Time magazine is publishing articles about a road trip being undertaken by regular columnist Joe Klein. Klein is traveling across the country in a meandering path, taking time to visit small town America, especially towns that have been devastated by the recession. These are places where factories have closed, where many people are on some form of government assistance, and where drug abuse and other social problems have exploded. Increasingly, Klein has found that churches and related Christian ministries have stepped in to help people survive, especially by providing food.The latest installment by Klein is titled, “Where Checks Alone Can’t Help.”
Klein stopped in Newcomerstown, Ohio to see how folks were doing. He doesn’t say much about the town, but I did a little research. This is an old town site, originally an Indian village. Its famous leader was Chief Newcomer, who gave it his name (although I don’t know how he came by the name “Newcomer”). So it wasn’t named by a Welcome Wagon group or a creative real estate developer. It is a small place, about 4,000 residents. A claim to fame is that Newcomerstown was the hometown of Cy Young, the famous baseball pitcher.
In Newcomerstown, Klein came across a food pantry called Journey’s End Ministries, a joint project funded by 30 churches and operating out of an old car lot. Klein’s observation was that there was something in this ministry that was missing in any government assistance. He put it this way, “… they had found something at Journey’s End that they couldn’t find at government agencies: a loving community that wasn’t judgmental.” Here is what I think he means by this. In Newcomerstown, I could be a meth addict living with my girlfriend without marriage and need food, and Journey’s End would feed me. No questions asked. No games to play. No shaming. They would just feed me. I can’t help but try to see this through Klein’s eyes: a Jewish American man from the big city seeing the churches of Newcomerstown operate on the ground to feed the hungry people of this community. Klein, very much the outsider, seems to be saying, “This is what the church should be.”
I believe one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century church is to be a loving church without being judgmental. It has more often been phrased this way: How can we be a faithful church without being judgmental? In other words, how can we hold to high standards of biblical morality and behavior without using them as a lofty perch to judge others who fall short (at least fall short more than we do)? This is indeed a challenge. I don’t want a church that winks at godliness. But I don’t want a church willing to let the community’s meth addicts starve to death.
Jesus explained this conundrum through his story known as the Parable of the Good Samaritan. In this, the Samaritan gave assistance that saved the life of a Jewish man, a man whom he had every reason to hate. They were not countrymen. They weren’t neighbors in the physical sense of sharing a fence in their neighborhood. But the Samaritan is held up as the example of how to love one’s neighbor (Leviticus 19:18). Why was the injured Jewish man his neighbor? I can only think this: he was his neighbor because he was in a position to help him.
Whom can we help? Whom can our church help in our community? Maybe if we can be guided by these questions, we have take a step toward being a loving church. Maybe we will even garner the attention and respect of someone like Joe Klein.
Nebraska Christian College