Making a Difference
About the Guest
Sometimes you trip over the hound of heaven, and sometimes he chases you down. Marvin Olasky, editor-in-chief of World Magazine, shares more about the twists and turns of his life since embracing Christianity as a young college student.
Marvin Olasky shares about the twists and turns of his life since embracing Christianity as a college student.
Making a Difference
Bob: How can we help care for the needs of the poor and the homeless? Marvin Olasky, the editor of WORLD Magazine, remembers a day when he decided to assume the persona of a homeless man and went to a shelter for breakfast.
Marvin: On a Saturday morning, I actually went to a free-breakfast place in downtown Washington—actually, in the basement of a very theologically-liberal church, where there were sweet, young volunteers passing out food—putting food in front of me. One sweet, young lady kept coming to me and saying, “Well, do you want more? Do you want more? Do you want more?”
At one point, just for fun, I asked her with my homeless mumble, “Can you give me a Bible?”—just curious as to whether they would do this in a church. She didn’t understand me at first, and she asked, “Do you want a bag? Do you want a bagel?” They had both of those, but they didn’t have any Bibles to give out to homeless guys because they didn’t think of homeless guys in those ways. They thought of them as stray animals to be fed and watered.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Friday, January 6th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife® Dennis Rainey, and I’m Bob Lepine. What can Christians do? What should we be doing to help the poor, the homeless? Marvin Olasky has some thoughts about that, and he’ll share them with us today. Stay tuned.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. I have, at home, on my bookshelf, an original, first-edition copy of a classic work of American non-fiction. It’s called The Tragedy of American Compassion, which I got when it first came out in—I think, it was 1987 or -8. Is that when that was?
Marvin: ‘92 but who’s counting?
Bob: Yes. I knew it was back late 80’s/early 90’s when I got my copy. I should have brought it in to get it autographed today.
Dennis: You should have. You should have.
Well, that voice is Dr. Marvin Olasky, who joins us again on FamilyLife Today. Marvin, welcome back.
Marvin: Thank you.
Dennis: We’ve enjoyed hearing your story this week. A great story of—really the God of heaven, the Hound of Heaven, chased you down as a young man who was very liberal. It could be said radical—a Communist attending Yale University, University of Michigan—and how He chased you down, and how the grace of God got you—
Marvin: The grace of God—entirely, yes.
Dennis: —how you met Susan during that same period of time, and how you together were baptized at a little western, conservative Baptist church in San Diego, California. You write in your memoirs that your lives began to change. How did your life first begin to change then?
Marvin: One thing, right away, was that I was able to be a fairly decent husband. Susan and I have been married for 35 years now. When I look back to my pre-Christian days, I see myself as a totally selfish person, and that’s not a good recipe for a happy marriage. God actually was changing me to be a person who could be married for 35 years.
Bob: The length of time from when you said, “I do,” until the day you were baptized—just as marker points—how long was that?
Marvin: Four or five months.
Bob: Okay, so, you didn’t have a whole lot of time in there where you were expressing that selfishness; but I’m sure it didn’t get cured when you came out of the baptismal font that day, either.
Marvin: No, that’s been a—been a lifelong struggle. (Laughter)
Bob: Yes, you’re around a familiar table here; we all share the struggle.
Marvin: Right. Right. Yes, and being a parent. Susan and I are blessed with four sons. Again, as dads, at a certain point, once your kids are grown, you think back, “Well, I did some things right. I did some things wrong, but anything I did right was a gift from God,” because my natural tendency is very different.
The one thing that changed right away was that my class envy, my materialist envy, was gone. I really don’t think since the time I was able to think about things as a small child—from then until into my mid-20s—I don’t think there was a day that went by when in some ways I wasn’t resentful of and antagonistic toward the rich and so forth.
Once I became a Christian, that’s the one thing that totally disappeared. I don’t think there’s been—I was asking my wife about this last week—I don’t think there’s been a day that’s gone by that I’ve had any class envy. I think, as Christians, we should spend more time thinking about our own sins rather than resenting or being envious of others—somehow, that whole envy stuff—
Dennis: Well, quite to the contrary, back to Bob’s point about the book that he dusted off—the first edition of your book about being compassionate to the needs of the poor. You, not only no longer envy the rich—you’ve stepped into the lives of those who are suffering greatly. I found one story particularly fascinating, just to show how much you wanted to understand how the poor struggle. When you were in Washington, D.C., you actually spent a couple of days visiting the homeless. Explain what you did.
