The grime of used automobile parts circulated in the air. The wooden floor was dark from the stains of displays of tires and used parts. This was the small house in which I had spent my youngest years that had been repurposed as the office of my father’s automobile salvage. My father’s words ring through my memories as I hear him greeting each customer, “Come on in! How can I help you?”
Rummaging through the junk yard was heaven.
I loved the smells. As a young child, I loved climbing through tires. As an older child, I loved scrounging through the vehicles.
The people who shopped at the salvage were fascinating. These were working class people. Most came to get parts at a reduced price, even if they were used. Some came to chitchat, a watering hole reflective of many small business in an era now past. Others came for the homespun, common advice of the bi-vocational pastor who ran the shop, advice that ranged from inexpensive ways to repair their cars to ways to repair their lives.
One day a young man, Dean, came barging through the door. As Dad and Dean later would tell the story, Dean was there to beat Dad up. Dad had inadvertently sold Dean a faulty used car part. The scene was explosive. Dad kneeled down, at the feet of Dean. “Let’s pray about this,” he said. Dad prayed for a blessing on Dean, praying for forgiveness of misunderstandings, praying for blessing on Dean’s young family, and praying for God’s faithfulness in Dean’s life. Getting up, they replaced the faulty part.
Dean’s life was changed. Concern shifted from feeling ripped off of a few dollars to someone caring for him, caring for his family, and caring for his finances.
Often I hear people attempt to drive a wedge between compassion and evangelism, as if they are two different things. Social justice, as an extension of compassion, is pitted against evangelism. Yet, that is not my experience of the gospel—not in the gospel that I read, nor in the gospel that I received growing up.
Jesus identified his mission while reading corporately from Isaiah in the synagogue in Nazareth: “to proclaim good news to the poor … to proclaim freedom for prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free” (Luke 4:18-19 NIV). Here, compassion and good news are one. They are individual and corporate.
Evangelism without compassion is not the message of Christ, compassion without Christ (evangelism) is not completely compassionate.
Jesus’ message about the Kingdom of Heaven included much more than just a proclamation of “getting right with God”. His message included healing the sick and clothing the poor. The message of Christ incorporated and was built from a compassionate love for those the message was intended to reach – everyone. It is often that before we can claim to care for the “soul”, we must show that we care for people right where they are, in whatever situation they are in, in order to show the love of Christ before we can teach them about forgiveness, reconciliation, and relationality with the Trinity.
Truly caring for an individual’s physical needs in a sense “proves” your care for their spiritual needs. Telling someone that God loves them, cares for them, wants to be with them, while that person is struggling to eat, unable provide for their family, to stay warm, or to feel cared about seems quite disingenuous. Sacrificing our money, our comfort, or even our lives (something we unfortunately see happening often now in places like the Middle East) in order to show our love for others is exactly what Christ did while on this earth.
Compassion and evangelism cannot be separated.
That day many years ago, Dean’s life was changed. So was my father’s. Dad became Dean’s pastor. Compassion became the hallmark of Dean’s life, as he too became a bi-vocational pastor. Years later, Dean preached my father’s funeral.
For many, compassion and evangelism are separate issues. They are separated by a vast chasm. For my family, good news emerged from compassion – the compassion of God for humanity that becomes our model for life. The Church must prayerfully seek the Spirit to grow us in our compassion for others, both our friends and our “enemies”, so that we may even more effectively spread the Gospel that Jesus came to teach us.
I can still smell the grime from auto parts. I still hear the words, “Come on in! How may I help you?”