What would Jesus say about poverty?

SN&R interviews local religious leaders to discuss faith, spirituality—and Sacramento's safety net

Bishop Jaime Soto

Bishop Jaime Soto

Catholic Herald/Photo by Cathy Joyce

I like talking to religious leaders. As a group, they tend to be very intelligent, funny, well-read and have daily experiences that give them great insight into life’s most important issues. And what we as individuals, and we as a society, should do about poverty is one of the most important issues of our time.

I interviewed different Sacramento religious leaders about what their faith traditions say about poverty, what their groups are doing about poverty and, finally, whether we should increase support for government safety-net programs. Since the vast majority of religious organizations in the Sacramento area are Christian, I framed the story idea as, “What would Jesus say about poverty?”

Since 2002, I have attended more than 150 different faith services here in Sacramento and met with hundreds of local faith leaders from different faith traditions including conservative Christian, liberal Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu and Buddhist. All that I have met with over the years would have interesting answers to the above questions. Not having room for hundreds, I chose a small group of individuals who I knew would have insightful answers. As you can see, they did.

I hope this story starts a bigger conversation about poverty and, in particular, what faithful people should do about it. Please ask yourself and others about what should we do about poverty. And please send your answers to jeffv@newsreview.com.

I would encourage you to drop in for different faith services. You do not need to make reservations. You just need to show up. Sitting in the pews, you will be amazed by what people can do when they put their faith into action. You, as a first time attendee, will also get a whole lot of coffee cups and candy.

It should haunt us

Bishop Jaime Soto
Roman Catholic Diocese of Sacramento
2110 Broadway

Let’s talk about what the church does and what it should be doing.

I’ll say the church in the United States is the hallmark of the church in terms of its health care, education and social services. All of those those institutions that we created began as institutions intended to serve the poor. To some extent we continue to be true to that. I think we always have to challenge ourselves, that besides our Catholic charities programs, how well are our Catholic schools providing for the poor and how much are our Catholic hospitals providing for the poor?

Pope Francis seems to be putting an even higher emphasis on that.

Not just Pope Francis but Pope Benedict also enunciates this, that charity is the most persuasive argument we make for the Gospel. That besides everything else we might say or any other argument that we might make for the power of the Gospel, that it’s the work of charity that most persuasively presents the Gospel to people.

For the secular community, how does this come together in terms of the government, in terms of what we should be doing as a society?

That is a very good question, and I think that’s what, and again, I’m going to go back to something Pope Benedict said and that I know that Pope Francis has reiterated, is that even if we had the most just world, the Christian would still be compelled to do charity. The dynamic is that even with justice, which in a certain sense is giving each person his or her due, some kind of sense of things being right. The human person, the highest calling for the human person is to love.

If Jesus comes today, he drops down from heaven and he walks around and starts looking at things like inequality and homelessness, then goes up to the pulpit, what does he say?

I think he’d read Matthew 25 again. I think that story, that narrative, is still very compelling. For any Christian, Matthew 25 should haunt us.

It compels you to do way more.

Yes, because it’s not just about judgment, it’s not just about heaven and hell, it’s about meeting the Lord Jesus. Some missed the opportunity. But those who did care for the poor actually met the Lord.

You and the church have taken leadership on a lot of secular issues, like immigration. What are some of the main things you think we should be doing?

We may not change the world but I think that standing with the poor is the most human, the way that we are our best selves. … I think immigration is one of the most frustrating social issues that we deal with today. Precisely because we legitimize keeping people on the margins, and we do that not only to the detriment of them, but even our own selves, this shadow society, the informal economy of a large undocumented population is not good for American society. It’s one of those cases where the Gospel is not only the right thing to do, it’s also the best thing to do.

Rev. Jason Bense

photo by darin smith

‘Outrage, pain, compassion, action, love’

Rev. Jason Bense
Lutheran Church of the Redeemer
4641 Marconi Avenue

What would Jesus say about poverty?

Jesus would say the poor are blessed. The poor have great value, they’re treasures. Jesus would find community among the poor.

Do the poor feel they are blessed?

Some days, not so much. I’m sure it’s very discouraging to live in it. But I’m sure there are many days the rich don’t feel all that blessed, either. I think the poor need to know they are blessed.

What is your church doing about poverty?

We live in community with those who are poor as members of the church, who are food insecure. We are part of a whole international campaign of empowerment of helping people that are in disaster situations, such as in Nepal, or building self-sufficient agriculture in Africa. We are engaged in national and international public-policy work, state-policy work on providing safety nets for people in poverty. We have a community garden at church, which provides food for the food bank. But it also provides a means for everyone in the neighborhood to be engaged in growing food. I have a pastoral discretion fund, and sometimes and people just need a night’s shelter; I suppose it’s helping the poor.

