Love the unlovely.
This difficult concept refers to Christian compassion and care for people and circumstances we might otherwise avoid or ignore. Examples are woven throughout the Bible: God’s persevering care for the people of Israel, Jonah sent to Nineveh, Jesus and the woman at the well, Jesus eating with tax collectors at Levi’s house, and his compassion on the harassed crowds in Matthew 9, to name a few.
During the 2015 Summer Medical Institute (SMI), a Christian discipleship and medical outreach project, student participants witnessed many hard realities in North Philadelphia. They were present when a young man fled from the police and was arrested. They met a woman who had been set on fire. They witnessed swiftly made drug deals as they screened people on street corners, and listened to a young mother explain how drug use had taken over her block. Children in one home told their mother that men in front of the house were “playing doctor” as they watched a man inject another. Sometimes the music blasting from an idling car is rhythmic and energetic, sometimes it is filled with profanity and explicit lyrics that reverberate throughout the street.
In no way do I intend to depict North Philadelphia solely through negative stereotypes. These examples are realities, but only a part. The neighborhoods of Kensington (where SMI worked) are filled with people diverse in every way. As one young man told us, “Sometimes people think if they come here they’ll get eaten alive. But there are all kinds of people here, and a lot of good people, too.” The beauty of the many people who steadfastly work to care for one another and their neighborhoods shines brightly in contrast to those aspects that are dark and broken.
It is this contrast that 26 Christian healthcare students encountered living and working in Kensington from June 27 to July 18. SMI is a project of Medical Campus Outreach, a ministry of Tenth Presbyterian Church, partnering with Esperanza Health Center, a local Christian medical clinic. Students worked with volunteer Christian healthcare professionals and interpreters, providing door-to-door health screens, sharing the love of Jesus Christ through conversation and prayer and referring those interested to four local church partners.
They accomplished much:
- 630 individual homes were connected with and received screens
- 787 screens for blood pressure and 756 blood sugar screens were provided
- 737 BMI screens were performed
- 130 dental screens were provided
- 200 people received asthma education
- 68 people received in-home HIV testing
- 917 people were prayed with, 87 requested follow up from church partners
- 8 prayed to receive Christ
The students were also mentored and discipled through breakout teaching and examined what it means to be a follower of Christ in a world filled with suffering and sin. They studied the book of Judges, which described a people who repeatedly rebelled against God, yet told of the God who remained faithful in his covenant to them.
This may beg the question, why love the unlovely? In the Bible and echoed in the students’ experience at SMI, the answer becomes clear: because Christ loved us, awash in our sin, ugly and unreconciled with him. We are the unlovely, given grace only by his death on the cross.
SMI not only seeks to instill in students a heart for the underserved, but a motivation centered on their identity in Christ. As one student wrote on our blog, “Through my experience at SMI, I have been reminded of the beautiful news of the gospel…Rather than going into homes feeling a need to be strong or having all the right words to say, I now go in with faith and joy in my vulnerability and weakness. I go with the mindset that I am a sinner saved by grace, excited to share the good news of Jesus.”