Grace Beyond our Neighborhood

“Why should we spend time and money helping the street children who have nothing to do with my church’s ministry and neighborhood?”

Only someone like Silas would dare to ask this question and it was one of the reasons why I liked him. I used to walk home with Silas from the seminary. We were both studying at the Presbyterian Seminary in São Paulo. His church was in the northern part of the city which is not too far away from the center. Yet, he was totally unaware of the reality of the homeless children and teens living there. They were just forty-five minutes away from his neighborhood. However he wasn’t convinced that it was necessary for his church to be burdened with this problem. It was forty-five minutes away from his reality.

I haven’t seen Silas for fifteen years. I lost contact with him. Some told me that he is a pastor of a church now. Most likely he has forgotten about me or at least this conversation. I haven’t been able to forget his question ever since. Mainly because I could not answer him immediately. I was unprepared for it. I have always assumed that every Christian saw the necessity of reaching out to these neglected and forgotten children. Silas proved me wrong. It is not that he was a cold hearted man. To the contrary, he was a compassionate man who was involved in the social programs of his church. Above all, he was a sincere and dedicated Christian. This is why I haven’t forgotten his question. I came to realize that it is a relevant question and deserves a well thought out answer. Many good Christians might be wondering the same thing but are afraid expressing their thoughts would make them seem callous.

Moreover the law entered, that the offense might abound. But where sin abounded, grace did much more abound-Romans 5:20

This was St.Paul’s motivation to step out of his familiar circles to preach the gospel. He was a Pharisee and a prominent Jewish leader. In his time, he would have been a very effective apostle to the Jewish community. After all, no one understood the observances and intricacies of the Jewish religion of his time than a Pharisee like him. However, he chose to go to the Gentiles. His reason for this is; “where sin abounded, grace did much more abound”.

It is important for us to know that missionary work or rather, the work of the gospel is not social work. Social work is limited within geographical boundaries and each society must fulfill its obligation in resolving its own social problems. However, the vocation of the church has little to do with social work. We address conditions which social work avoids. This is because we bring something which sets us apart from all social programs. We bring the message of grace. It is all about grace. Although, we cannot address grace if we do not address “sin”. Grace overcomes sin and if we are not clear about what we are overcoming, then we won’t be confident about the healing power of grace.

We usually think about “sin” in the narrow sense. We think about it in terms of specific acts. It is understandable why we would be embarrassed to talk about sin in this sense. We feel like prigs who are poking our noses into other people’s intimate lives. However, ‘sin’ is broader than mere acts. When we walk down the streets of São Paulo, we see lonely and abandoned people and children. We see children without any family support or maybe they don’t even know what it means to have a family. We see people trying to kill themselves slowly with drugs because they feel that life is not worth living. We see people who are completely isolated and forgotten even though they live in the seventh largest city in the world. I am not just talking about the homeless or the poor. I am talking about regular people in their busy lives, going to work and rushing home to limited time with other family members who are subjected to the same pressures and loneliness. They hide their loneliness and isolation and hopelessness behind material things. However, they cannot hide it from themselves. This loneliness and isolation is present is the state of sin that grace seeks to overcome. It is the universal state of humans. The homeless and poor cannot afford the façade of the other people. Their lives display this sinful state for everyone to see. Unknowingly they exposed the fragility and failure of our human efforts to overcome our sense of emptiness. This is perhaps why most people do not want to see them. They are afraid that they might see themselves in the homeless. It is better to forget they exist than to see the reality of our souls in them. We cannot face this reality unless our hearts and minds are consumed by the power of grace. Grace not only gives the courage and wisdom to testify to its power over bleakness and desperation, it compels us to seek and share its goodness to those who are lost.

We work in the streets knowing that the social programs cannot bring the healing that these children and teens are seeking. Social programs cannot overcome this sense of abandonment and loneliness in their souls. We don’t have a magic formula to heal this emptiness but we can testify about what is real to us. We can testify to the healing presence of grace. This grace has brought peace to our hearts and given us a sense of belonging, not in a subjective manner but in a holistic way. It gives a sense of belonging that changes our practical lives, not the kind of belonging one feels to a church or some religious group. It has given us a sense of belonging to the One whom we call our Father. It is because He is our Father, we are called to share His grace to those who are lost and abandoned in this world because He is their Father as well. This is why we should care about people beyond our neighborhood, borders and cultures.