If Christ is our model as Christians, then why don’t our lives look like his?
I was spiritually formed in my Christian faith within the lap of luxury, but I was unaware of it at the time. My sins were best summed up by the Old Testament prophet, Ezekiel: “I was arrogant, overfed, and unconcerned. I didn’t care about the poor and needy” (16:49). You see, I was insulated from many of the societal ills that plague our world simply because I existed within a suburban matrix deprived of any disruption to my cultural lifestyle patterns.
Although I was born and raised by Filipino immigrant parents in a multiethnic, multicultural, and multi-faith environment in New Jersey, and have even lived and worked among cross-cultural social circles, both domestically and abroad, I didn’t come to know the Lord until I moved into a homogenous and affluent cultural context in the East Valley suburbs of Phoenix, Arizona. My faith was birthed out of this place. In the comfortable and monocultural waters I was swimming in, social justice concerns like the refugee crisis and mass incarceration were reduced to matters up for political debate—not about people whom we can know deeply and serve and love.
As a new believer in Christ, I didn’t challenge this perspective. After all, this was where my faith came alive, and I loved my church family. I still do.
It wasn’t until major headlines surfaced about five years ago that the scales began to fall from my eyes. The harsh realities of desperate families seeking safety at our southern border, as well as the cruel tragedies of unarmed Black youth not only exposed the narrow and shortsightedness of my beliefs and understanding about law and order and justice, but also the incongruency of my faith and value system. I was so heavily burdened by these national events and, as a Christian, it troubled me to the core that an outpouring of compassion and empathy was NOT coming from my church or faith community.
Leaders and pastors to whom I would look to for my spiritual formation—people who could spend an hour unpacking the difference between the word the in Leviticus verses the word the in 2 Corinthians, in Hebrew and in Greek—suddenly, had no helpful words to say about what was happening outside of our safe, Christian bubble.
In stark contrast, I’d look over at my secular humanist friends outside the household of faith, who did NOT know the Author of Justice, yet were raising their voices to “speak up for those who couldn’t speak for themselves, for the rights of all who were destitute” (Proverbs 31:8). Friends in secular circles seemed to be living out biblical principles better than those in my Christian circles.
It was disorienting to say the least. I was so angry and ashamed of myself and the witness of churches like mine. This cognitive dissonance propelled me into my own personal journey of becoming a student of the God of Justice, and a learner, server, and befriender of marginalized communities. And I haven’t been the same since.
I began to see recurring themes in the stories of my new friends that paralleled the conditions of many of the writers, characters, and heroes of our faith. They’d speak about having been heavily persecuted, like Stephen; falsely accused and imprisoned, like Paul and Silas; under foreign occupation, like Jeremiah and Ezekiel; in exile, like Moses and John; human trafficked, like Joseph and Esther; enslaved like Jochebed and Daniel; awaiting their execution, like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego; forcibly displaced, like Abraham and Jacob, like Ruth and Naomi, like the Israelites, like the Early Church…
This is our Christian faith heritage! How did I miss this before? This is the lineage in which we come from, and yet my affluent Anglo-American-trained-lens had entirely drained the potency of the Word of God. But the voices of my marginalized neighbors disrupted my comfortable faith in the most illuminating and convicting ways possible—more than any Bible study, church conference, or sermon series ever could. My friends’ voices echoed the voices of the oppressed that are saturated throughout the pages of Scripture—including the voice of Jesus, Himself. My theology exploded out of the box. I didn’t know what to do with myself.
What I felt initially was utter disgust and heartache. I felt robbed for being conditioned in churches like mine to avoid social justice. As if, somehow, it’s incompatible with our faith. That the plight of our marginalized neighbors were issues to fear:
a threat to our neighborhoods;
a threat to our family values;
a threat to our economy;
a threat to our national security;
a threat to our American culture;
a threat to our Christian identity.
Supposedly, those individuals from underserved communities were merely objects of mission for us. But I can confidently testify that they are, in fact, agents of mission to us.
