“What’s the point in helping people materially if there’s no change spiritually?” Our intern had been observing our work in a north Indian slum for a month or so. His question put words to something that had been bubbling in my subconscious mind for some time.
For the past few years I’ve been very busy helping my neighbours. My primary role is in literacy. My Indian colleagues and I have been able to assist several hundred children to become literate in Hindi, their mother tongue. This enables them to participate in schooling much more effectively – as they say, you need to learn to read before you can read to learn. We also started helping many people access government services – things like bank accounts, pensions, and gas connections. The government has many schemes for the poor, but those who are genuinely destitute are often unable to access their rights due to a combination of lack of knowledge, complex bureaucracy, and corruption.
Then Covid hit. Crematoriums and cemeteries were overwhelmed: the pandemic killed an estimated five million in India. Covid saw our education and development work take a back seat so we could respond to a more pressing need – food. Many of my neighbours live a hand-to-mouth existence, and the strict lockdowns meant cutting from three meals a day to two, then one, and, for some families, none. We were able to raise money from friends and colleagues in the West to distribute 30 tonnes of dry food (rice, flour, lentils, etc.) to 3,000 families during the worst of the lockdowns. It was a huge effort, but it helped many people get through.
During the last few years, we’ve seen an enormous number of people helped materially. However, our intern’s critique had some validity: we had brought much needed short-term help, but not longer-term or deeper change. I could point to hundreds of kids who had become literate and thousands who had benefited from our relief programs. But I could count on one hand the examples of significant attitudinal, social, and spiritual transformation – changes in the way people think about themselves, others, and God.
Such changes are less tangible, less controllable, less measurable. They are much harder to foster. My task-focused personality finds it easier to run a project than sit down and have a deep conversation.
Reflecting further, I realised that I’d been under a naïve impression that since ‘actions speak louder than words,’ I didn’t need to use words at all. I further realised that I had been reacting against a watered-down Christianity which ignores the hundreds of passages about God’s heart for the poor and economic justice. I think about verses like Matthew 25:40 (“Whatever you did for the least of these, you did for me.”) and Luke 18:22 (“Go, sell all your possessions, and give to the poor. Then come, follow me.”) and how we fail to follow them. But God loves us as wholes – body and soul, individual and community, humanity and creation. In reacting against one narrow reading of the gospels which emphasises words over deeds and spiritual over material, I was perhaps imposing my own bias.
This year, after returning from a break in Australia, my family and I started inviting close friends for conversation over a meal. I had already followed Jesus quite literally in feeding thousands (Matthew 14:13-21); now it was time to adopt Jesus’ model of dinnertime fellowship. I don’t know any tax collectors, prostitutes, or Pharisees. Instead, our evening guests are ricksha wallahs (tricycle pullers), mochis (cobblers), and widows.
Our friends love coming out for dinner and often dress up in their finest clothes. Our one-room house, which Western guests struggle to adjust to, is like a palace compared to the dingy, flimsy shacks our neighbours call home. Mum (I grew up here as a TCK and moved back after my university years) makes the dinner, cooking up treats to add to the sense of celebration. We are often astonished by the amount of food our scrawny friends put away. They have learnt since an early age to tuck in when free food is available, as lean times are likely not far away.
After dinner, I ask my parents to share a little as to why they made the decision, some 27 years ago, to leave potentially lucrative careers in Australia to live and work in a slum. They talk about a turning point: the invitation from Jesus to forsake the pursuit of wealth for the sake of something greater. Our friends often recognise this idea, having heard similar exhortations in the Quran or in the Hindu scriptures. We agree with them that every major faith has similar injunctions to serve others, though few adherents actually do it. This leads to nods of agreement.
I sometimes tell a contextualised rendition of the parable of the prodigal son. It’s a powerful story to illustrate our understanding of God not as a distant, angry ruler (a common view in Islam and Hinduism), but instead as a caring father who is very ready to receive us ‘home’ should we be willing to turn around and come to Him.
The story is even more remarkable in this honour-based culture where the younger son’s insolence to his father is a crime beyond forgiveness. I asked one twelve-year-old kid to put himself in the story and imagine what his father would do if he had wasted all that money and then came back home. Prateek replied honestly, “He’d beat me with his belt.” Prateek’s dad looked sheepish but didn’t deny that it was indeed what he would do. In this context, our heavenly Father’s forgiveness is all the more remarkable.
Talking about faith with my Muslim and Hindu friends takes me out of my comfort zone. It is easier to give bread than to talk about the Bread of Life. Sometimes, though, it’s important to use words as well as deeds, to prioritise relationships not just tasks.
It’s hard to think about how to help address people’s spiritual needs in a context of overwhelming material need. As James writes, spirituality is empty without social action: “Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?” Yet over a meal, in the context of a lasting friendship, there is space for spiritual discussion even with those facing the direst circumstances.
I’m not expecting to ‘convert’ anyone, but I hope I’m able to show some of Jesus’ love for my neighbours just as I also experience Christ in and through them. Sitting on the floor with our friends, I feel I am living the words of Jesus: “When you host a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind; and you will be blessed.”
Joseph (a pseudonym) was born and brought up in India by his Australian parents. He is part of Servants to Asia’s Urban Poor, and he lives incarnationally in an urban poor community while volunteering for a local literacy NGO. In his spare time, you’ll find him on the soccer field or engrossed in a book.