Marvin: Yes. Visiting the homeless—I’ve done a lot at various times. This was actually being—looking like a homeless guy. My very kind wife allowed me not to shower for several days. I was able to put on some smelly t-shirts and a sweatshirt and walk around Washington, D.C., just for a couple of days and asking—I wasn’t trying to get into the conscious of a homeless person—not going to be able to do that in a day—but just seeing what kind of services were offered to homeless people.
I went around from place to place, just as directed from people who said, “Well, yes. You can go there and get some food. You can go there and get this.” It was a revealing experience in that there were lots of material things offered to me. There was food that was decent enough. It may not have been five-star stuff, but it was okay. Clothing was offered to me. Medicine—I mean, some—I was having some back problems, stuff for that. There were places to sleep, not particularly safe; but there were beds available all over the place.
What I found interesting is that no one at these many helping places I went to took any interest in me as a person—what’s going on in me—are there any spiritual needs? It was all material, much as if I were a mutt, walking around and being treated very kindly.
They put some food in my bowl, scratched behind my ears maybe—behind my ears, but never any personal—never asking, “Where’ve I come from? What have I done? Why am I in this situation? How can we be of help in a person-to-person way as opposed to just passing out material?”
On a Saturday morning, I actually went to a free-breakfast place in downtown Washington—actually, in the basement of a very theologically-liberal church, where there were sweet, young thingsfrom the suburbs who were volunteers, passing out food, putting food in front of me. Again, the food was pretty decent.
There was a guy across from me who had a beeper, he was drug dealer. He came for the free breakfast; why not?—because the food was decent. One sweet young lady kept coming to me and saying, “Well, do you want more? Do you want more? Do you want more?” It’s not even—you didn’t have to go get food. You just sat there, and people would put food in front of you.
At one point, just for fun, I asked her, “Can you give me a Bible?”—just curious as to whether they would do this in a church. She didn’t understand me at first; and she asked, “Well, do you want a bag? Do you want a bagel?” They had both of those, but they didn’t have any Bibles to give out to homeless guys because they didn’t think of homeless guys in those way. They thought of them as stray animals to be fed and watered.
Bob: This goes to the thesis of the book that I mentioned, The Tragedy of American Compassion, which you wrote in the early ‘90’s. Let me see if I can summarize that thesis, and you correct me if I am wrong.
You make the case that in the 1800’s, and before that, in America, the church took the responsibility for caring for the physical needs of oppressed people, of those who were sick, those who needed help. We cared for those people as the body of Christ; and you point to the fact that if you look at a lot of hospitals today, you see Baptist, Methodist, or Catholic in those hospital names because the church saw it as its mission to care for the sick and injured.
Yet, it seems like it was about the time of the Depression when it became harder to do that—that the church said, “Oh, the government is going to take care of this for us now,” and abrogated that responsibility. Since then, we’ve had a bigger problem than we used to have.
Marvin: Sure. Churches and Christians, generally, offered help that was challenging, personal, and spiritual. Today, we tend to offer help that’s not challenging; it’s just enabling and entitling. It’s not personal; it’s bureaucratic. Spiritual—basically, there’s the attempt to dismiss God from any government or even a lot of private facilities. So, this help doesn’t work. I mean, it’s often enough to keep people in poverty; and sometimes, that’s very essential. It’s needed to have some basic material help.
The problems tend to be a lot more spiritual than material. Again, there are people who, through no fault of their own, have been thrown out of work, or they have been injured, or something along those lines. Sometimes, just being able to get some temporary, material help is very important—I’m not knocking that at all.
For people who have been in difficulty for a long time, there are some basic underlying problems. You have to deal with those, or else you’re just putting some Band-Aids® on—and that we don’t tend to do in any of our governmental programs. We just tend to create more problems.
Dennis: I visited a place, here, locally, that deals with homeless families. They really hit on the core of what you’re talking about here. If you’re going to stay there, you have a responsibility to get a job within—it is like 15 days.
Dennis: You have to turn your paycheck over. You have to save; it’s something like 70, 80 percent of your paycheck and all of it is high-degree of accountability. It’s also moving them toward becoming responsible.
One of the things you talked about when you were a homeless person for those two days is—you weren’t asked to anything.
Marvin: Right, not even to bus my tray the way we might do at McDonald’s® or Burger King®. I was treated as a person who was completely unable to do anything at all.
Back in—when we lived in Texas for many years, we had a couple of dogs. I felt very good as the dog owner. I’d get up in the morning. I’d put some food in their bowls—put some water in their bowls. I’d scratch them on their stomachs. They weren’t working dogs or show dogs. They were pets, and they could lie around all day. They would go out for a walk occasionally and so forth.
