Dr. Jamie Jenkins: How do we engage in ministry to the poor?

"Billions of people the world over - most of them women and children - exist without their basic needs being met. They live a life of preventable suffering and are perpetually at risk." These words remind us that Christians cannot be oblivious to the needs of the poor. 

The theme of the 145th Session of the North Georgia Annual Conference this week is "Engaging in Ministry with the Poor." Therefore I thought it appropriate to address this topic on the day before conference begins.

Rather than attempt to "recreate the wheel," I offer excerpts from two documents. The first is from a report from the thirteen General Secretaries of the United Methodist Church. They offer guiding principles and foundations for ministry with the poor. The second is from an article written for Heritage Sunday entitled "John Wesley and the Poor."


Ministry with the Poor certainly includes philanthropy and ministries of mercy and generosity (Romans 12:10). And yet, Ministry with the Poor is more than a handout, more than an anti-poverty program, and more than a problem to be fixed. "If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing" (1 Corinthians 13: 3).

Ministry with the Poor is a biblical imperative-as much for everyone today as it was for Jesus when he proclaimed: "The Spirit of the Lord is on me because 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." (Luke 4:18-19).

Jesus explicitly told us "the Way" to do this: each person must love and treat others as he or she would want to be treated (Matthew 22: 35-40). Jesus also modeled how to be in ministry with one another, including widows, orphans, "the little children" (Luke 18: 15-17), prisoners, the homeless, the outcast, the foreigner, the sick and disabled, the debtor, the oppressed, the occupying soldier and even our enemies (Matthew 5:43-47) -but especially society's most marginalized, "the least of these", with whom Jesus equated himself.

Jesus showed us that ministry with means being with, being a caring presence, being in loving relationship with, standing with, standing in the shoes of, being in solidarity with, listening to, learning from, caring about, and respectfully responding to others as we would have them respond to us (1 Thessalonians 2:8 on sharing our lives; Romans 12:9-21).


Wesley, who was suspicious of riches...once told a colleague, "The poor are the Christians." He stirred so much animosity with his criticism of wealth and defense of the poor that he was prohibited from preaching in Church of England parishes. His response was the famous declaration that the world was his parish. He went out and preached standing on his father's gravestone. The poor heard him gladly.

Wesley's thinking about and approach to ministry with the poor changed over the years. When young he encouraged acts of charity, such as giving alms to the poor, even begging from the rich on behalf of the poor. He organized a society to provide relief for poor, sick, and friendless "strangers."

Later, Wesley ... looked for more lasting benefits and took a stance in favor of an 18th century form of individual, family, and community empowerment.

Wesley encouraged the early Methodist preachers to live among the poor in order to maintain solidarity with them. He and his brother Charles sometimes acted as arbiters between the poor abused by the early industrial revolution and civil authorities. One mayor accused the Wesleys of causing "much mischief" in England, but they won him to the cause doing justice for people.

As he grew old and Methodism became larger and more prosperous, Wesley deeply feared a growing complacency toward poverty... In one of his last essays he wrote: "For the Methodists in every place grow diligent and frugal; consequently, they increase in goods. Hence they proportionally increase in pride, in anger, in the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes and the pride of life. So, although the form of religion remains, the spirit is swiftly vanishing away."

Jesus and Wesley call us to be engaged in ministry with the poor. I pray that North Georgia United Methodists will claim it as their divine task- not just a theme for a few days' gathering.

Jamie Jenkins

[Taken with permission from "Monday Morning in North Georgia," June 13, 2011. North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church.]