I spent a day recently with Baptist missionary Jenny Hodge at the Together For Hope ministries in Lake Providence, Louisiana, one of the poorest places in the U.S.
It was an eye-opening experience, which began as I drove up.
There was a man working in the mission house yard. We exchanged pleasantries, and he showed me some of the work he had been doing.
I was impressed with his work but became even more impressed when I found out that he was doing the work as a volunteer.
He is one of those in Lake Providence looking for work. Thus, he was taking care of the missionary house’s exterior for no pay, just the opportunity to show people the quality of his work. You might call it occupation without compensation.
It was the first evidence of the plight of hard-working people struggling to make ends meet.
As Jenny gave me a tour of Lake Providence, I realized that my first encounter was not going to be an isolated event.
She narrated the town’s history – more distant past and recent past – and how at one time Lake Providence had been a thriving community, benefiting from a robust rural economy augmented by a healthy tourism because of the secluded beauty of the place.
However, with the advent of agricultural automation, farms no longer needed the manpower they once did, and a large part of the population lost their livelihood.
Over the past 50 years or so, the gap between the rich and poor has widened. My guided tour evidenced that.
On the north side of the lake, there were beautiful homes with large manicured lawns.
The south side was dramatically different, with weathered trailers and dilapidated sheds clustered closely together.
As we moved through the south side, I noticed that, although it was midday, a lot of people were sitting on their porches. Jenny told me that they were mostly folk out of work and were just trying to stay cool.
I couldn’t help but notice that Jenny waved and called them by name. And as we moved along, she shared a brief history of each family.
In one sense, the stories were heart-breaking because of the sad circumstances of those lives, but in another sense altogether the stories were imbued with the hope and care shown by Jenny. I was moved by her efforts to share the love of Christ in that community.
Someone once came to me and complained about the theology of a fellow church member, describing it as disgustingly liberal.
Ironically enough, while this person vehemently objected to the other church member’s way of thinking, they voiced admiration for the many Christian things this person did in the church and community.
My response was something to the effect that theology is best articulated in deed versus word. Pay attention to the heart, and matters of the mind will make more sense.
There is a lot of misery in Lake Providence and some questionable theology in those who simply dismiss it as God’s will. But there is also some good theology being espoused there.
I saw it in the lives of our missionaries and others who articulate the gospel with a compassion that would impress even the most astute theologian.
I am grateful for my time in Lake Providence and for the loving hearts of Jenny and others who seek to live out the word of God. It makes me want to be in that number.
Mike Massar is co-pastor of University Baptist Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and transitional coordinator for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Louisiana. A version of this column first appeared in UBC’s weekly newsletter, The Window, and is used with permission.