Time did well in selecting Bono plus Bill and Melinda Gates as its charitable Persons of the Year, but I wish it had also put a non-celebrity — maybe a volunteer Katrina relief worker — on its cover.
It would have been good to honor one of the 9,000 Southern Baptists from 41 states who volunteered 120,000 days during the two months after the hurricane hit. During that time, they served 10 million meals and pushed forward cleanup and recovery efforts.
Or how about someone from the Salvation Army: Those folks served nearly 5 million hot meals and over 6.5 million sandwiches, snacks and drinks from 178 mobile feeding units and 11 field kitchens, with each kitchen able to produce 20,000 hot meals per day.
Big numbers, and those were just two of the active groups. Many others also delivered food and supplies in a much more flexible style than the bureaucratic FEMA. Ronnie Harris, mayor of the New Orleans suburb of Gretna, flat-out said: "Church workers were the first volunteers on the ground. It is churches that have made the difference in Hurricane Katrina recovery."
Many others concur, but some Christians worry that such church activity is the "social gospel" revisited, at the expense of evangelism. There’s reason for concern, because we are all prone to wander spiritually and to focus on what the world praises than on what it misunderstands or even abhors. And yet, evangelism is often most successful, in God’s timing, when those hostile to Christ look up in surprise at what Christians are doing.
For example, after Katrina, an atheist asked in the British left-wing Guardian Weekly why Christians "are the people most likely to take the risks and make the sacrifices involved in helping others." You can almost see the synapses sparking in the writer’s brain: "It ought to be possible to live a Christian life without being a Christian or, better still, to take Christianity a la carte. Yet … it is impossible to doubt that faith and charity go hand in hand."
He’s right, and add evangelism to the mix: Faith leads to works, and works lead people to ask questions about faith. As the works of the faithful diminish the pride of the faithless — the British writer concluded that Christians are "morally superior to atheists like me" — Christian charity ploughs the ground for an evangelistic response: no, not morally superior, just touched by One who was.
Even hardcore U.S. anti-Christian publications couldn’t help noticing the difference Christian belief made during the post-Katrina days. The New York Times story described how church groups were doing better than government agencies, and didn’t even object (this one time) when those who "finish clearing debris or doing temporary repairs on damaged houses … give the homeowners a signed Bible and say a prayer with them."
On Christmas, we might remember how a long time ago another nation faced a disaster even greater than Katrina. Enemy soldiers occupied the land and imposed toady officials on a resentful populace. It seemed that God had been quiet for centuries, and some said He would never speak again. Then the ultimate act of Christian charity transformed every aspect of life. That deed began the transformation of everything around us.
God is always transforming old into new: hearts of stone to hearts of flesh, the former sites of abortion businesses into pro-life counseling centers, maybe even the disaster of Katrina into something positive for those who have broken away from poverty and despair in New Orleans and found new opportunities elsewhere.
Effective evangelism conveys that good news, starting with Christ’s birth and the way that millions of people gain rebirth through God’s grace. Evangelism is particularly effective when it combines words and deeds, as it did when the herald angels sang 2,000 years ago, and as it did once again when the unheralded deliverers of post-Katrina compassion sacrificed for others.