Having served in the ordained leadership of a church for 16 years, I celebrate the fact that churches are tremendously generous with their support of many organizations and institutions in their communities.
Churches generously support, financially and with volunteers, the work of organizations such as Habitat for Humanity, food pantries, homeless shelters and schools. Many churches provide temporary assistance to individuals and families who need help with making the rent or paying the utility bill. Churches are generous institutions working to alleviate the suffering caused by poverty and homeless. I am extremely grateful for that work because it reflects a commitment to the Gospel imperatives of Matthew 25, which include feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, welcoming the stranger and visiting those in prison.
At this time in the life of the church and in our communities, I believe Jesus calls us to go further, to move from generosity to justice. I borrow that last phrase from a person I admire, Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation. I find his biography and his work in the world of philanthropy inspiring.
The Ford Foundation is a $13 billion foundation dedicated to improving human welfare around the world. Walker, an African American, grew up in Louisiana and Texas. His mother was a domestic worker in homes of the River Oaks neighborhood of Houston. As a child, Walker was part of the first generation of children who participated in the Head Start program. He eventually attended the University of Texas and worked as a lawyer on Wall Street. Walker later moved into the nonprofit world working for an organization in Harlem. He eventually made his way into philanthropy and become president of the Ford Foundation in 2013.
Under Walker’s leadership, the Ford Foundation has named inequality as the greatest threat to human welfare and has focused its work on disrupting the drivers of inequality such as failures of investing in education, persistent prejudice and discrimination and unequal access to government.
In 2015, he shook up the world of philanthropy in a letter he called “Toward a New Gospel of Wealth,” and in a New York Times Op-Ed piece, “Why Giving Back Isn’t Enough.” In these statements he challenged foundations and philanthropists to move from generosity to justice.
In those pieces, Walker first says that our economic system creates vast inequalities in wealth. He identifies the problem that the beneficiaries of the system are then called to fix the system through philanthropy. Moreover, he said giving back is necessary, but that is not enough, that “We should seek to bring about lasting, systemic change, even if that change might adversely affect us. We must bend each act of generosity toward justice.”
Not only is that a call to philanthropy, that is a call to the church as well. Churches are on the front lines in knowing the pressures of the world that affect families: lost jobs, unaffordable housing and health care. Churches, of course, do not have the same financial resources of a foundation like the Ford Foundation to address these pressures, but they do have some financial resources, and more importantly, they have people. Organized people and organized money can go a long way, especially if churches work together, to bring about lasting, systemic change in their communities. Working together, churches can move from generosity to justice.
Jesus claimed this work for himself when he said in Luke 4 that he fulfilled the words of the prophet Isaiah: that he was anointed to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
Our churches absolutely must maintain, and even grow, their ministries that feed those who are hungry, of building homes with those who need them and other such necessary work, but churches can also begin addressing why these conditions exist in the first place that cause our neighbors to be hungry and their housing unaffordable. Churches can take a look at what might be driving inequality in their own communities and begin to address those drivers.
Making lasting systemic change like this is not only hard work, but some us are beneficiaries of the system we seek to change. This kind of questioning and level of engagement in our communities might make some folks uncomfortable and that’s OK, because discomfort is natural for those who follow Jesus in the way of the cross. We can take comfort that Jesus walks with us.
May we in the church, and other people of goodwill, continue to be generous to the ministries and organizations that contribute to the welfare of our communities, and may we also work toward justice within our communities. By working together, we can contribute to the general welfare of our communities and make them more just.
Daryl Hay is the rector of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Downtown Bryan.