On Nov. 15, Highlands United Methodist Church’s ministry with homeless people on Birmingham’s Southside made the front page of The Birmingham News. The article noted that this ministry has drawn some fierce criticism from some quarters. I love it when the United Methodist Church makes front-page news not for losing members or fighting over some social issue, but for being the Church and doing what Jesus commanded us to do when he said “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” (Matthew 25: 35-36).
Way to go, Highlands!
This week, most of us our preparing to celebrate Thanksgiving with our families. All over Alabama, feasts are being prepared. Highlands, in the name of Jesus, has a considerably expanded notion of “family” this Thanksgiving. Highlands feeds the hungry and the homeless not just on Thanksgiving, but almost every day of the week. That’s what Jesus does to a church.
Whether it is feeding hungry people, building homes for those who have lost their homes in natural disasters, visiting those who are in prison, or providing a safe place for families struggling with the pressures of life to find hope, Jesus calls us to serve and not to be popular. The Gospels are full of stories where Jesus was criticized and hated for the ministry he did. Something’s wrong with our discipleship if we’re never criticized on the front page of The Birmingham News.
I thank God for Highlands United Methodist on their faithful ministry to homeless people. Their ministry is more than a quick hand out. Staff and members are building relationships and learning the names and stories of those people on the Southside that others hurriedly pass by. This church is not just giving out food and services but is also inviting those people who are served to join Highlands in worship.
Earlier this month I was part of a Conference called “The Heart of the Gospel: A Call to Follow Jesus,” a joint effort between Highlands United Methodist Church Committee on Church and Society and Urban Ministry, Inc. During the Conference, we did a very Methodist Christian thing - we focused on what Jesus makes us do in response to what our society does to the poor. I commend David Carboni, Reggie Holder, Emily Penfield and other staff and members of Highlands UMC for being in discussion with their merchant neighbors who take issue with their homeless ministry. I am encouraged by this discussion and hope the merchants and neighbors will join the church to begin to work on issues that can be solved in this situation.
The problem is not that Highlands United Methodist Church offers food to homeless people. The problem is that we live in a state where over 15% of our neighbors are living below the poverty line. The problem is that 23% of Alabama’s children live in poverty. When you sit down to dinner this Thanksgiving, please join Patsy and me in specifically praying for the poor children of Alabama.
Christian ministry is messy. Jesus never promised that the newspapers would approve of us. I thank God that Highlands United Methodist Church is more interested in pleasing Jesus than the newspaper. Thanks to Highlands, the rest of us are reminded that Jesus gives all of us a considerably expanded notion of “family,” a wide area of responsibility, and a means to do unto others as God has done unto us. That’s something for which to give thanks!