Monique and Ricky drove their battered Dodge minivan from the western edge of Phoenix to our church in the Southeast Valley for a free fence.
They saw it on Craigslist: “Free chain link fence. You take it down and haul it away.” So they traveled thirty-three miles in a van that looked like it could hardly go three more.
We were prepping for a construction project that would begin the next day and needed to get rid of the perimeter fence of our playground. So we put the word out.
Monique and Ricky were hardly living the high life. That was easy enough to spot from their clean but worn clothes and the aging car they drove. What wasn’t nearly so evident was how very, very ill they were. While serving in the second Gulf War as a teenager, Monique had been exposed to depleted uranium. The poison worked its way inside her and wreaked havoc on her body.
Monique met Ricky after the war, before her body began to break down completely. She told him of her prognosis but he was undeterred. He loved her. So he married Monique and adopted her children. He also took her disease into his own body, the result of marital intimacy. Gradually Monique became weaker and sicker until finally she was bedridden with no hope for recovery. For two years Ricky nursed her until, surprising her doctors, Monique improved enough to start walking again.
Fifteen or so folks from our church met them that evening as we gathered to pray over the land that would soon be transformed into a community prayer garden. We made an immediate connection with them, and they with us. They were a winsome combination of humor, optimism, gritty resolve, and forbearance.
Monique and Ricky came for a free fence. We came to bless the land. But the Father had something on his heart much richer and sweeter than anything on our agendas.
At our prompting, they told us their story. We wept and prayed with them.
Monique and Ricky are, after a fashion, the reason we are building a community prayer garden in the first place. We believe it will not only be for the spiritual irrigation of our community but an oasis for the poor, the weary, the weighed-down, and the forgotten ones. It will be one expression, but a vital one, of our commitment to love the last, the least, and the lost.
Some may question the adequacy of this approach to loving the poor and needy. “Prayer? Really? Wouldn’t a food or clothing ministry be more sensible and useful?” Those practical ministries are important, of course, and while we help staff and support the local food and clothing pantry, as a church we sense a call to prayer as a primary expression of our solidarity with the world in its pain, disillusionment, and hopelessness.
This flows from our conviction that Jesus’ ministry is our ministry. The same Holy Spirit who filled and empowered him for his earthly destiny fills and empowers us, and for the same purpose. We, too, have been anointed by the Spirit to proclaim Good News to the poor. Caring for the forgotten is not just another item on the list of our duties as Christians. It is central to our calling and pivotal in the purposes of God, whose heart is decidedly tender toward the most vulnerable of society.
Those who share Jesus’ ministry will also share his habits. Jesus’ life was characterized by constant conversation with the Father concerning all aspects of his earthly calling, of which one of the most prominent was his care for down-and-outers. The vulnerable, it seems, were especially on his heart. They flocked to Jesus. Why? Because he was consistently, unapologetically for them. He didn’t judge them—he valued and loved them. How did this orientation come about? It has nothing to do with his natural temperament or gifting and everything to do with prayer. The more time he spent with his Father in conversation, the more his Father’s heart became his own. The Father’s heart for the luckless and loveless became the Son’s heart, too.
And so it will be for us. The more time we spend with the Father, the more we will be like him. We won’t spend our energy working up an altruistic compassion for the needy because we won’t have to. His Spirit will be the Spirit within us, and his Spirit will cause us to think and move like our Father. Prayer is essential for ministering to the vulnerable because it restrains us from working in our own strength and releases us to work in God’s.
We’re speaking here of more than prayer as a devotional device or as a mechanism for personal transformation. We understand it also as a mountain-moving strategy for the things that are beyond us. Thus it bears asking: does anyone need mountains moved more desperately than the poor and needy? And who will stand with them and for them, praying mountain-moving prayers if not us?
When we met Monique and Ricky and stood with them in prayer, it never occurred to us that perhaps prayer was an insufficient response. With E. M. Bounds we believe that “to really pray, to pray until hell feels the ponderous stroke, to pray until the iron gates of difficulty are opened, to pray until the mountains of obstacles are removed, or until the mists are exhaled and the clouds are lifted, and the sunshine of a cloudless day brightens—this is hard work, but it is God’s work and man’s best labor.”
We pray for the vulnerable as our first response because that’s what hanging around Jesus has done to us. We’re convinced that God’s friends will be known for this common trait: we waste ourselves on the needy and loveless because that’s what God did for us. “While we were still sinners Christ died for us,” Paul marvels in Romans 5:8. Or as The Message has it, “But God put his love on the line for us by offering his Son in sacrificial death while we were of no use whatever to him.” It’s no real stretch for followers of Jesus to befriend the friendless or remember the forgotten because that is what we once were ourselves. Once upon a time we were of no use whatever to God. So the world’s constant drumbeat to the most vulnerable—“You’re of no use whatever to anyone”—is no disincentive at all for our personal investment in the lives of the least. We remember what we were without Christ and what we became in him, and we ardently believe the same is possible for those whom society has written off.
 E. M. Bounds, Complete Works of E. M. Bounds on Prayer: The Experience the Wonders of God through Prayer (Kindle locations 4920-4921), Kindle edition.
Graeme Sellers is the lead pastor of Wonderful Mercy Church in Gilbert, Arizona. He serves on the national leadership team of the Alliance of Renewal Churches, an emerging network of kingdom-focused congregations sharing a Lutheran theological heritage and an identity as evangelical, Spirit-empowered, and sacramental. He is an adjunct professor of theology for the Master’s Institute Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, and the author The Dangerous Kind