"Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the [Lord], is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world." (James 1:27)
I met the Martinez family almost 20 years ago. They had just received their green cards after immigrating to Chicago from Puebla, Mexico, an impoverished community outside of Mexico City. Like many families, the Martinezes came to the United States in search of a better life for their children.
Jose, the father of the family, struggled to adjust to a new culture that was filled with strange sounds, smells, and values. His kids also struggled, but they found it easier to fit into the "American way of life" by learning English and navigating the dangers of the streets. This family of five got by through hard work and staying together. Maria, the mother of the family, worked odd jobs cleaning homes and doing whatever other work she could find. Jose worked as a line cook at a downtown diner catering to bankers and professionals -- most of whom made as much money in a couple of months as Jose earned in an entire year.
Due to the extreme pressure of providing for his family, both here and back in Mexico, Jose often turned to drinking. When I met him and Maria, their marriage was on the rocks; their financial situation was in constant crisis; and their kids needed support. Most of all, the Martinezes were desperate for opportunity and hope.
Not long after I met them, the entire family responded to the good news of God's love, which they knew they needed. Unlike so many U.S. citizens who have too much material comfort to see their spiritual malnutrition, the Martinezes devoured every opportunity to study the Word, fellowship with other seekers, and attend Sunday service. They found countless ways to serve God and others. They worked hard to get ahead, and on a few occasions they almost became homeowners. In many respects, the Martinezes began to experience the life they longed for in coming to "El Norte" (the North). Life was not a picnic, but their new life, built on hard labor and minimum wages, was much better than what they had left behind.
I wish I could say that their dramatic conversion to Christ changed their economic well-being in a radical way, but 20 years later, they are still pounding out a living, one day at a time. Like most Americans, the Martinez family has been hit hard by the current recession. Jose lost the restaurant job he held for 13 years, and he is very grateful to be working five hours a day at his current place of employment, although he knows it's not enough to provide for his family. Maria works at a school across the street from their home, which saves them the gas money they don't have. Also, a couple of their kids still chip in to help make ends meet. But instead of complaining, the Martinezes work harder and trust that God will meet their needs, not their wants, one day at a time.
Jose called me a few days ago and asked me to keep my eyes open for a second job, which he desperately needs. Then he asked me if I would help him round up 10 computers for his church because they want to start a learning center for kids in the neighborhood who need a safe place to study and escape the danger of gangs. "If we don't look out for each other, we'll never make it," Jose told me. I could not agree with him more. As simple as this sounds, my friend Jose's admonition is exactly what James reminds us is at the core of true, Christ-centered religion -- a radical sense of responsibility to care for the widow, the orphan, the poor, and the vulnerable in a way that expresses what my friend Shane Claiborne calls "the economics of love. "
As I travel across the country listening to the stories of the poor and the concerns of Christians from every economic spectrum, I sense that the church is recalibrating its priorities to be an agent of compassion at this time of extreme economic crisis. I lament that our government is on the verge of turning its back on the most vulnerable in our still very wealthy society, while paying special attention to the wealthy, who need our help the least.
At the start of Lent, we must remind our lawmakers, our business leaders, our citizens, and ourselves that when we ignore the poor in favor of our own comfort, we work towards our own demise, and, ultimately, to the demise of our entire nation.
Noel Castellanos is CEO of the Christian Community Development Association.