I’m No Mother Teresa, Chapter 1A

(Book begins with the Preface in the last post.)

“With me it’s all or nothing. It’s all or nothing with me . . . ”

as said by Ado Annie in Oklahoma


Uncle Dave was a minister. He and Aunt Flo provided me with my first exposure to social justice issues. Unfortunately, my independent, fundamentalist church considered his denomination “liberal.” And so even though my grandparents had been Salvation Army officers who worked among the poor during the Great Depression, I absorbed the dichotomy I observed: Fundamentalist churches did evangelism; liberal churches did social action. For some reason, it seemed that trying to do both would mean that liberalism had won the day; so, of course, we didn’t.

Don’t get me wrong; my church was no Ebenezer Scrooge shouting, “Are there no poorhouses?” We collected “White Gifts” for the city mission to distribute each year at Christmastime. For several years, we even brought in a busload of poor urban children for a Christmas party in our fellowship hall. I just don’t remember any exhortation about making the world a more just place or our part in that. There was little encouragement to think about the poor on a regular basis rather than only on special occasions.

Maybe it was the great emphasis on individual responsibility, even while we said we believed in grace. “People should pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” “Anyone who is willing to work can achieve the American dream.” These were the maxims of my youth, philosophies I absorbed from the adults around me. They were ideas that implied the playing field was even and the poor were responsible for their own poverty. Only the children were to be pitied—until they grew up.

My first real exposure to “evangelical” social activism came in the late 1970s. I picked up Stanley Mooneyham’s What Do You Say to a Hungry World? and, shortly thereafter, Ron Sider’s Rich Christians In an Age of Hunger. I found them thought provoking and disconcerting. Maybe being an evangelical didn’t mean I was supposed to ignore the physical needs around me. Something about that resonated with me. Maybe it was my Salvation Army genes kicking in.

But immediately there was a problem. I enjoyed my middle-class lifestyle. I had no interest in selling my possessions, living in an inner city, and making do on a poverty-level income so I could give my money to others. And the examples held up for public adoration seemed to offer no other choice. It was all or nothing.



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