Well, that’s the way a lot of homeless people are treated. They are treated like animals—not as people created in God’s image, but as dogs.
Dennis: If you were to address a mom or a dad who is listening right now, who’s saying, “You know, I want our family to be more compassionate,” as Bob was talking about, reaching out in all facets of our society today—how would you practically encourage them to engage in issues people are facing today?
Marvin: Well, you mentioned a place, I gather right here in Little Rock, that does things right. All over the country, there are these places. At WORLD, we’ve had a contest for the past six years where readers send in nominations of groups in their community that they see are doing things right.
Dennis: You’re speaking of WORLD Magazine.
Marvin: Yes, WORLD Magazine. Again, for people who don’t know, it’s a Christian news magazine that covers all kinds of things, including lots of problems of poverty. This has been one of the things we’ve emphasized the most, for at least 15 years now.
I’ve gone around personally to several hundred anti-poverty programs in communities across the United States. Our reporters have gone to a lot more. We write about these. We write about the Christian ones that offer help that’s challenging, personal, and spiritual.
People can go to the WORLD website and see if we’ve covered something in their community. If not, just start looking around, asking around in churches and so forth. “Who’s doing this right? Who understands that we are not just material beings; we’re also spiritual beings? Who understands that the only thing that really changes the poor is Jesus Christ? Who does that?”
Then, go to that place and ask them, “Well, how can I help?”—not just help in the sense of contributing, which is fine—or licking stamps, or things like that—but, “How can I actually be involved?” and, “How can my kids be involved?”
There are a lot of—good groups have counselors. Sometimes, with people with very serious problems, they are professional counselors; but a lot of other people, who are on their way to recovery, need some help. Sometimes, if they are single moms and they are trying to make it on their own. They have no back-up of someone who can care for a child, if the child is sick—someone, who can, if their car breaks down, can fix their car. People have very practical problems. If you can come alongside a person, become a friend to that person—help in material ways, but help also be a supporter spiritually—this, I think, is the most important thing that any of us as Christians can do.
Dennis: Marvin, you mentioned in your memoirs that there is a larger story taking place in your life that has come as a result of what you’ve learned about Jesus Christ since you became a believer. Would you say the subject of poverty—is this one of the major stories of your life?
Marvin: That’s a major story, for sure. The way God changed me so that I wasn’t just emphasizing anger, and hatred, and spewing out nasty things about the rich, but actually, trying to help some people who were poor. Yes, that’s been a change.
Probably, the most consistent thing over the years has been WORLD—and WORLD Magazine—and trying to operate as a Christian journalist, which means trying to look at things as best we can—in our sinful, fallen ways—as followers of God and followers of what the Bible teaches us.
Bob: What’s the difference between a mainstream journalist and a Christian journalist? I mean, there’s a high degree of journalistic ethic and integrity that’s taught in journalism schools. There are rules of what you do and what you don’t do; and you don’t cut corners. You have the right number of sources, and you document your sources, and all of that you’re supposed to do.
So, what’s the difference between somebody who is a follower of Christ who says, “I want to be a journalist,” and somebody who is just a garden-variety pagan?
Marvin: Well, mainstream, secular journalists still talk about objectivity; but it generally means a balancing of subjectivities. There’s not this sense that there’s actually truth out there. So, you talk to Person X, and you report what that person says. You talk to Person Y, and you report what that person says. Then, you’re being objective. You’ve had two different viewpoints.
What if they are both materialists? Then, you’re not really coming close to reality. So, objectivity, in terms of this balancing of subjectivities, even in theory, doesn’t work all that well. In practice, most journalists tend to be politically liberal—at least at major newspapers and magazines. They report with a great degree of bias. So, they are not being accurate in what they are doing.
At WORLD, we believe in biblical objectivity. We know that God created the world. The Bible is God’s message to us, God’s story of what’s important in the world. So, we read that, and we try to apply that.
It’s like back when we lived in Texas, the builder of our house lived next door. If we wanted to know something about the house, we asked the builder. That’s what we do in connection with the Bible. We want to know something about this world we live and who we are, we ask God, we read the Bible, and we learn. So, that’s the big difference, in a sense.
Even in theory, objectivity for secular journalists; in practice, bias and often propaganda. On our side, in theory, biblical objectivity—trying to report things from the biblical perspective; and in practice, we mess up a lot; but we, I think, honestly admit when we’ve goofed—and we try to follow God in what we do, and we try to present all the news through a biblical perspective. That’s the only true objectivity there is because only God knows who we really are.
