I know of a church that sponsors a hospital in Africa. As you enter the building two large, colourful noticeboards tell the story of this hospital, with pictures, personal stories, facts and figures. Several members of the congregation have visited the hospital and their stories and photos are included. The church is lucky enough to pay parish share without fundraising; instead their efforts go towards the hospital. Church members talk enthusiastically about making jams and chutneys or the planned sponsored walk. The noticeboard shows how much money was raised during the last year.
On a much smaller noticeboard, looking amateurish beside the almost professional ones about the hospital, is information about the church itself. It shows names and phone numbers for the clergy and churchwardens, details of the services and a brief mention of bell ringing practice night and the toddler group. There are no photos.
As a visitor, my overwhelming impression was that this church exists to support the African hospital.
I have come across other churches that are passionate about the kilograms of food they have donated to the foodbank several miles away in the nearest town, their support for street children in South America or their missionary partners in South East Asia.
These are all important and necessary things but I am left wondering if these churches have got the balance right. For all these things take place at a distance. What is the church doing locally?
I have never known a place where no one is struggling with depression, loneliness, divorce, disability, bullying, autism, cancer, bereavement…
But often churches seem to be unaware of these people in their midst…
Perhaps they see the church’s role as focussing on those who have very little? Perhaps there is an unspoken assumption that anyone who does not live in poverty is somehow all right and needs to take responsibility for their own life?
But it may be that it doesn’t feel safe. People’s lives are messy. Getting involved with real people, instead of with those at a distance, means being prepared to get involved in the mess. It takes time: accompanying people to medical appointments, the Citizen’s Advice Bureau, the school meeting about the difficult child… Just listening takes time. We don’t have much of it these days: churches are small and we are spread too thinly. It is easier and safer to “do our bit” by donating money, giving tins to the foodbank or packing a Christmas Child shoebox.
This isn’t a new phenomenon. Over a hundred years ago, in her novel Pollyanna, Eleanor Porter wrote of the Ladies Aiders who preferred to send money to help children far away in India instead of supporting the actual orphan living in their town:
As Pollyanna says: “They acted as if little boys HERE weren’t any account–only little boys ‘way off. I should THINK, though, they’d rather see Jimmy Bean grow – than just a report!”
However, if we think that it is only those at a distance who matter, why are we surprised when people think the church has nothing to say to them? Shouldn’t we be focusing on those at a distance and those among whom we live?