Prosperity In Community

Lately, Anawim Christian Community has been having its 15 minutes. Anawim is a community church among the homeless and mentally ill in Portland, Ore., and the media has slowly tracked to our door. A couple local papers have interviewed some of our members and a local magazine is stalking me, the pastor, (with permission) to see what I do. And National Public Radio interviewed one of our regular volunteers. A common question we answer is “How has the recession hit your church?”

I hem and haw and talk about donations going down. Which is true—some of our larger donors have backed off. But I am embarrassed to tell the truth. That the recession is great for our church.


Anawim has a lot of ministry going on. We offer three meals a week and I help run another. We give away clothes, offer showers to people on the street, and provide worship services and Bible studies for those who wish to follow Jesus in our particular way. But it is mostly run by the poor for the poor, by the homeless for the homeless. A large percentage of our donations come in $1 and $5 bills, from people’s disability checks or a bit from their part-time jobs.

So how does the recession helps us? Because we are a community of the poor. The more poor that we welcome, the more our resource base grows. We have had our best year ever since the recession began, last December. Yes, it is more mouths to feed, but the more we have, the more God provides.


One person called me recently and said, “I’ve recently stopped being homeless and I want to give back. How should I do it?”

I replied, “When you were on the street, what did you want most?”
She thought and responded, “I really wanted a place to go to the bathroom and some hot coffee in the morning.”

I smiled and said, “Then maybe you should buy $5 gift cards to Starbucks and give them to people on the street, so they can have some coffee and a place to go to the bathroom, if only for a morning.”
Mutual aid is as much knowing what the poor need, as it is giving.


Adam Smith is much maligned. He is considered the father of capitalism, which is seen as the economics of greed and selfishness. It must be remembered, however, that Smith’s Wealth of Nations was meant to be more of a description of market economics, rather than the creation of it. And more than this, Smith never intended greed to be centerpiece of economics.

Before he wrote his most famous work, Smith wrote a short book of moral philosophy called The Theory of Moral Sentiments. “Sentimentality” as Smith described it, is nothing more than empathy, which he considered the basis of moral philosophy. In order for us to be moral beings, we must consider the needs and hopes and desires of the other. In the same way, if we are to have a sound economic community or society, we need to understand others’ needs in order to meet them. In the end, although he did not realize it, Smith was describing the community in Acts 2:44-45, “And all who believed had all things in common… sharing with all, as any might have need.”

Our society has never really experienced this beautiful synergy, except in small pockets. Today, capitalism is seen as an opportunity to create need in those who have excess, rather than meet need in those who have lack. Even “stewardship” is frequently seen as increasing wealth for later distribution rather than distributing wealth for present increase of all.


In Anawim, we took the economic philosophy of empathy on in a radical way. To begin, with the support of our local Mennonite congregation, I quit my full-time job which supported my family of four and we became homeless for eight months. Some of our friends (perhaps all of them) thought we were crazy. They asked how we could help the homeless when we were homeless ourselves. But we trusted, like some modern loaves and fishes tale, we would always have extra to provide to those in need. And so it has been.

In response to our faithfulness to give to the needy, God has gradually given us more and more. And as our economics increased, so did our opportunities to meet the needs of the poor around us. One meal turned to four. A living room we stayed in became a two-bedroom apartment, which held six of us, which then became a six-bedroom house which is filled with our extended family, most of whom used to be homeless.

More importantly, however, is how the homeless and the mentally ill who attend our church have stepped up to the plate of service. As we hit the edge of burnout, the community steps in and gives us relief. Now we have meals that are set up and cleaned up by street people and worship that is participated in by everyone. Some folks may sing loudly and off key, but it is all the more joyous for all that.


And, just recently, Anawim has made their bravest step—they invited the middle class to our community. This is a difficult step, for the middle class has a tendency to take over that which they consider to be inadequate. But most of the middle class who join us understand that Anawim is to be run by the poor for the poor.

And we are seeing Anawim become a more well-rounded community because of the middle class, both culturally and economically. The homeless have much to give: serving hands; a readiness to work at a moment’s notice; a willing heart to give what they have to those in need; the knowledge of where one can get one’s basic needs met today. The middle class also has much to give: the ability to pay for labor done; a drive to meet basic needs such as food and clothing; a growing respect for the poor.

Right now, as more of the middle class understand what it means to be poor, there is an opportunity for more empathy. Empathy creates community. And community based on empathy creates an economy in which all the community’s needs are met. Anawim isn’t there yet. But we’re getting there.

We have a certain kind of prosperity. Most of us are still on the street, and many of us are still hungry some days. But we know that we have people who care about us and truly want to see our needs met. That is a kind of wealth many people don’t have.

Read more about the practice and theology of Anawim at