At this time of the year, many people often engage in an appraisal of their finances. Matters such as the payment of bills from holiday spending, calculations estimating the cost of income taxes and initial pondering of the development of an annual budget prompt a prudent review of one’s monetary resources. It is within this context that I would like to suggest that another form of evaluation take place: an assessment of the quantity and quality of our Christian service. After all, I would contend that our spiritual portfolio is just as, if not more, important than our financial net worth.
One of the ways in which we can evaluate the manner in which we are tending to our brothers and sisters in need is to review the scope of the service we perform. I suspect that the majority of people are adept in responding to the needs of family members or friends through actions often characterized as good deeds or doing the neighborly thing. And, while such deeds are indeed noble and laudable, it could be argued that such kindness to family and friends really are sort of expected. Jesus Himself issues a precaution against limiting service to those who are close associates or persons capable of offering repayment (Luke 14:12-14). The level of our Christian service needs to widen its parameters.
The next step in expanding our circle of care should be to offer assistance to the broader community. Efforts in such settings as meal programs, health clinics, food pantries and blood drives would fit this category. Yet, the scope of service also can be enhanced to include addressing needs on a national level. Programs like Habitat for Humanity seek to help meet housing needs in areas throughout the country. Contributions to associations like the American Cancer Society strive to deal with critical health issues that plague the entire nation. Ultimately, however, the scope of our care can be taken to the highest level, as one begins to help people from around the globe cope with calamities and tragedies which can make our local concerns pale in comparison. Programs like Catholic Relief Services and Doctors Without Borders serve as notable examples of outreach that crosses territorial lines and helps the poorest of the poor.
Sometimes, though, one may hear complaints about expanding the scope of our service. The old adage “charity begins at home” occasionally is raised as an argument for restricting one’s service to local concerns. However, I would contend that, while there is indeed a need to address the needs right in front of us, it is not proper to place such a limitation on our benevolence. It is sometimes pointed out that the adage “charity begins at home” can be coupled with the phrases “but it should not end there” and “Charity may begin at home, but justice begins next door.”
A second form of review for the level of our Christian service entails adding to the dimensions of our ministry. I think it is accurate to state that the overwhelming majority of help which people provide to the poor is in the form of direct service. Direct service is a designation which refers to efforts to assuage or relieve immediate needs. Serving a meal to a hungry man and hosting a homeless woman in an overnight shelter are examples of direct service. Direct service is a critical and vital form of ministry because immediate needs are so pressing. However, it is important to point out that direct service is a necessary but not sufficient form of care. Direct Service provides immediate relief, but it does not deal with the root causes of the problem. Although temporarily fed and housed, the hungry man and the homeless woman will be famished and without shelter the next day.
Two other forms of Christian Service are suggested to address the foundation of the immediate needs of the poor. The first example of this foundational ministry is called advocacy. Advocacy is an effort to speak up for the needs of the poor and to argue for changes in policy or programs that would help alleviate the conditions which cause the problems which they face. Often the poor are poor because they do not have the power or means to have a say in the social structure. They sometimes feel voiceless. Advocates seek to work with the poor to help provide such a voice. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has sponsored a ministry known as Justice for Immigrants as a means of enlisting Catholic parishioners to engage in such advocacy. The second example of foundational ministry is called empowerment. The most basic explanation of empowerment is to point to a very simple example. While direct service seeks to help a hungry man by giving him a piece of fish to eat, empowerment seeks to equip the hungry man to solve his problem with hunger by teaching him how to fish. Empowerment is the most promising form of service, since it promotes the self-actualization and thus the dignity of the person in need. However, it also is the most difficult form of service because offering education and formation can entail a lengthy process. A literacy program is an example of a type of empowerment, which seeks to train the needy and convey the skills to take ownership in solving their problems.
Much like an appraisal of financial resources, however, the evaluation of the quantity and quality of our Christian service is easy to neglect or set aside. The payback on both forms of review is not immediate. Both efforts require due diligence, patience and perseverance. Yet, the long-term consequences of these efforts are irrefutable, especially in terms of the spiritual assessment of our outreach in charity and the promotion of justice. There is no greater reward than the benefits accorded Christian service, as Jesus Himself reminds us in Matthew 25:31-46 that the Heavenly payback for such efforts is eternal.