What has faith to do with social welfare and human services?

A version of this article by Sybil Coleman ’64, professor of social work, originally appeared in the spring 2023 issue of STILLPOINT magazine.

To engage in the work of social welfare, we must first acknowledge human dignity. All persons are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26a) and therefore deserve to be treated with dignity and worth.

However, as Alan Keith-Lucas suggests in So you Want to be a Social Worker: A Primer for the Christian Student, “. . . dignity and worth mean something very different to a secular humanist and to a Christian. The humanist emphasizes autonomy and the ability of people to overcome their problems by their own efforts.” To the Christian, however, people are of worth not because of their strength but, in part, because of their interdependence. “The Christian starts with an entirely different concept of what the universe is like, what its purpose is, and what part human beings play in it, and this cannot but have implications for how and why they help others.”

As followers of Jesus, we are not to turn away from the condition of society or its fallen structures. God himself is concerned with the condition of humans and the societal structures we have created. He calls us to work for change, to participate in his redemptive work in a world that is full of pain, loss, oppression, mental health crises, addictive behaviors, poverty and other social problems. Jesus’ life and teaching demonstrate that he chose the side of the oppressed, the fatherless, the poor, the homeless and the downtrodden.

In Luke 4:18, Jesus clearly states what he was to do: preach good news to the poor, the blind, the suffering (both spiritually and literally). In Matthew 25:35-40 he states, “For I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”

In our modern context, Jesus could have expanded this list to include emerging concerns like threatening infectious diseases, natural disasters across the globe, immigration, economic downturn, the severe political divide in the U.S., global populations aging issues, technology addiction, and the health care system.

As social concerns and discords mount, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed and look away. But let us, instead, look into the face of the poor, the blind, the suffering—and see a person made in the image of God. Let us engage the needs of society in an affective manner. This will require the wisdom of God, wisdom that permeates every aspect of personal and societal life. Let us look for ways to demonstrate love and justice that honors God and his design for all creation.