Worshiping God in Beauty…in Prison

I’m the pastor of Celebration Fellowship, a prison congregation of the Christian Reformed Church. Last night I met with our music team. The team consists of seven inside members of Celebration Fellowship and one outside member. These men get about thirty minutes a week to practice for our service, and somehow they are able to competently lead the church as we sing our praises to God. The music isn’t always perfect, but the men participating on that team give 100%, and we are often shocked at the beauty that we experience through their musical talents.

As we were discussing worship for the evening, one of the men said, “Pastor Andy, you smell like rainbows.” It wasn’t the first time I’ve been complimented on my cologne. In fact, I can barely go two weeks without one of our inside members mentioning the scent I’m wearing.

In prison, things don’t smell good. They often smell bad. There is no potpourri air freshener. There is no cologne. The cleaning chemicals clean, and nothing more. The first time I walked into a prison chow hall, the scent of the place frightened me. At best, things in prison smell functional – like everything else in prison.

The buildings are functional. Nothing extravagant or more than what’s absolutely necessary. They provide the bare minimum shelter from the elements. The racks provide the bare minimum of comfort for sleep. The food provides the bare minimum nutrition for life. The clothing is uniform, blue and orange, warm enough in the winter and cool enough in the summer. In prison, everything is the bare minimum necessary, except for beauty.

One has to look hard for beauty in prison. It is a place that society keeps intentionally ugly. After all, most believe prison should be an ugly place for ugly people who’ve done ugly things.

We don’t tend to think of beauty as necessary for life. If by life we mean simply continuing to exist, then maybe beauty isn’t necessary for life. However, life as we think of it Biblically is one that requires more than the bare minimum. Biblical life is a life of fruitfulness and abundance of God’s blessings. The eschatological feast is one of the finest wines and foods. It is life, not in the bare minimum shelter, but in the Lord’s mansion. Life in God’s kingdom is one in which we don’t wear baseball caps, but beautiful crowns of gold. The Old Testament church built the temple as a way to transport worshipers into a shadow understanding of the beauty of being in God’s presence. That beauty is for the already and the not-yet.

So, if we believe that God is truly present in our worship, then we must believe that we will see that fruitfulness and abundance among his people. The life that our Lord gives us is a beautiful life, where we walk in his ways, in the light of the truth, and cherish the beauty of his creation through the talents he’s given his people. When we expect beauty, peace, and tranquility, the ugliness of the world becomes glaringly obvious. Our incarcerated brothers have tasted God’s beauty and their eyes are opened to the ugliness around them. As God’s people, our incarcerated brothers want to make prison beautiful, a place where God dwells.

What a strange people the church is in prison. The church stands out, not like a sore thumb, but like a green thumb. In a place of the bare minimum and ugliness, we find abundance and beauty through God’s people. In a place of scowls and anger, we find men smiling and raising their hands in joy to praise the Lord in song. In a place where things smell bad, we enjoy the scents that take us out of the ugliness and into God’s beautiful rest.

When Helping Hurts, Chapter 9 – “And to the Ends of the Earth”

Synopsis

  • This chapter mainly deals with the concept of micro-financing or MF. MF takes business away from loan sharks in the majority world. MFs provide means to credit at a reasonable rate to encourage self-sufficiency through the development of small businesses (usually ten people or less).
  • Large-scale manufacturing has been most economists solution to the poverty of the majority world. However, large-scale manufacturing happens slowly, requires infrastructure, etc. Small businesses can be up and running quickly.
  • Wealth accumulation that provides a cushion for small businesses can be difficult in the majority world, where culture may dictate that when a person has accumulated anything, it should be shared with the community. Therefore, there is a desperate need for savings that are secure and private.
  • One mode of MF is to put borrowers into borrowing groups that require members to guarantee each other’s loans. This leads to a high rate of repayment.
  • Difficulties in MF include problems in providing savings services, failure to reach the extreme poor (who may require loans in the five to twelve-dollar range), failure to reach the rural poor, exclusive focus on businesses, and lack of evangelism and discipleship activities.
  • Any church or ministry that gets involved with MF needs to do their homework and know what they’re getting into.
  • One model is the SCA, or Savings and Credit Association that encourages fellowship and discernment among the community. The provide affordable loans and a means for savings.
  • People may view MF as a cure-all for poverty, but it only addresses part of the need. Never forget that we have poverty of relationship with self, the community, and God. Holistic poverty alleviation must address all areas of poverty.
  • Business as Missions (BAM) is another model. Entrepreneurs start businesses in the majority world, providing jobs, education, and increased productivity through their investment.

My Thoughts

Micro-financing is fascinating. It’s amazing what a few well-placed loans can do to encourage economic development and self-sufficiency in the majority world. What relevance does this have for the poor in the United States?

In my ministry, I mainly deal with men who are released from prison. For the majority of them, they have no job. They have no housing. Many don’t even have a supportive family. When they apply for a job, they will have to share with the prospective employer that they are a felon. It takes a special business owner to extend employment to a felon. So, their job prospects are not good.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if these men could start their own businesses? They would get off public assistance, move out of subsidized housing, and become productive members of society that give back for what they’ve taken. Unfortunately, very few of the men that come out of prison have the necessary skills to run a business. So, MF would not be a good solution for most of them, but the few that are willing and able to run a business could make a dramatic change in other returning citizens’ lives by taking them on as employees.

