Bishop Mark Hanson: Sharing Humanity with the Poor

Then we can see in others the created image of God

Poverty. When we begin there, I suspect we will focus on abstract economic conditions. We may turn to income levels to define when a person or household is deemed to be poor.

But what happens when we begin by talking with people who are experiencing poverty? (See "A glimpse of what's happening at home.") Then our starting place is our shared humanity. Then we can see in others the created image of God. God's own inner relationship as Father, Son and Holy Spirit means we are created to be a community with one another and in relationship with God.

I do become concerned when we talk about those in poverty as if they were not worshiping with us, working beside us or serving alongside us. Or when we talk as if they were not members with us in the household of God but only recipients, the objects of our serving.

What has been your experience living in poverty or listening to someone who is? What is it like to pray "Give us today our daily bread" when your shelves are empty?

What do you say or do when someone says, "This month, I must choose between my medicine and paying rent" or you hear another's experience of walking for hours to find water or of having a child die of malaria? 

When I hear what it means to live in poverty, I am led to ask, "Is this what God intends for God's children?" What if the prophet Amos was right: when examining the people's faithfulness, God does not listen first to our eloquent preaching or look upon our beautiful sanctuaries or listen to our songs' melodies, but first looks at the condition of those living in poverty?

When we say with Martin Luther that faith is a living, daring confidence in God's grace, we are talking about a faith that has everything to do with how we live with our sisters and brothers in need. Living in Christ by faith, we have the promise of God's unfailing, unrestrained mercy for all. This faith moves us toward community with and honor for the dignity of our neighbors, especially those often shunned or shamed because they live in poverty.

In Luther and the Hungry Poor (Fortress, 2008), Samuel Torvend writes: "Luther suggested that receiving bread and wine, the body and blood of Christ, signifies the creation or confirmation of a community that receives 'gifts' and consequently bears responsibility to respond in mutual assistance to each other."

The life of faith, Christ's life in us, does not shy away from engaging the spheres of life that concern others and their well-being. Faith's response to those who live in poverty is to extend hospitality, not hostility. Faith's response is marked by generosity, not by the fears so often associated with scarcity. 

We are not a poor church, but rich in the Spirit's gifts. As Luther wrote: "O, it is a living, busy, active, mighty thing this faith. It is impossible for it not to be doing good work incessantly. It does not ask whether good works are to be done, but before the question is asked, it has already done them, and is constantly doing them" (Luther's Works, 35:370; Fortress).

This living, busy, active, mighty faith seeks a sufficient, sustainable livelihood for all. So how are we stewards of God's gifts for the sake of not only serving those who live in poverty but also working to end poverty now? As you and your congregation continue to discuss how you will be a community of support for people who live in poverty, I commend for your study the ELCA social statement on economic life.

With people who live in poverty and as a witness to our faith in Christ, let us as the ELCA continue to commit to:

  • Providing counsel, food, clothing, shelter and money for people in need, in ways that respect their dignity.


  • Working to promote sustainable communities through agricultural development, micro-lending, water purification and other forms of developmental assistance.


  • Advocating for public and private policies that effectively address the causes of poverty.

Let our commitment to all who live in poverty be a testimony to our bold and confident faith.

Taken with permission from the July issue of The Lutheran magazine.