is filled with stories of hospitals on the battlefields of war and food distribution in the midst of famine. People of faith work with those on the margins of our communities in building houses and in putting checks on predatory lending agencies. Most organized efforts I’m aware of to end human trafficking or to place parentless children with families were started by someone sitting in a pew, hearing ancient words of redemption and hope.
Though there are many areas in my denominational tradition that I have come to have serious disagreements with, I always hold up the work of the Texas Baptist Men as a shining example of faith in action. When a natural disaster hits, they are almost always the first people on the ground. Their trucks are ready at a moment’s notice. These men and women, many of them retirees, and most without any formal theological education, take seriously the call of God to be light in the midst of despair. They use their gifts to walk alongside those who have lost everything and help them maintain a sense of dignity. Just about everyone in the disaster-management space holds them in high regard for the amazing work they do.
Last week I spoke with my colleague, John Puder, who is the Regional Manager for Child Hunger Outreach in the Southeast Texas region of the Texas Hunger Initiative, about the challenges with regards to food security in the midst of the devastation brought by Hurricane Harvey. In Harris County alone, the families of over 1.2 million children rely on local school districts to supplement the meals they provide to their kids. When schools shut down this gap was no longer able to be filled, which left a number of agencies scrambling to find ways to continue meal service. Another challenge was in staffing of child nutrition programs. Because of displacement, lost cell reception and other factors associated with the storm, many who work in child nutrition remained unaccounted for when schools and other meal providers were able to resume services.
It the midst of all of this, John told me that the faith community, including organizations like Texas Baptist Men, really stepped up to the plate where they could to meet the needs of those who had lost everything. It was inspiring and a model for how we are called to live in the world.
Yet there is a belief among many in my churchy world, whether because of politics, theology, or just a sense that we do it so well, that faith communities are the only institutions that should be doing relief work and addressing the needs of the poor and marginalized. This well-intentioned sentiment doesn’t take into consideration an important historical fact, which is that the history of Christianity (and, I assume, other faith groups,) is one of partnering with other entities when it is helpful, even if we live in tension with those same entities when it isn’t.
In fact, the early spread of Christianity was made possible by an “accident” of history that allowed the Church to make strategic use of the systems created by the Roman Empire. Roads built by Rome allowed missionaries to carry the message of Jesus across the known world. The “Pax Romana,” a time of peace enacted by a strong military gave these early believers a modicum of freedom that enabled them to flourish. A common language, currency and system of government brought the world together. A close reading of early Christian texts will show that people of faith often found the values of Rome to be antithetical to the values of their God, and they spoke to this truth when necessary. But they often worked in tandem with the prominent systems of governance as well. It was an early example, if you will, of a “Public/Private Partnership.”
Collaboration is difficult to pull off, even when it looks good on paper and works extremely well when done right. But it is worth it. Neither faith communities, non-profit organizations, federal and state governments nor individuals are able to feed 1.2 million children in Harris County after a hurricane hits. No matter how well intentioned churches are, they can’t possibly operate on that scale without taking advantage of the “Pax Americana.” And no matter how massive government and non-governmental organizations are, there will always be gaps in what they are capable of pulling off, and an incomplete knowledge of what is happening on the ground level of natural disasters and the every-day caring for our neighbors without the wisdom gained from faith communities. It is possible, as we have seen on the Texas Gulf Coast, for shared goals to bring about positive action among organizations and institutions that otherwise may have reason to distrust the other.
Craig Nash has lived in Waco since 2000. Since then he has worked at Baylor, been a seminary student, managed a hotel restaurant, been the “Barnes and Noble guy,” pastored a church and once again works for Baylor through the Texas Hunger Initiative. He lives with his dog Jane, religiously re-watches the same 4 series on Netflix over and over again, and considers himself an amateur country music historian.
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