Solidarity with Christ

Worship in the Context of Poverty

Images often say more than words ever could. A gripping example of this is a sketch titled Christ Helps Hungry Children created in London in 1945 by Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980). At first glance the sketch looks like a typical depiction of the crucifixion. But this specific rendering has several layers of meaning, all centering on the concept of solidarity.

The heading in the sketch reads: “In memory of the children of Europe who have to die of cold and hunger this Xmas.” This was Kokoschka’s personal Christmas message, expressed as a cry—a lament against the hunger and the cold, against war and the inhumanity of that period. His passion was to place 5,000 copies of the sketch in all the public places of London during Christmas of 1945.

At first glance, this “simple” sketch looks as if it were quickly drawn without much reflection. However, it captures several layers of theological and liturgical meaning.

The sketch includes the classical crucifixion features: the superscription INRI, the crown of thorns, the nails. But there are significant deviations from the classical depiction. The words on the cross connect it to Christmas. One of Jesus’ hands comes loose from the cross in a kind of anticipatory resurrection dynamic. Christ reaches out to the people surrounding him, alluding to both Good Friday and Passover.

And there is more. If you look closely at the hungry children surrounding Christ you will observe another detail: they are busy eating Jesus’ hand. This is a radical depiction of Jesus’ solidarity with suffering people through offering himself to them. Several liturgical concepts are condensed in this one drawing: birth, cross and resurrection, hunger and satisfaction, Eucharist and faith.

Worship and Poverty

What is the connection between worship and the reality of poverty faced by people all over the world? Kokoschka’s sketch suggests a number of questions we should ask ourselves about the relationship between our worship and the cold and hungry children of the world:

  • What message do our worship services send about poverty?
  • Do we realize the serious ethical implications our participation in Christ in worship entails . . . especially with regard to becoming one with the poor?
  • What can local congregations do to forge a closer and better connection between their worship and the reality of poverty?

As a minister in a very poor congregation, these are questions that I have to think creatively about all the time. But they are no less important for churches whose members experience poverty less directly.

The Fundamental Importance of Context

Perhaps the first idea that comes to mind with respect to the link between poverty and our worship is the need for worship to create awareness of and sensitivity to the problem. This is, indeed, a dimension of worship we should explore. But as a woman in a very poor congregation recently said to me, “In our congregation poverty is a dreadful reality. We do not want to talk about it during the worship, we want to do something!”

The minister of that same congregation knows that some of the kids who attend the service will not have food to eat when they go home. Making people aware of the problem of poverty is not only unnecessary in his congregation but also quite unwelcome. Talking about poor people in a worship service is totally different than worshiping with poor people or as a poor person. Different financial contexts, then, require different approaches to the liturgy.

When a worship planning team reflects on the connection between worship and poverty, I suggest beginning with a discussion of the congregation’s “culture” of poverty. Once that is clearly understood, the team can discuss the aim of worship regarding poverty in that specific context. The fact that there are poor people in a congregation does not mean that worship leaders should ignore the problem altogether. Worship is not escapism. A better approach would be to create space where worshipers can lament this reality and channel the accompanying emotions.

Discussion of the theme of poverty by the worship planning team could be further enriched by organizing a co-planning session between your own worship team and a congregation with a different culture of poverty than your own.

Worship Planning Suggestions

Following are some practical suggestions for acknowledging the reality of poverty in our worship.

Gathering
Worship should open up a space where people can bring their own experiences regarding poverty into the service. These may vary from “I felt so guilty when I said ‘no’ to the street child” (as we are encouraged to do in South Africa), to “I lost my job this week,” or “I found employment this week.” Open up a space where people can share stories of both joy and sorrow related to poverty. In this way we do not gather before the Lord in worship and actively try to forget everything that bothers us and focus on God. On the contrary, we come before God as people who are one with the poor by remembering both poverty and our solidarity with Christ.

Word
The worship planning team can develop ways to present the reading and preaching of Scripture in such a way that we hear God’s Word through the ears of another. Our congregation has the tradition of pulpit exchange several times a year. That gives the congregation the opportunity to hear someone from a totally different context interpret a text. Our presbytery also consciously does this every year on what is called “Diaconia Sunday”; on this Sunday the whole service is planned around the theme of poverty.

Table
When we think about financial poverty, two of the first things that come to mind are food and money. Perhaps this is why the church has traditionally collected food and money for the poor during this part of the service. In many poor congregations in South Africa the celebration of the Lord’s Supper is literally expanded to an Agape feast with the purpose of feeding hungry people. But worshipers can also bring food donations for food pantries and place them on the table. Alternatively, the offerings can be intentionally connected to the table and the “offering of oneself through the ritual offering of money” emphasized. It then also makes sense to make announcements here regarding where and how people can get involved in ministries that focus on the alleviation of poverty. Some congregations also create a so-called “hunger cloth” and place it next to the table, creating awareness of the context in which we are partaking of the Lord’s Supper.

Sending
If some members of the congregation want to commit themselves in some way to the ministry of poverty alleviation, this is a good place in the service to commission them with a blessing. (Calvin’s so-called “third use of the law” can find a place here, articulating a life of gratitude which includes participation in the ministry of poverty alleviation; see also Calvin P. Van Reken’s article on page 28.)

Ethical Implications

Of course, liturgical participation has dangerous ethical implications. Through participation in worship we work toward achieving solidarity with the One who has solidarity with the poor. And that can cost us.

Think again of the superscription of Kokoschka’s Christ: “In memory of the children of Europe who have to die of cold and hunger this Xmas.” The Christ we worship is the Christ who, through his incarnation, achieved solidarity with those who suffer and with those who are poor.

The Christ we worship was also truly a child. The radical truth this sketch proclaims comes to us with an unsurpassed urgency. This is the Christ we are following when we come to the table, when we open our wallets, when we hear God’s Word. The eaters will be devoured, the givers will be taken, and the hearers will be called. Worshiping in a context of poverty, then, is a profoundly serious business. 

Cas Wepener (cwepener@sun.ac.za) is a minister in a Dutch Reformed congregation in Cape Town, South Africa and a researcher at BUVTON, Faculty of Theology, Stellenbosch University.