It seems to me that many drug dealers are already entrepreneurs. Why? It’s the avenue of business that’s open to them. The startup costs are minimal. The product is in high demand. The profit margin is tremendous, but the cost to the community is tremendous. Also, there’s a reason the profit margins are so great – the risk of failure means years of incarceration.

When Helping Hurts, Chapter 4 – “Not All Poverty is Created Equal”

Synopsis

  • There are three phases of material poverty alleviation. They are relief, rehabilitation, and development.
  • Effective relief is done seldom, is immediate, and temporary. This is dealing with emergency situations like an illness, or the needs of a returning citizen who has no job, clothes, food, etc. Effective relief stops the bleeding.
  • Effective rehabilitation is the second step, immediately following relief. Rehabilitation, “…seeks to restore people and their communities to the positive elements of their pre-crisis conditions.” Rehabilitation is the process of working with the material poor in their recovery.
  • Effective development, “…is the process of ongoing change that moves all the people involved -both the “helpers” and the “helped” – closer to being in right relationship with God, self, others, and the rest of creation…Development is not done to people or for people but with people. The key dynamic in development is promoting an empowering process in which all the people involved-both the “helpers” and the “helped” – become more of what God created them to be…”

My Thoughts

Most pastors will tell you that they get to know the dependent poor pretty quickly. When I say, “dependent poor” I’m talking about people who live off the gifts of others. They have no job, no desire to get a job, no desire for any help that isn’t a handout. In Grand Rapids, we often find the dependent poor on street corners with signs outside the mall and Target shopping center. These are able-bodied men and women who are more comfortable begging for pocket change than working. These people are stuck in the first phase of poverty alleviation -relief.

Can we blame people for getting stuck in relief? If somebody pays your electric bill every time your electricity is cut off, why wouldn’t you go back to them whenever the lights go out? If somebody feeds you whenever your stomach growls, then why look elsewhere for food? It’s a Pavlovian response. People take the path of least resistance to solve their problems. If the church pays the light bill, go beg for money at church. If the church gives out food, go beg for food at the church.

Just to be clear, there are some people who must be dependent upon others. Children, the disabled, the chronically and severely mentally ill, etc., all must rely on others for their needs. These folks cannot work productively. Our families and churches must be the primary place of care for these dependent poor.

However, others can work. Not only that, they need to work. Working gives us dignity as human beings. There is nothing dignified about begging for money or food. There is nothing dignified about having to knock on a pastor’s door and ask for money to pay the lighting bill. Begging puts people on their knees. The gospel is about lifting people up. The only one we should bend a knee to is Christ.

Working is an act of worship. When we work, we are acting in a way that we were created to act. Without work, we atrophy physically, spiritually, and in our relationships with others.

Rehabilitation is the phase least developed by Fikkert and Corbett (C&B), so I don’t have much comment here except to say that I hope there is more on rehabilitation in the coming chapters.

Development is the goal. This is where we want to be with our poverty alleviation strategies. After reading this chapter, I got to thinking about how my prison ministry can be more about development and less about relief. Currently, we give away study Bibles to the men in our congregation. We give away study Bibles, because given the amount of money they earn they would have to sacrifice for months in order to buy one. How the men reclaim their dignity through this process? As things stand now, they become beggars and we become providers. They lose dignity and we get an inflated sense of self as saviors and providers for the poor prisoners.

After brainstorming with a volunteer, we may have a solution. Instead of giving the Bibles away, we sell them at a price prisoners can afford through a third-party vendor. By changing this process, we give the men something to work for, and in that process their dignity is restored. Additionally, we no longer feel as if we are being used by some men just to get a Bible. Instead of being their providers, we become their partners. Everybody wins.

When Helping Hurts, Chapter 3 – “Are We There Yet?”

Synopsis

  • “Building on the concept of poverty as being rooted in the brokenness of human beings’ four foundational relationships, this chapter explores what successful poverty alleviation entails and paves the way for the principles, applications, and methods to be discussed in the remainder of this book.”  Fikkert and Corbett (F&C)
  • Repairing relationships (with God, with self, with others, and creation) that were broken in the fall is done through the power of the cross. Jesus died and rose not just to save our souls, but to restore all relationships that were tarnished in the fall. This is the work of reconciliation. Poverty is alleviated through a restoration of these relationships.
  • Those who are seeking to alleviate poverty must never forget that we too suffer from poverty of relationship because of the fall. We are not saviors of the poor. Rather, we too are on the path of reconciliation.
  • People and processes, not projects and products, are the means of alleviating poverty. That is, we cannot throw money at the problem and expect it to be fixed. Doing so presupposes that poverty is just a lack of material stuff. Instead, we are called to much deeper interaction with those in poverty. We need to give our dollars, AND ourselves in relationship with the poor.
  • Non-Christian worldviews see poverty as a result of unjust systems (liberals) or individual sin (conservatives). The Christian view (which also corresponds to reality), is that systems AND individuals are fallen, broken, and in need of restoration. Christians must not make an excuse for individual sin by blaming the system. Likewise, Christians must not let unjust systems that encourage poverty to go unchecked and unchanged by blaming the sins of the poor.