The million-dollar question that leaders from churches like mine are asking is, “Why do people just come on Sunday and consume?” Like it’s some sort of mystery. Perhaps it’s the stage? Maybe the flashing lights? The marketing teams? The state-of-the-art sound equipment? The comfy seating? The plethora of social clubs to choose from? I want to be clear: I’m not mocking these churches; I’m very much a part of these churches. I attend, worship, tithe, and co-labor at these very churches. I know these church leaders, and I don’t envy any of their positions. Undoubtedly, their obedient hearts desire to do the Lord’s work. They have a God-given calling to shepherd their flock (instruct, exhort, admonish, protect, point people to the way of Jesus and away from idolatry) and to lead by example. But, to the detriment of their vocation and to their congregations, they lack the margin to holistically carry out this mission due to the swarm of competing affairs that take priority: church growth, rock-concert-esque productions, neatly polished programs, celebrity guest speakers, donors, and other CEO responsibilities.
In lower income, typically minority-populated churches, the burdens that pastors face are totally different. These pastors also lack margin, but it’s certainly not for the same reasons. On top of tending to the countless regular needs of a congregation, they’re dealing with a multitude of pressing needs from very vulnerable communities at all hours of the day, with minimal resources at their disposal: evictions, unemployment, unaffordable housing, dangerous school zones, immigration documentation, healthcare for the uninsured, transportation to and from English classes, court hearings. Plus, they often don’t draw a salary from their churches, and therefore hold one or two other jobs. And still, they manage to worship and praise God for His goodness, His faithfulness, and His provision. There is no delusion that they’re in control over any of these circumstances. There is no warped theology attributing God’s blessings with a cushy life devoid of hardship. No, they hold onto the truth of God’s promises. “In this life you will have trouble. But take heart, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). They place a high value on their dependency on the collective. They hold each other up. They build their lives around one another.
So how do we get the thousands of independent, self-sufficient, and hyper-individualistic people who step foot in churches like mine to move away from conforming to the patterns of our culture and begin embodying the ways of Christ? Discipleship! But taking up the cause of the marginalized is central to Christian discipleship, and it’s missing from most of our suburban churches. This work of social justice is costly, uncomfortable, and inconvenient, but this is where transformation happens most tangibly. Personal sins of apathy, envy, pride, greed, self-centeredness, and xenophobia are often confronted and rooted out again and again by following the way of Jesus.
Is social justice the answer? Perhaps. For the Body of Christ, social justice cannot be reduced simply to political or ideological matters. As Christ modeled during His earthly ministry, it must be a family matter to the Church about people in whom we intentionally commune and delight. It looks like 4-hour long exchanges over tea and laundry folding, weeknight dinners after ESL classes, grocery shopping and cooking together, birthday celebrations, baby showers, ER visits, weekly prayer gatherings.
This isn’t drive-by-charity projects, but rather life-on-life ministry. It is biblical hospitality among the suffering as a way of life.
I strongly believe many privileged churches are missing out when we’re not in community with our neighbors on the margins. Not only are we totally missing the pains and burdens taking place among them—many of whom are our own brothers and sisters in Christ—but we’re also missing out on the wealth of wisdom they have to offer, particularly to our faith. As my Congolese brother, a former refugee, says, “Our suffering Messiah does not stay in luxurious palaces.”
The mystery that remains to be unveiled among many upper middle-class megachurches is this: There’s an abundance of insight to glean from a long-suffering people who lack–those who lack resources and material comforts, those who lack wealth and influence, those who lack rights and protection, those who are seen to lack earthly value, those whom the world often rejects.
Jesus is uniquely present among those on the margins. My prayer, hope, and mission are for churches like mine to have eyes to see Him there.
And to draw near.
Mars Adema works for Phoenix Refugee Connections, a local organization that equips Christians across the Valley to love our refugee neighbors. She leads a Welcome Team that walks alongside a new American family from Afghanistan and leads a ministry at her local church that spurs on fellow bridge-builders for social action.