This past year I had the opportunity to meet Ash Barker. Ash is the Founder and Director of Urban Neighbours of Hope and has been a catalyst and organizer for the International Society for Urban Mission. His book, “Slum Life Rising”, details the plight of the urban poor, especially those who live in the slums of the world, and calls the church to action. My conversation with him and the subsequent reading of his book have opened my eyes to see the incredible need that exists in the lives of at least a billion people. Yes, a billion people.
The world’s population is around 6 billion. And the shocking thing is that at least a billion of that population lives in slums. A slum is defined as having inadequate access to water and sanitation, dilapidated housing, overcrowding, and insecure residential status as squatters. And the numbers of those living in those conditions grows by 100,000 every day.
When Jesus had His first opportunity to speak publicly in His hometown of Nazareth He read from Isaiah these words, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me; therefore He has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Then He said, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
Yes, there was a definite spiritual aspect to His ministry, but not to the exclusion of the physical needs of those who suffered from oppression, poverty, disability or disease. He was concerned about the plight of the poor. His parable of the Good Samaritan helps to flesh out our responsibility when it comes to helping a neighbor. Even if that neighbor is nothing like us. Even if that neighbor lives in a slum far removed from our everyday experience. If we are to emulate Christ and if we are to have “His will be done on earth as it is in heaven”, then we need to be concerned about the things that concerned Him.
We live in an era when more and more churches are becoming introverted and self-serving. One mega-church in our area budgets nothing for any ministry or mission outside of their church. This is becoming a trend. Church giving to many mission enterprises is decreasing at an alarming rate. This could be simply an economic issue – or it could be that difficult financial times are revealing a lack of commitment to anything that is not directly related to the local church. The cult of personal wellbeing perhaps has now become prevalent in the church.
To be honest, when I read Barker’s book I was overwhelmed by the challenge. But my concern changed from the nature of the problem to the nature of my heart. The question became, “What can I do?” “What can we do?” We can do a lot. We can do better in the Restoration Movement in sharing mission dollars with those who live in slums. According to Barker’s research only 4% of our movements largest mission organizations have missionaries working in slums. In the larger context, World Vision, with a budget of $1.54 billion, only targets 1.3% of its budget on urban slums.
But, money and personnel are just symptomatic of a deeper issue. We need to have our hearts in tune with our Lord’s heart. To be in tune means that we need to read the scriptures more from His point of view than ours. We need to pray for His leading to determine our role in making a difference in the lives of the poor and the oppressed. Putting it another way – our lives must be changed before we can change the lives of others – especially the lives of those who live in slums.