Whether you’re a believer or an atheist or somewhere in between, there’s no denying that Christian churches, as well as many other faith-based organizations, spend tens of millions of dollars every year in efforts–churches call them outreach ministries–to help the poor and underprivileged and victims of disasters. Add to these dollars spent/contributed the value of the volunteer hours/labor contributed to these ministries, and you have a collective effort that is very prodigious indeed. The public response to these efforts ranges from unrestrained praise and championing (the Bush administration wanted to transfer many social services currently administered by the government to churches, claiming that they were far more efficient at the task–don’t know how far they got with those plans) to summary dismissal as self-serving, thinly disguised proselytizing. My sense is that, like most things associated with religion, the general public has little understanding of the extent, diversity, and complexity of these programs.
Without turning this post into a treatise on the subject, let me quickly summarize by saying that church-based outreach ministries range in size from a single individual who gives a dollar to the Salvation Army at Christmas because it’s what her faith tells her she should do, to international mobilizations rivaling military campaigns, complete with chartered fleets of transport vehicles, outposts in the field, and real-time computer monitoring. Much of the relief that went into Haiti following the devastating earthquake was church-based, and most of the relief personnel still in Haiti are in one way or another tied to church organizations.
Between those extremes, there are many, many other types of outreach ministries, most of which are local, small-scale, low-budget, community-based efforts. Every church I know of has at least one local outreach ministry, and most have several or more. The next logical question is–how effective are these ministries?
And that question brings me back around to Birthday Dinner. The outreach ministry question this story explores isn’t so much how effective is it? as how does one measure effectiveness when it comes to an act done out of love? If Becca fails to redirect Jonah’s life away from its current turmoil, are her efforts ineffective? If the Ecumenical Outreach Ministries fail to connect the impoverished with the resources they need, should that organization be scrapped? Or is the very act of trying to make another’s life better effectiveness sufficient? These may sound like rhetorical questions, but really they aren’t. My sincere question, and an open question throughout Birthday Dinner, is: how valid is love–Christian love or any other form of love–as a motivation for intervention in a stranger’s life? A related question is–can love always know what’s right? Or is love always right?
These broad social and ecclesiastical questions get mixed up with the complex needs and expressions of the main characters in the novel, and I don’t think the answers are all simple or self-evident. I believe how one would answer these questions, and how one would see the actions of the characters in this book, would be shaped by one’s ethnic and cultural background–resulting in a wide range of responses.
Or so I hope.