Engaging the Needs, Hopes, and Concerns of the World: The Charity to Justice Continuum

by | Sep 17, 2020

How do you engage the needs, hopes, and concerns of the world?

Deacons are tasked with assisting faith communities to grow in their response to the needs, hopes, and concerns of the world. In other words, deacons encourage their communities to develop justice ministry initiatives. Helping the community learn and develop ministry in ways different from “how we’ve always done it” can be a challenge. Welcomed or not, change–in how we learn, worship, or grow–is difficult. 

One tool that can remove the emotional attachment inherent in change is the Charity to Justice Continuum. The Continuum helps individuals and faith communities assess their progress on any justice concern by asking a series of questions that allow folks to evaluate and discern community involvement and engagement in social change. We teach the Continuum in the Diocese of Washington’s Deacons School.

There are two important things to keep in mind when using the Continuum. The first is to understand that its value comes from engaging the justice concern under consideration at every aspect of the continuum, not in placing emphasis on any single part. The second is to be honest as you ask and answer the questions in the evaluation process: What are we doing? How are we engaging the community? Are we taking risks? Are we following the gospel imperatives to proclaim good news, release captives, provide sight, free the oppressed?

There are four components to the Charity to Justice Continuum: Charity, Service, Advocacy and Justice. Connecting ministry to all four of these dynamics can provide a way for every member of the faith community to engage in the ministry and offers a holistic approach to any particular justice initiative. A Continuum is a sequence or progression of values with slight differences from element to element. The extremes are quite different and all are necessary. 

Let’s follow the Continuum on one justice initiative–food inequity.

The Continuum begins with Charity. In the case of food inequity, the immediate problem is that people are hungry and the response is to feed them. Often charity can take the form of bringing a canned good to church every Sunday or writing a check to your favorite feeding program. Until no one is hungry, charity will always be needed. There is little risk involved for the giver and almost no relationship. Charity is distant, yet it focuses directly on the problem and can give immediate satisfaction to the giver. 

Service takes on a little more risk and more time for those who choose to engage this part of the Continuum. Those who engage in acts of service may or may not develop relationships with those who are hungry, but they will likely develop relationships with the community that is participating in the service. Service focused on food inequity concerns might include serving a meal in a soup kitchen, making sandwiches for distribution, or handing out groceries at the local food shelf. This can be a good formational experience for those involved and an easy way to see firsthand the realities of hunger in our society. 

Moving to Advocacy alters the focus from “doing” to confronting society’s causes of  hunger . The person or community participating in advocacy will take greater risks for those who are hungry. They will provide a voice for those who do not have the power to address our broken systems and they will broaden relationships in order to connect people and programs. The focus moves away from feeding hungry people to the rights of hungry people. 

And finally we come to Justice. People participating at this level of engagement and risk seek to empower those who are hungry, develop networks that work together, and organize communities to focus on the causes and systems that create food inequity. This quote from Archbishop Desmond Tutu explains justice: “There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.”

We need ministry in all four stages of the Continuum so that hungry people are fed, even as we struggle upstream to combat the root cause of hunger. Deacons are catalysts in this effort, assisting individuals and faith communities in responding to the needs, hopes and concerns of the world. 

Deacons always ask: what are we doing and how can we do more?

If this is a question you ask on your own behalf or in your faith community, consider using the Charity to Justice Continuum to aid you in your efforts.

The Ven. Sue von Rautenkranz