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The Church And The Poor

A GREAT Christian ideal is that the gospel is for the poor. Christ was born and reared among the lowly. He was known as the friend of those who labor and are heavy-laden. His services for and among the poor were so brotherly, so sincere, so rich, so unceasing, that throughout his entire public life his very pathway was thronged by grateful masses.

In his drama Mary Magdalene, Maeterlinck gives the name "Silenus" to a Roman nobleman who was the friend of Mary Magdalene, and in whose house she was often a guest. Next door to Silenus dwelt Simon the leper, a rich man whom Jesus had cured of leprosy. Jesus was a familiar guest in the home of Simon. It was on Simon's grounds that the poor frequently gathered to receive his ministry. Mary Magdalene, who was herself wealthy, had lost a precious treasure, which she thought had been stolen by some follower of Jesus. This drew from Silenus the reply which I here quote as illustrating Maeterlinck's conception of Christ's relation to the poor.

Silenus says: "I am in fairly good position to know the band, seeing that for five or six days, it has been gathered near my house. I have even had the pleasure —for everything turns to pleasure at my age I have even had the pleasure of attending one of their meetings. It was near the old road to Jericho. The leader was speaking in the midst of a crowd covered with dust and rags, among whom I observed a large number of rather repulsive cripples and sick. They seem extremely ignorant and exalted. They are poor and dirty, but I believe them to be harmless and incapable of stealing more than a cup of water or an ear of wheat."

Again he says concerning these meetings on Simon's grounds : "It is a perpetual coming and going, a perpetual tumult. Their orchard is filled incessantly with a multitude of sick, of vagrants, of cripples, issuing from all the rocks in Judaea to beseech him, whom, with loud cries, they call the Saviour of the world, the Son of David and King of the Jews. There are some-times so many of them that they overflow into my garden."

At its very origin Christianity surrounded itself with a kind of communistic atmosphere in which the poor were made to feel their full peership and kinship as citizens of the Kingdom. Historically, Christianity, in its most intense and awakening spiritual periods, has always voiced itself in resistless appeal to laboring and burdened life; in this life it has wrought its greatest transformations, from such it has recruited its largest numbers and most valuable working forces. Are the Protestant churches of to-day the churches of the poor? It should be emphasized that here and there through-out our great centers of population there are individual churches, well attended, and whose congregations are made up mostly of wage-earners and poor people. The worship is usually characterized by a zest and joy of service indicating a hearty spirituality. Such churches illustrate the truth that the faith and spirit of the gospel as exemplified by the Master still make their welcome appeal to the multitudes.

But it could hardly be claimed, I think, that such are the typical Protestant Churches of the present. The famous churches of our great cities are, for the most part, supported and attended by the privileged classes —privileged in the sense of temporal prosperity. These churches pay high salaries, command the ablest pulpit talent, enjoy the most perfect rendering of sacred music from organ and choir. Their material accessories of worship are likely to be the most attractive which money and artistic skill. may secure. But in the pews of such churches, well-nigh without exception, the really poor have only at best a minor representation. The truth is that the poor do not feel at home in these stately edifices dedicated to the worship of Him who was born in a manger, and who throughout his beneficent ministry was a homeless wanderer, not having as much as a cot of his own on which at night to lay his wearied body.

It should be said to the credit of many churches whose pews are thronged with wealthy worshipers that they give largely in support of missions in congested neighborhoods for the benefit of the poor. The motives of such giving are not to be impugned. The good achieved therefrom should be fully accredited. The workers in these missions are doubtless personally consecrated and useful. Yet there is a class quality in such ministration which does not appear even to its beneficiaries quite of the kind which Christ was wont to give in his personal ministry, nor quite of the kind which he would give were he physically present to-day among the poor. There are many who in a spirit of sheer self-respect decline to avail themselves of a gospel which is relegated to them through the hired agencies of the absent rich. It is the direct action of personality, of heart upon heart, that really tells in the winning of men. This was Christ's method. He gave himself. In the vision of Sir Launfal Christ is made to say :

"The Holy Supper is kept, indeed,
In whatso we share with another's need;
Not what we give, but what we share,
For the gift without the giver is bare;
Who gives himself with his alms feeds three,
Himself, his hungering neighbor, and me."

It is the purpose of this chapter more to state than to explain conditions. But a most casual view of our times make obvious some causes which tend to cleavage between the Church and the poor. To most of the poor, life is a struggle for the mere necessities of existence. From a mere financial standpoint the Church is a luxury which many self-respecting poor feel that they cannot afford. They prefer to drop out of church associations rather than to rank themselves either as financial delinquents or charity subjects.

This, moreover, is an age in which more than ever before, the poor are awakened to a sense of solidarity. They are, as a great class, beginning to feel the potentialities of their social and industrial strength. There is a wide feeling among them that capitalism, which has such a potent voice in shaping and directing the policies of the Church, and which so powerfully controls the business world, is neither self-denying nor just in its relations to the poor. It is this feeling, widely abroad, about the selfishness and tyranny of capitalism which accounts for Socialism in politics, for the labor union in the industrial world, and for many other forms of organized protest against social and industrial injustice imposed upon the weak by the strong. The spirit and motive of an industrial democracy are wide abroad in the age. By subtle gravitation the interests of the poor are aligned with Socialism today a growing menace in civilization or with other industrial creeds or philosophies of social amelioration.

