8) The A/Politics of Anti-Poverty | Dr. Rick Tobias

Discussions about how to fight poverty end up feeling inherently political. But is it an intrinsically political topic? Mark shares some thoughts about what motivates more “liberal-types” to press for taxes while more “conservative-types” push to keep money in their own pockets. This leads to a confession: liberals just aren’t convinced that people are generous. But what poverty-conscious liberals and conservatives have in common is a passion to get resources and access to our poor. Rather than battling with each other on the “how,” we need to unite on the effort that makes it happen. Because the gospel (“good news”) isn’t just good news. It’s good news for our poor.

Then he sits down with Dr. Rick Tobias, former President and CEO of Yonge Street Mission and current Community Advocate. He’s a professor at Tyndale seminary, has honorary doctorates from York University and McMaster University, and speaks all over the country as an activist and expert on urban ministry and at-risk youth. 

Rick reflects on an early mentor who inspired him to “pastor the people” of Yonge Street, expounds on the realities concerning poverty in Toronto, and discusses the state of the church’s theological training around poverty and urban issues. Mark asks him about several components of his seminary course, and Rick expounds on what “the culture of poverty” means, the importance of not speaking of “the” poor but rather “our” poor, and what lessons can be learned when we intentionally get a taste of how our poorest neighbours live. Then, turning to issues around the church, Rick explains how the church will or will not be relevant in a new century to a new generation, insists that unity is the key directive to a fractured church, and notes that spending time with our poor is the key to making that happen.

Notable Quotes from Dr. Rick Tobias:

“He said, ‘Pastor the people. People may not want to be pastored, but they have no choice. Pastoring in the end is about loving and caring for people. People can reject your love and reject your care, but that isn’t any reason to stop loving and caring. Yonge Street is filled with the lost sheep of God, the lost flocks of God. Pastor them.’” - on Father Joe MacDonald 

"I told them, ‘We don’t believe in liberation theology. We believe in a theology of liberation.’ It’s very hard to fight against a theology of liberation when you’re a follower of the one who said, ‘The truth will make you free!’”

“Poverty in Canada is down. Poverty in Toronto is up. And the number of people at near-poverty levels in Toronto are a near-record highs. And there’s not going to be enough money to provide services for everybody who needs something.”

“Urban education is growing very significantly. Education around poverty and justice, compassion and justice, is really just beginning to grow.”

“Poverty is never going to be a big enough issue for seminaries to highly specialize around poverty. There just won’t be enough students interested. And so we will need to experiment with new ways.”

“For a generation of people who are under 35, a church that doesn’t care about justice is a church that has no relevance. And so the push on seminaries won’t come from urban workers per se, it will come from young men and women who say, ‘If you want me in your school, what are you doing?’”

“It will be the pressure of youth that says, ‘I’m sorry, we’re not content to allow our understanding of faith to be limited to traditional spirituality that doesn’t actually impact how the world works.’”

“If I believe the poor are made in the very image of God, then they deserve not to be stigmatized.”

“The church has lost its proclamationist credibility. Too many of our chief spokespersons have ended up in scandals. So society doesn’t want to hear what we have to say, particularly when it comes in one-way conversations. And they’re tired of our moral judgments. And for many, we are not just the moral finger-pointers, but we are the most immoral. And our silence on issues like child abuse, our silence on issues like domestic violence, our silence on issues like human trafficking… the society goes, ‘Where were you? You’re pointing fingers about morality, but you're not taking any stands on the big moral issues and we keep catching you in immorality and so we don't need you for a moral watchdog anymore. And in fact, we actually disrespect you for a moral watchdog.’ Jesus said we would be judged in the manner in which we judge. And we’ve sat on perches and we’ve judged the society around us and now in very pointed ways, the society now sits on their perch and judges us back.”

“The one area where we still have credibility is where we are engaged in compassion.  But even that has some cautions. If people believe that we are doing compassionate engagement… so that people will join our faith, then that compassionate engagement loses all credibility. But when people are convinced that we are doing compassion for compassion’s sake because it’s right, and when people are convinced that we stand for justice for justice’s sake, that still has credibility in our society.”

“I believe the church in North America will never have credibility again until it’s seen as a compassionate community that engages people at the point of human struggle. It doesn’t even have to meet the need, it just has to engage the point of struggle.”

“Society around us needs to see not only compassion but compassion that grows out of a heart or a persona that manifests real safety.”

“When Jesus talked to the crowds and the multitudes he said that we were to love our neighbours as ourselves. And that was an ancient teaching in Scripture that goes all the way back to Leviticus….  But [in John] when he gathered with his disciples he didn’t say, ‘Love your neighbours as yourself.’ He said, ‘Love as God loves me. Love as I love you. And love as God loves you.’ And that’s a whole new standard for love. It doesn’t necessarily mean that we’ll do better, but we have a higher aspiration.”

“I’m supposed to love like God loves. And that might mean without judgment, that might mean keeping my grumpy feelings to myself…. The standard of love changes.”

“The world will know that we belong to Jesus by the nature of our love. So when churches condemn each other, when we fight with each other, when we point fingers at each other, when we’re divided over silly things like theologies and moralities and philosophies and so on and so forth, then the society looks at us and says, ‘You’re obviously not followers of Jesus, because Jesus called you to love each other like God loves you.’ And so the church needs to figure out what it means to love across theological divides. Across moral divides. Across lifestyle divides.”

“Jesus says that it’s in our unity that the society around us knows that God had sent him. And so we are the apologetic. We’re the strongest testimony for who Jesus is or isn’t.”

“When other world faiths lack unity, there’s no commandment to them that says, ‘You’re supposed to be different.’ There is a commandment on us to be unified…. You believe something I could never believe, but I have to figure out how to walk in unity with you.”

“Part of the thing the church really needs to deal with is how it gets over its lack of love for itself, for its brothers and sisters, how it gets over its lack of unity. Part of how they will do that is actually by serving the poor. Quite bluntly, a little bit of time with the poor helps you get over yourself. A little bit of time with the poor will challenge your own core values. A little bit of time with the poor will cause you to question your own theologies - the theologies you hold very dearly.”

“The church needs to rediscover its love, rediscover its unity and all the stuff that goes along with that. And I would say that the poor might be a gift from God to help the church do that.”