When we think about ministries to the poor, many things come to mind: food pantries, clothes closets, meal programs, medical care, financial classes, job training, and donations. What probably doesn’t come to mind, though, is visiting the poor. If someone were to ask John Wesley what they should do to minister to the poor, his first answer would probably be: show up and be with them. Wesley believed that visiting the poor should be an essential practice of the Christian life. He exemplified the practice in his own life, beginning at Oxford during his days as a student, and continued throughout his ministry as the leader of the Methodist movement. Wesley felt that the practice of visiting the poor was all too often neglected by Christians, and he spoke frequently to early Methodists of its importance.
Wesley’s version of visiting the poor means being present with them. It entails giving them our attention, our time, our conversation, our friendship, and our encouragement. Wesley’s reflections on visiting the poor were based on his scriptural interpretations as well as his own practice. For him, there were four reasons why every Christian should regularly visit the poor.
First, visiting the poor is a command of Christ. In Matthew 25:36, Christ says, “I was sick and you looked after me.” In his sermon “On Visiting the Sick,” Wesley interpreted the term sick as a reference to anyone in a “state of affliction,” including the poor. When we visit the poor, therefore, we obey a clear command of Christ.
Yet visiting the poor is not simply a command to be obeyed; it is also an occasion to develop virtue. Wesley knew that many of our charitable efforts could be done at a distance. While charity is certainly important, it is also important to be in community with the poor. This, Wesley said in the same sermon, will “increase your sympathy with the afflicted.” Moreover, being in community with the poor will correct our incorrectly held stereotypes about them. In his journal, Wesley once wrote about an occasion when he visited several poor people in London. He noted their strong work ethic and remarked that his experience with them called into question the popular perception that the poor are lazy. According to Wesley, when we spend time with the poor, we develop the virtues of sympathy and understanding.
Third, visiting the poor helps us discern their needs. Wesley urged the early Methodists to listen to the poor when they visited them. They were to hear about the specific needs of the poor and then do their best to meet them. If the needs were beyond their own resources, they should not be afraid to beg on behalf of those they visited. Wesley thought we should be careful not to assume we already know what the poor need. We should take the time to listen to them, and listening can happen only by being with them.
Fourth, visiting the poor is a means of grace. The means of grace are the ordinary practices by which God conveys God’s gracious presence to us. By participating in the means of grace, our character is formed into the likeness of Christ. Wesley divided the means of grace into two categories: works of piety (things like reading Scripture, receiving Communion, saying prayers, fasting, and participating in worship) and works of mercy. Visiting the poor is a work of mercy that helps us receive God’s gracious presence and be formed into the image of Christ. Wesley considered it just as beneficial to our souls as other practices like reading Scripture or attending worship.
As a means of grace, the practice of visiting the poor is an opportunity to deepen our own union with God because visiting the poor increases our dependency on God. Wesley encouraged early Methodists to pray before each visit and ask God for strength, humility, and understanding. He also urged them to ask the poor about the state of their souls and to be ready to share encouragement and instruction from Scripture. He hoped they would conclude each visit with prayer. From beginning to end, visiting the poor was a spiritual practice that nourished one’s own relationship with God in addition to benefiting the poor. For this reason, Wesley insisted that even poor Christians should visit the poor. Wesley asserted, in “On Visiting the Sick,” that few people are so poor that they cannot do something “for the relief and comfort of their afflicted fellow-sufferers.” Visiting the poor is a means of grace for all believers, regardless of their own economic status.
True service of the poor entails sharing in their lives.
Wesley’s thoughts on the practice of visiting the poor are timely for the church today. We live in a culture where it is easy to distance ourselves from those in need. Sometimes even our well-intended ministries to the poor create distance between us. We can serve the poor without ever really making a connection with them, and sometimes we can have a savior mindset that assumes we have all the answers. Wesley’s words, however, remind us that we need the poor as much as they need us. They remind us that charity without community not only deprives the poor, but it also deprives us. They remind us that true service of the poor entails sharing in their lives.
In an interesting way, Wesley’s emphasis on visiting the poor also reminds us of the story of our redemption. God’s first act in redemption was to show up and be with us in Christ (John 1:14). It makes sense, then, that our first priority in ministering to the poor should be to show up and be with them. Doing so will transform our ministries to the poor, and it will also transform us.