FOCUS – Class clash: Sunday school mirrors the world

by Lt. Amanda ReardonI have a Sunday school class of second and third graders. It is a difficult class where two worlds collide. About half of the class are children from homes with two parents and enough resources to meet every need. The other half of my class comes from a homeless family shelter. These children would have no home were it not for Christian charity, and possibly very little clothing and food. Some of their families have deep-seated troubles above and beyond financial concern.

I sat at my kitchen table preparing for my class, thinking of the children in it. The less fortunate kids seem to want to reach out to the others, but have difficulty doing so. The more fortunate, who are also better at reading the lesson aloud and have a fairly good working knowledge of the Bible, have a hard time understanding the struggles of the less fortunate. Why can’t they read better? Why can’t they sit still?

The lesson I was preparing that evening was about compassion. Such a topic made me acutely aware of how my class was a microcosm of the oldest struggle known to civilization. Every Sunday morning, one socio-economic class bumps up against another. And like most of the rest of the world, none of them quite knows how to handle it.

My students are actually in a fortunate situation. Christians talk about loving the poor, but how many middle-class church-goers know any poor people? They may volunteer at a shelter or soup kitchen, but do they really know any poor people? Romans 3: 12­15 talks about a Christian compassion that is so deep it binds us in “perfect unity.” Surely this brand of compassion must involve something more than an annual visit to a soup kitchen to hand sandwiches to the hungry. The compassion Paul describes implies intimacy.

Of course, this works both ways. The Christian in poverty must also have true compassion toward those who seem more advantaged. Bitterness is inappropriate. Ambivalence is inappropriate. Whatever barriers exist, whichever camp has constructed them, they are to be abolished. Believers are brothers and sisters in Christ–fellow heirs to his Kingdom! Some day soon there will be no social class, no race, no gender.

It has been said that during the Civil War era an interesting phenomena seemed to occur. While people in the north believed in freedom for the slaves and respected blacks as a people, they (and I’m generalizing here) did not appreciate them as individuals. Apparently, many slaves who escaped to their “Promised Land”–the free north–were greeted with disdain. In the south, however, many blacks felt loved as individuals by the families who owned them but did not care to set them free. Their masters were thoroughly convinced that blacks were of an inferior race, yet they often developed deep personal affection for them individually.

Of course, the Christian attitude would be to both love the individual and value the dignity of the entire race. And the same challenge faces the modern Christian. We are quite accomplished at doing good for certain groups of people. But do we value the individual person? Do we respect the foul-smelling homeless man who comes through our doors looking for bus fare on a Sunday morning, oblivious to the fact that we are all clean, odor-free and trying to worship? Or is he only welcome when he is a nameless member of a large group we are feeding on Christmas day?

Compassion is cheapened when it is used merely to occasionally soothe the guilty souls of those who live with abundance. Worse yet, it is stripped of all meaning when acts of benevolence are just something to be checked off on a Christian’s “to do” list. Real compassion is gritty, tangible. Real compassion is visible when a tidy soldier invites the unshowered man to lunch after church. It is seen again when the woman in one pew rises to sit with the lonely foreign exchange student in another pew, and asks about her homeland, her family. It is unmistakable as women of the church pitch in to buy maternity clothes for a pregnant teen with little money.

As Christmas approaches, let us assume every reader will be helping with holiday efforts in some way…standing at a kettle, taking applications for food baskets, passing out toys, visiting in rest homes, etc. Our task will be to see each person in need as an individual. To reach out as one human to another…maybe even learn some names, and go home and pray for those we meet. This Christmas, I don’t want to help “the poor.” I want to help James and Elena and Tyronne and Anna…

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