We stood together in a circle in an abandoned lot for the street church service that Sunday afternoon. The many homeless men, women, and families participated together in singing, in offering prayer requests, and in listening to the sermon which was an abbreviated version of the one we had heard at our son's church that morning.
This service gathers people together every Sunday, despite weather conditions. It was clear that they knew each other-this was their church. As a group from the local church was serving a meal to the outdoor congregation, one man came over to me and introduced himself. "Are you Greg's mom?" I responded, "I am." With that he lifted up his leg so I could see his boots. "Recognize these?" I did. We had bought them for my son to keep him warm. "They've kept me warm and dry this whole winter." I replied, "I'm so glad."
At the age of four, my son "helped" his dad move beds into a homeless shelter started by several churches in our town. At age 29, he is employed full time by this same shelter, the largest sheltering coalition south of Boston.
I am grateful for the heritage of a Nazarene grandmother who walked the hills in West Virginia to deliver food and prayers of hope to the sick. I am grateful for my parents and the people of my local church who lived lives of compassionate hospitality and service to others. I am grateful for my local church that modeled compassionate ministry for my own children and which continues to find ways to reach out to our community to bring hope and healing in practical ways.
As a vivid reminder of this, our pastor, Jeff Barker, has placed our local food pantry collection container in front of the Communion table. In this way, he is illustrating that our fellowship around Communion extends to those in our community. He suggests, "We're learning the 'table manners of the Kingdom.'"
I am grateful for a heritage that understood and continues to understand that recipients of God's great love are motivated to reach out to extend that same love to others with hospitality and tenderness. The call to love God and our neighbors as ourselves is a compelling strain at the very heart of the Church of the Nazarene.
"The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because He has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor" (Luke 4:18-19). With this text described in his journal entry for April 2, 1739, John Wesley began his field preaching. It placed in bold relief Wesley's clarion call that regeneration was not only for the individual spiritually, but in a broader context for society morally as well. Who are the brokenhearted? Who are the poor? Who are the oppressed, the prisoners, and the blind in our society? They are our neighbors, whether next-door or across the globe.
In his sermon, On Pleasing All Men (Sermon 100), Wesley counseled his followers to let love "be the constant ruling temper of your soul" and "as an addition to your gentleness, be merciful| be courteous| be pitiful| be tenderly compassionate to all that are in distress, to all that are under any affliction of mind, body, or estate. Let the various scenes of human woe excite our softest sympathy. Weep with them that weep. If you can do no more, at least mix your tears with theirs| and give them healing words, such as may calm their minds, and mitigate their sorrows. But if you can, if you are able to give them actual assistance, let it not be wanting. Be as eyes to the blind, as feet to the lame, a husband to the widow, and a father to the fatherless."
In the very earliest days of the Church of the Nazarene, the focus on concern for the poor was a distinguishing characteristic of this holiness group. Rescue missions, orphanages, and homes for unwed mothers were some of the ways the church sought to meet needs. When displaced survivors from the San Francisco earthquake came to Los Angeles, Phineas Bresee turned Sunday school rooms and the church basement into a temporary shelter for the victims.
Those who joined the Church of the Nazarene in those early days were challenged to: "Do good to the bodies and souls of men. Feeding the hungry, clothing the destitute, visiting the sick and imprisoned, and ministering to the needy, as opportunity and ability are given."
In the early days of building a medical work in Africa, the editor of the Other Sheep stated, "Some may question the wisdom of investing money in a hospital in Africa, arguing that, with our limited means, it would be advisable to invest our funds in workers who devote their entire time to preaching and evangelizing. Seemingly they forget that one of the greatest agencies employed by our Master while on earth was through ministering to physical needs."
I am grateful to my church for modeling the transformative role that Christlike compassionate ministry can have in our world. In 1981, the Board of General Superintendents wrote, "Where Christian holiness is truly active, compassion is its beautiful fruit."
While we have witnessed the extraordinary work that Nazarene Compassionate Ministries has accomplished since the 1980s, we have seen church after church and group after group follow their lead in finding compassionate, grace-filled ways to love their neighbors as themselves.
As I write this, the aftermath of the Japanese earthquake is still unfolding but I am heartened by the knowledge that my church is already planning responses. And as I sit in church with my two-year-old granddaughter, I am grateful that she, too, will hear a clarion call to love God and to love her neighbors as Jesus loved through both word and deed. Thanks be to God!
Jan Simonson Lanham is a professor at Eastern Nazarene College and attends Quincy, Massachusetts, Bethel Church of the Nazarene.