If you want to meet God, go be with the poor. You’ll get to be part of God’s new world, and God will not only help you but will stick with you to the end.
That was the closing message from Bishop Ken Carder, keynote speaker for the fourth annual Abolishing Poverty Conference presented by the Outreach/ Advocacy Team of Holston Conference.
“I don’t know when all of creation will be healed and all will have access to God’s table of abundance, but I know it’s coming,” said Carder, professor emeritus at Duke Divinity School, "so don’t give up.”
About 100 people representing local churches and community agencies attended the Saturday, July 27 event, held at Cokesbury United Methodist Church in Knoxville, Tenn.
In addition to hearing opening and closing messages from Carder and sharing Holy Communion, participants joined in workshops and chatted with others in special-interest groups. Topics included health care/clinics, rural poverty, inner-city poverty, Hispanic/immigrant issues, empowering lay leadership, and food/hunger.
In another workshop, participants divided into discussion groups led by Compassion Coalition. The topics included, “Compassion ministry: Going wide or going deep?” and “Responding to requests for assistance.”
"The biggest impact of Abolishing Poverty is to create awareness and equip those who attend to take their current level of ministry to the next level," said the Rev. Gaye King, Holston associate director of connectional ministries. "It is different with each attendee. Some are just beginning, others have much to teach others."
The annual conference offers networking opportunities and also "helps those attending to know they are not alone in this ministry," King said.
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Carder, a retired United Methodist bishop who grew up in a tar-paper house near Jonesborough, Tenn., spoke on the conference’s theme, “Bringing Good News to the Poor.”
He cited statistics showing the legislative “war on poverty” launched in the 1960s was lost and is now “morphing into a war on the poor.”
One in six Americans is either poor or designated low-income, he said. For the first time this fall, one million homeless children will enroll in U.S. public schools. Globally, three billion people live on $2.50 or less each day.
The church’s mission is to bring good news to the poor (Luke 4:18), but many are failing, he said.
“Every congregation -- I would say every Christian -- is either no news, bad news, or good news to the poor,” he said. “For many of our congregations, we’re simply no news. The congregation doesn’t know the poor exist, and the poor doesn’t know the congregation exists. They never see each other. They live in two different worlds.”
Other congregations “are simply bad news for the poor,” Carder said, “because we insult them, ignore them, support policies that discriminate against them, and vote for those who call for cutting any kind of aid to them.”
Churches can bring good news to the poor through promoting dignity, justice, and community with the poor, Carder said. We can rob them of dignity just by ignoring them.
“Every person has dignity because every person has been died for,” Carder said. “So don’t you think we better be careful how we talk about those for whom Christ died, how we treat them, how we ignore them?”
Scripture is loaded with examples of how God sides with the widows, orphans, homeless, immigrants, and the oppressed, Carder said.
“If you want to determine whether a policy or an attitude or a program in your local church meets the biblical test of justice, you ask the question, ‘Is it good news to the poor? What will it do to enable the least and most vulnerable to flourish as beloved children of God?’
“I would just ask you to evaluate your building programs on that basis,” he said. Building a gym that’s off-limits to the poor, for example, is “an injustice by the biblical definition.”
Wealth fragments and separates people because the wealthy have more options on where to live, and they choose to live away from the poor, Carder said.
“We isolate ourselves … and create homogeneous communities of people like us, thereby robbing us of the richness of God’s hospitality to the sojourners and the strangers.”
Through Jesus Christ, God is bringing in a radical new community, he said. “It is a community without barriers of class, race, sexual orientation, or all the other ways that we divide ourselves.”
God invites us to experience his kingdom now, to meet God where he always is -- “among the poor, the oppressed, the sick, the vulnerable” -- with the promise that we can be part of his “final victory.”
“God’s going to win,” Carder said. “Politicians who are removing the safety nets on the backs of the poor, who are being elected on the basis of the war against the poor, you’re going to lose. You may win the next election, but you’ll lose. So here is your invitation. Come on and meet God who comes among the poor and those who protect them and enables them to flourish.”