If Jesus was walking around Sacramento right now and saw the homeless and hunger, what do you think his reaction would be?

Outrage, pain, compassion, action and love.

‘Word and deed’

Pastor Greg Alderman
Christ Community Church of Carmichael
5025 Manzanita Avenue

What is the church’s role when it comes to fighting poverty?

That’s a great question. Evangelical conservative churches have traditionally focused totally on proclaiming the word and getting people saved. Socially liberal churches are focused on deed, deed, deed. Like on social-justice issues. The truth is, neither side is right. It’s word and deed. It’s always been word and deed. …

Lately, I’ve seen so-called liberal churches and conservative churches ceasing the rhetoric more and more. I see churches actually come together and realizing we have a lot more in common than we like to admit and I see churches starting to work together where that hasn’t taken place.

You’ve been at your congregation for eight-and-a-half years. How have things changed when it comes to people needing help?

When I came here eight-and-a-half years ago, the number of people walking in off the street requesting help was—let’s just say it was easy enough for us to handle on a per-need basis. The number of people now is every week and almost every day. People walking in with needs, many times not connected to the congregation. We had to get more systematic: How do we get partnerships in helping people getting connected to places where they can receive help and be blessed?

What role should the church have in these bigger kind of social-equity questions?

The evangelical conservative churches, for many years, has put its eggs in the political basket, and therefore has ruined its witness in many ways, because it has become intertwined with a message to the culture about social conservatism. In other words, draping the cross in the flag or draping the cross in the name of a political party vs. where I think Jesus would be. This is part of the blessing the last 10 years brings, the stripping away of artificial boundaries that keep us separated form the real problems of the world. It’s forcing people to realize that, “I can’t sit back and live in my own little bubble, my own little cocoon, and simply pretend there aren’t any problems,” or “That’s a problem for the city rather than a problem for the suburbs.”

If the social conservative churches came out and said, “Let’s go do things,” that could be transformative.

It could be. And I believe it’s genuine.

Rev. Janice Steele

‘He'd be actually pissed off’

Rev. Janice Steele
Loomis Basin Congregational United Church of Christ
6440 King Road in Loomis

What would Jesus say about poverty?

Jesus would be very concerned about poverty. I think in ancient biblical times, the poor were among society, and the whole commandment was to look at your neighbor as yourself, but also to care for the needy and to take care of the widows and orphans. The church and society at large has a responsibility to attend to the needs of those who are struggling.

What is your own church doing?

Not enough, I’m sure. We’re a small congregation and we do charity work and I think charity and justice are very different. Charity is a Band-Aid for a much bigger problem that is systemic, and is part of systems to keep people oppressed and in poverty. When you say what are we doing, our congregation, we address it through charitable actions like gathering in homeless families and providing meals. We provide food to St. Paul’s [Program for Real Change], the shelter. A lot of us are involved in our shared denominational ministry, Global Ministries, that’s sending financial support to other countries and to other organizations in the United States that deal directly with poverty, housing and economic injustice.

If Jesus was walking around Sacramento right now and he saw homelessness and hunger, what would his reaction be?

I think he’d be actually pissed off, because there is no need for people to be out on the street when there are a ton of empty buildings in Sacramento. I know it’s a bigger conversation: Who’s going to fix those building? Where’s that money going to come from? Who’s going to care for those properties?

Part of the poverty that is in Sacramento are folks that really do need mental-health care. There’s only so much people can do individually. … We have to get involved and we have to redirect dollars to mental-health issues so that people can make conscientious decisions that benefit them in the long run.

Rabbi Mona Alfi

‘Take care of the poor’

Rabbi Mona Alfi
Congregation B’nai Israel 3600 Riverside Boulevard

What does the Bible say about poverty?

That’s a huge question. The Bible repeatedly commands us to take care of the poor, the widowed and the orphaned. And it’s speaking to an agricultural people, and so it’s telling people who live in an agricultural system different ways they are to leave gleanings in the corners of the fields so that those who were hungry had the ability to feed themselves.

Your own organization, what is your focus on poverty?

We do a number of things. We have a food closet for members of our congregation who need it. We also donate and collect all year round, not only for our food closet but for the downtown food bank. We’ve done that for, well, I’m not sure how many years since they started, we were in on the ground floor in the downtown food bank. We also donate to the federation food closet, which are for kosher food items only. There’s three different food sources that we have. We believe that you have to make it as easy as possible and as respectful as possible, because people need assistance to get that assistance. Those are three things we do. I believe the work we do with the homeless is connected to that, we also are partners with Family Promise as well as Winter Sanctuary.

Our government is very actively involved in solving poverty. How do your beliefs align with issues such as fair pay, food stamps, etc.?