The poor en masse were never so interested as now in the quest, to be enjoyed in this mundane life, of a garden of physical plenty, if not of luxury. There is a growing sense of the right of all God's children to a fair share of the common bounties of nature. This sense will never subside. Before its rising strength all facts of social or industrial injustice will be increasingly resisted. Unfortunately, be the inference true or false, there is a wide impression in the laboring world that the Church in its controlling mind is not practically sympathetic with the deeper needs of the poor, that it is not openly and bravely a defender of the rights of the poor as against the assumptions and encroachments of capitalistic interests. This view has been put injuriously deep into the minds of multitudes of the laboring masses. In the world of organized labor, now a large world, there is well-nigh universal distrust of, if not alienation toward, the Church. I cannot believe that the real spirit of Protestant Churches is such as to justify this antipathy of labor. But that there exists a wide cleavage between the Church and labor no discerning man can deny.

A few years ago President Plantz, of Lawrence College, in preparation of a highly useful book, addressed a letter to the secretary of every national organization of labor in the United States two hundred and thirty-eight letters in all. A question asked was this : "What do you think is the general attitude of the laboring class at the present time to the Church, one of cordiality, indifference, dissatisfaction, or hostility?" Ninety-three replies were received. Of these only six stated the attitude to be one of cordiality; eleven said indifference; three, hostility; and the balance, dissatisfaction.

A second question was asked : "What, in your opinion, are the reasons for this attitude?" The replies, all interesting and many elaborate, clearly show that the indifference of working classes to the Church grows largely out of the position which the Church is assumed to hold on social and labor questions.

It is not my purpose to defend the positions taken by these leaders of labor. The thing to be emphasized is the attitude, whether just or unjust, in which labor stands in relation to the Church. The men who framed these answers, answers which carry such unanimity of conclusion, are recognized leaders in the labor world. They are intelligent men. They know the very thought and feeling of the laboring masses. Their statements doubtless give a true reflection of the real situation. The grave feature of the case is that labor is out of harmony with the Church. It holds itself aloof from the Church. It refuses to recognize the Church as either its social, moral, or spiritual guide. To either party in the case the situation, justly looked upon, can only be regarded as fraught with disaster.

The Church has no more legitimate, no more sacred, mission than to the laboring multitudes. If God's Fatherhood yearns over mankind, if Jesus Christ died for all men, then, the Church ought supremely to be the agent for winning the poor as well as the rich to the refuge of God's friendship. By all the sanctities of its divine mission it ought to prove itself the most perfect friend of the friendless, the most perfect helper of the helpless. A nurtured alienation of the poor as against the Church can in the interests of the Church itself be construed as no less than a calamity of the first magnitude.

But this attitude can finally mean no less a calamity to the laborer himself. If he cuts himself away from the fellowships, the nurture, the inspiring ideals and hopes of the Christian Church, where else is he to go to find a compensating moral ministry? If he shall do this, toward what future does he face his own posterity? If he feels that his lot with all that the Church can do for him is limited and poor, then, what will be his own moral future, the future of his children, when by deliberate choice he shuts himself and his house-hold away from the doors of the Christian sanctuary? By his own choice he moves himself and his family out into the blank wastes of materialistic living. For the bread that he eats, and the raiment that he wears, he will still have to toil and struggle. The conditions of his earthly lot in divorcement from the Church will certainly not be improved. Into his home will come trouble, sickness, and bereavement. Where, in his unchurched life, is he then to turn for consolation, to what agency is he to look for that ministry of heaven which in such experiences he will supremely need? And then, the future of his children does he dare to send them forth into the world destitute of Christian nurture? History lends its tragic testimony to the fatal perils of such a choice. No. The laboring men, the weary and heavy-laden, need few things more vitally than they need the ministries and fellowships of the Christian Church. The Church needs the laboring man. The laboring man needs the Church. Their interests and services ought to be merged in a mutual and indissoluble union.

It is a paramount pity that just in this age there should be anything like a marked cleavage between the Church and organized labor. The world of labor is a wide-awake world. The Church ought to surround and invade this world with the best ideals, the best inspirations, the best sympathies which can be born of a heaven-inspired gospel for humanity. The labor movement cannot be ignored. It is born of new ideals, from a new intelligence, and is pervaded and sustained by a great and growing sense of human rights. In the movement, as we have been forced to study it, there appears much that is crude and even brutal. In the camp of labor the spirit of the incendiary and the assassin has sometimes stirred the atmosphere of riot and of terror; out from this camp the hell-inspired dynamiter has sometimes stolen forth in the night upon the fell mission of destroying property and life. But these are exotics of evil such as sometimes grow under the hedges and in the darkened corners of the human garden. They should not be accepted as standards for judging the labor movement. They are not the normal product of labor organizations. The great mass of labor is law-abiding, home-loving, and at its heart there is an irrepressible yearning for citizenship in the common-wealth of an enfranchised humanity.

The labor movement throbs with the birth-throes of a new industrial civilization. It is a movement forward, not backward; Canaan, not Egypt, is its goal. It will be discreditable, a lasting reproach to the Church, if in this age she fails to realize her own great opportunity, under the standards of the gospel, to install herself as the leader and inspirer of the armies of labor.

( Originally Published 1914 )

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