I came across two starkly different images recently of what it means to be Christian in a world of economic imbalance and misfortune. So stark that it's hard to believe both sides can, at the same time in the same world, claim Christian values as their foundation.
In The New York Times, "Beliefs" columnist Mark Oppenheimer wrote about the elusive Gary North, father of something called "Christian economics." Now, you may think something with that moniker somehow blends modern finance with bedrock notions like "turn the other cheek," or "forgive him seven times seventy." You would be very mistaken.
Christian economics and Gary North are influential figures on the American far-right -- according to the Times, North asserts that "a Christian theocracy under Old Testament law is the best form of government, and a radically libertarian one." North backs up this every-man-for-himself ethos by quoting Paul in II Thessalonians: "If any would not work, neither should he eat." He concludes that the Bible forbids all welfare programs, is opposed to inflation, and requires a gold standard for money.
The Times notes that North and his followers are a small band at the moment -- but his influence is on the rise. That notion made me put down my cup of morning coffee and hang my head. I pushed the newspaper aside, and picked up a copy of my alma mater's alumni magazine, Columbia.
In there, I found the story of Joe DeGenova, who was a Columbia undergrad around the same time I was. The article details how DeGenova, in his junior year, came to realize he had to help the poor and disadvantaged of the Harlem neighborhoods just a few blocks to the north of Columbia's campus.
He first approached the Catholic campus ministry, which gave him seed money and an office. With a classmate, David Joyce, they went to a nearby Presbyterian church, which agreed to lend their basement as a soup kitchen. The Episcopal pastor at the nearby Cathedral of St. John the Divine helped them open a 19-bed shelter for area homeless.
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As their efforts grew, DeGenova and Joyce decided to start a full-fledged non-profit, offering an array of services to the poor. Again, the Columbia Catholic ministry stepped in, and connected DeGenova with university trustee who made his fortune thanks to an education provided by the G.I. bill. His donations and support created a group called Community Impact. The campus rabbi joined, and brought in other experts from the non-profit world.
Thirty years later, DeGenova is still involved in helping the poor, and Community Impact continues to thrive -- with an army of volunteers, a budget of $1.4 million, and programs that include job training and tutoring.
The article in Columbia magazine does not say how many people Joe DeGenova and his friends have helped over three decades. But they know who they are. And I'm sure each and every one of them would tell you Joe represents the kind of "Christian economics" that really reflect Christian values.