My Thoughts

C&B make a bold claim. “Ultimately, the profound reconciliation of the key relationships that comprise poverty alleviation cannot be done without people accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.” Wow! That is heretical to modern ears. The idea that we need Jesus for anything flies in the face of the pervasive secularism of our age. C&B rip directly into the idea that any poverty alleviation strategy can be successful without relying directly on our creator and sustainer who is Lord over all things.

Is their statement true? I’ve heard of programs that are not based upon the gospel that have had some measurable success. Many argue that the welfare reforms of the 90’s lifted millions out of poverty. Successful prison recidivism reduction strategies have been implemented in many states that do not explicitly preach Christ crucified. I have no doubt in my mind that some alleviation of poverty can be done by well meaning non-Christians or secular individuals.

However, simply looking at employment statistics, income, and education level does not tell the whole story. Just because people escape material poverty to get a home, a good income, and a Master’s degree does not mean they are out of poverty. How many middle class Americans are addicted to food, drugs, shopping/credit cards, or pornography? How many middle class Americans suffer from depression, loneliness, broken marriages, workaholism, and a lack of meaning in their lives? How many middle class Americans are actually in poverty of relationship? People with money in their pockets, a roof over their heads, and food on their tables haven’t necessarily escaped poverty.

We must always remember that when we are working with the poor. We need them. They need us. I hear that so often in my ministry in the prison. Volunteers look forward to their interaction with the men of our congregation because they relate to Jesus in that individual. God is reconciling us to him by reconciling us to the rest of the body of Christ – which includes prisoners. The men in our congregation are pulled out of a poverty of relationship as well. They know that they are valued, loved, and not forgotten.

When Helping Hurts, Chapter 2 – “What’s the Problem?”

Synopsis

Chapter 2 examines what poverty is. Poverty is more than simply not having enough stuff. According to  Fikkert and Corbett (F&C), there are four different kinds of poverty. They are:

  1. Poverty of Spiritual Intimacy – corresponds to a poor relationship with God. We were created to glorify God and enjoy him forever. When we are not enjoying God, we have poverty of spiritual intimacy.
  2. Poverty of Being – corresponds to a poor understanding of self. We are made in the image of God with worth and dignity.
  3. Poverty of Community – corresponds to a poor relationship between ourselves and others. Being created in the image of the triune God, we were created to be in community.
  4. Poverty of Stewardship – corresponds to a poor relationship between ourselves and the rest of creation. “God created us to be stewards, people who understand, protect, subdue, and manage the world that God has created in order to preserve it and to produce bounty.” We have poverty of stewardship when we don’t take care of what we’ve been given.

C&B make the case of Christ’s supremacy in all things by quoting Colossians 1:16-17, “For by him [Jesus] all things were created; things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things are held together.” All things were created by him and for him, and he holds all things together. Therefore, there is not a single facet of our lives that is outside Christ’s rule. In the fall, the relationships with God, others, and creation, were distorted by sin.

Adam and Eve went from having a good relationship with God, themselves, one another, and creation, to hiding from God in shame, pointing fingers of blame at one another, and laboring with great difficulty. If we ignore the supremacy of Christ in all things, and simply treat poverty as a state of being without stuff we will never make progress in eliminating poverty. Therefore, we must take a comprehensive approach to address poverty.

My Thoughts

C&B provide some excellent examples of poverty alleviation efforts gone wrong. I remember dealing with a returning citizen whom I met almost immediately after he got out of prison. He mentioned he only had one pair of underwear and no toilet paper. So, I took him to the store and bought him underwear and toilet paper. Later, he called and asked if he could have $20. He just needed some money to get through the week. When I drove over to his house, he was sitting outside smoking a cigarette. I thought, “Those things are $5/pack. Am I just buying him some cigarettes?” He called me a couple more times. Over the course of a month, I gave him over $100. He called me again. I couldn’t believe it. No matter how much I helped him nothing changed.  I told him, “I don’t think I’m doing you any good by giving you money.”

He said, “Of course you’re doing me good. I didn’t have any toilet paper, and now I do. I didn’t have any food, and now I’m full. You’re helping a lot!” Yet, his situation didn’t change because of the money I gave him. Even worse, maybe one of the reasons his circumstances didn’t change is because I gave him money. He still had to beg for everything he had. He still didn’t have a job. He still wasn’t looking for one! Was I subsidizing an unhealthy lifestyle? Was I exacerbating his poverty of stewardship? My efforts didn’t do anything to alleviate his poverties (spiritual, being, community, or stewardship) and may have made his life worse.

Of course, he’s one of the reasons I wanted to read this book. I want to help, rather than enable or encourage greater poverty. Looking forward to some answers in the coming chapters!