It breaks my heart that food stamps has become a political issue. I don’t understand how it’s evolved into that. When the food stamps program started, it started with bipartisan support across the different religious groups. … This is America, it’s a prosperous country, no one in America should go to sleep saying they are hungry. It kills me that things are changing in terms of how people view that. … A government budget reflects the values of the country, and I would like to believe that we live in a country that cares for everyone who lives here. I do think that as religious people we believe that humanity is created in the image of God. When we denigrate a particular person or we ignore or shun them or we lack to hear their cries for help, it’s as if we were doing that to God.

If we had a religious person from the Bible walk around Sacramento now and saw the homelessness and hunger here, what do you think he or she would say?

We’re not doing enough. The way that it’s presented in the Bible is that it is each and every persons responsibility to, in the Bible it’s called “tzedakah,” which is often translated as charity. Really what “tzedakah” is is taxes. Because the “tzedakah,” the contributions, the tithing that we’re apt to do in the Bible, is about contributing to the general well-being of society. That includes caring for everybody in society.

Rev. Brian Baker

‘He would be heartbroken’

Rev. Brian Baker
Trinity Cathedral 2620 Capitol Avenue

Here at Trinity, what are you doing to help poor individuals?

Every Wednesday night, we have dinner for people who are homeless. Every other Wednesday night, we house people who are homeless in the parish hall. We participate in the Family Promise Program, where last week we were housing homeless families and feeding them in the parish hall. We are partnering with Jed Smith School, now [Leataata] Floyd School, which is an elementary school in housing projects where 100 percent of kids live in poverty. We prepare backpacks of food for them to take home over the weekends, we have a clothing closet, we support the teachers. But the other thing that happens that is more foundational and underground is that, personally, I don’t see my job as feeding the hungry. My job is to help convert people so that they feed the hungry. Convert people meaning open their hearts. The more foundational thing is the preaching, the liturgy and the environment we create that opens people’s hearts to live more compassionately.

The person who has their heart open, what should they be doing?

What we do at Trinity is try and function on three fronts. One is the softening of the human heart, the other is the practical feeding of hungry people. But we also have people that are involved in social-justice advocacy.

Let’s say Jesus just dropped into Sacramento today and walked around and saw the people sleeping on the streets, saw how we treat the mentally ill. What do you think he would say?

I think he would be heartbroken. I think what he would say is, “How dare you?” And it’s part of the challenge, as a religious leader, is the problems are so complex. For me and for people in my congregation, I think the spirit is willing, it’s just hard to know what to do. The challenge is to know where to put the oar in the water and where to mobilize the human resources that we have here. To make the stuff happen.

What always fascinates me is that people say, “I can be spiritual on my own,” but it’s collectively that they can be more effective on this. But you can’t do much about poverty on your own, or it’s very, very hard to do that on your own.

And I would argue that you can’t be spiritual on your own. Because left to my own devices, I will not challenge myself enough. Like my ego, my capability to deceive myself and live in denial and think I’m being spiritual when I’m just being narcissistic is too great and I need a religious tradition that kicks my butt.

So come to Trinity to have your butt kicked? Is that what you’re saying?

Yes, or encounter Jesus to have your butt kicked.

‘It's Jesus’ chair’

Pastor Ray Johnston
Bayside Church in Granite Bay

The big question is: What would Jesus say about poverty?

I just finished writing a book called Jesus Called, He Wants His Church Back. I just finished that book because I just went to South Africa and trained pastors with the Dutch Reformed Church. They flew my wife and I out, and we spoke at all these pastor conferences. And the Dutch Reformed Church, they were the oppressors; they led the theological foundation for apartheid. Every setting I was in, every church, all white. All traditional. I mean, it was as staid and broken as you can find, in terms of relevance. It was depressing.

And then, right before we flew home, we got a phone call that asked instead of flying home can we fly to Pretoria, to the capital, and speak at the largest Dutch Reformed Church in all of their services. So we changed our plans, flew to Pretoria, preached at their services, and I got there and was expecting all white. We drove to their church; I was floored. There were people everywhere. It was blacks and whites, thousands of people at their services, in English and Swahili. I mean the compassion ministries in that town were unbelievable, it was like nothing Dutch Reformed saw anywhere else.

I got teared up looking at it, I turned and looked at the crowd and I started crying. … I said, “What happened?” [The pastor] said, “I went in and put a chair at the head of the table of our first board meeting and I said nobody will ever sit in that chair. It’s Jesus’ chair. He’s supposed to be the head of the church; from what I can see you’re not doing a very good job without Him, why don’t we put him back in charge? The only question we’re going to ask from now on is ’What does Jesus want us to do?’” … It blew away 200 years of ingrained prejudice.

I flew back going, “What works there will work here.” ’Cause I’d basically realized there are a whole bunch of things Jesus talked about that Christians ignore.