Because of the nature of my ministry, and the fact that nearly all of our funding comes from outside sources, I find myself in contact with people from other churches in many different places and many different contexts. There is a question that is asked by almost everyone is some variant of “what is the biggest need in your community?” It is a great question, although it is a difficult one ton answer at times, because it is a complex question.
I used to answer with something like, “employment” or “accessibility to employment.” While this is a great need, I do not think that it is actually the root of our challenges. We do need jobs that people can be hired into off the street, and we need affordable reliable transit to get people there. We also need adequate housing, and a deeper sense of community. However, the greatest need that we have is something which is much more basic and central to humanity: Hope.
Hope is the basic need which helps us to continue on into the future. It is the anticipation that things will be better, or at least the possibility that things can be better. It is the expectation that there will be a tomorrow, and that tomorrow may very well be better than today. It is the foundation of the human condition and it is the center of Christianity.
In my experience, many times folks look at those who are having children when they are young and unprepared, or look at people who sell drugs or other illegal goods, or look at people who abuse drugs or alcohol and assume that they have some sort of personal short-coming or deficiency, or blame their parents for not raising them properly. This is, of course, a simplistic understanding that does not actually look at the issue at hand. Hope, particularly lack of it, is the root of many of these challenges.
When we lack hope, we don’t know what the future holds, but it probably is not going to be any better than today, and in fact, it may be worse. Sex makes us feel good, something which is rare and may not happen again. We have opportunities to make a bunch of money pretty quickly, and we jump at the opportunity because that’s what I need right now. We might sober up, but we’ll still be in the same crappy situation, just without our ability to escape. Without hope, life does not have any purpose and does not have any future. Without hope it is just me: fighting all alone. Without hope, I have no reason to plan for the future, or work for anything better, because there is nothing better out there.
A lack of hope is something that even infects me. I know that some of our people will spend the rest of their lives in cramped rooms in boarding houses without dressers, beds, couches or chairs, or curtains. I know that others I know may likely never be able to secure gainful employment. I know that our church will likely never become self-sustaining, and we will likely never transform our neighborhood into a place where people want to live and be. The days in which I think like this are the most dangerous days for me, because as a pastor, I need to hold out hope, not just for me, but for those under my care.
The church, above all, needs to be an agent of hope for people who don’t have a lot of hope. The Christian hope is not just that we look forward to a time in the new heaven and new earth when death, mourning, crying, and pain will be no more (Revelation 21:4), but we also have hope that redemption and restoration are beginning now. We have the hope that we can be changed, we have the hope that the world can be changed, we have hope that God has not abandoned the world, but that God is still very active in the world. When we lack hope, we lose our ability to imagine a better future, and we lost our drive to work toward and to live into that better future.
Will things radically change in the future? Probably not. However, is it possible that things can change in the future? Of course it is, this is the root of hope. Hope can be difficult to hold on to when things rarely change for the better, but hope is indispensable. Once we give up hope, we have given up on life.
The most important thing that our church can do is not to provide more clothing, or provide more food, the best thing that our church can do is to help provide people with hope. Hope is in short supply in our neighborhood, and I pray every day that God will grant us a greater measure of hope so that we can truly live, which is more than simply existing.