Bob: Would we all be better off if—well, we’ve talked about Newsweek—if The New York Times came out, instead of all the news that’s fit, they said, “A daily chronicle of pragmatic, relativistic, empiricism?”
Marvin: Sure. That would be more honest. Newsweek, I will say to its credit, has gotten honest to a certain extent. It no longer claims to be neutral. It’s very much, definitely, on the liberal side and doesn’t hide it. So, that’s very useful actually—to have people being honest.
I mean, we—at WORLD—we say that we know that the earth is the Lord’s, and we are trying to report everything—to quote the famous Dutch Prime Minister, editor, theologian, Abraham Kuyper—“Every square inch belongs to God.” That means that we report on politics, economics, movies, and everything else from that perspective. That makes it very different than any of the other news magazines that are around.
Dennis: What if there was a young listener who is tuning into FamilyLife Today and that young lady or young man really likes words, they really like to write; or perhaps it’s the young mom who is raising the child who loves words. What would you encourage them to do to, to ultimately, someday—become a journalist, like you’re talking about?
Marvin: Well, first, depending on the age of the child, read a lot. Read good stuff, and then, write. Now, at a certain age, we, at WORLD, get particularly interested. Then, we have WORLD Magazine now; we have a new web publication called WORLD on campus, which I hope college students will be reading. We have a website. We have an App now for iPad®.
These are things for people who want to write, but I’m hoping that there are a lot of listeners who want to read. I hope they’ll subscribe to WORLD.
Dennis: Yes. Well, Barbara is a big subscriber to WORLD. One question I’ve been wanting to ask you, and Bob’s going to say this is an unfair question. What’s one of your favorite stories in—how long has WORLD been around—over 20 years?
Marvin: 25 years.
Dennis: 25 years; what’s one of your favorites over those 25 years?
Marvin: Wow! Lots and lots. One that comes to mind, right now, is a few years ago, my wife and I went to China. We talked with lots of Chinese Christians, including CEO’s of some companies, including people starting schools there. This is incredibly important, I mean, for the lives of millions of people in China and for the whole future of the world as China becomes more and more of a great power.
If it remains Communist, as it is, with some little addendums and things like that, this is going to be trouble. There could very much be huge problems between the United States and China. If, on the other hand, in God’s grace, the hundred million Chinese who are Christians now—if that expands and Christianity becomes crucial throughout the country and has a huge effect on public life—then, I think, there is a lot of hope for China and the United States to coexist very well and for, perhaps, Chinese Christians to teach American Christians a lot about what it means to be a devoted servant of Jesus Christ. In a way, my interaction there and my hope to go back to China and do more—reporting on the situation of Chinese Christians, that’s what comes to mind right now.
Journalism is just such a fun job because there are dozens and perhaps even hundreds of stories that I can think of that have been favorite stories at one time or another. It’s an exciting occupation to be in.
Dennis: Marvin, I want to thank you for the work you do at WORLD Magazine. I’m sorry Barbara’s not here to give you some kudos. As you know, she is a cover-to-cover reader of your magazine. It is a great magazine. Appreciate your using your talents. I was thinking, Bob, God made some people very beautiful. He made others very athletic—just gave them above and beyond gifts—you just kind of marvel at the glory of God.
Well, I think Marvin and Susan Olasky are a pair of people who He just gave great minds; and they are using their minds to honor God, glorify Him, and to equip the body of Christ. I think that’s really a cool thing. Thanks, Marvin.
Marvin: Thank you.
Bob: I hope you’ll keep on the treadmill, too, and reporting to us about what you read while—you do about 45 minutes a day on the treadmill?
Marvin: Just about, yes.
Bob: Read a book while you’re doing it—
Bob: —and, then, report to us regularly in WORLD what you’ve been reading—
Dennis: So, what’s the best book you’ve read recently?
Marvin: Well, there are lots of books by established authors, and I could talk about those, but there’s one—actually a trilogy, three books, by an author who I doubt if anyone outside of this own immediate circle has heard about—hasn’t been a big publish or anything like that. The author’s name is John Reed. He lives in the South, and he’s written a trilogy about Noah, both before, during, and after the flood. The first of the trilogy is called The Coming Wrath, w-r-a-t-h.
I’m recommending it because there are parts that are wonderfully written. There are other parts that need a little work. These are his first novels, but I hope to encourage him to do more because there’s some great stuff here. I think it teaches us a lot about what life may, indeed, have been like during Noah’s time.
Bob: Tell you what—we’ll put a link on our website at FamilyLifeToday.com to where people can find out more about John Reed’s books; and we’ll have a link on our website, as well, for folks who want to find out more about WORLD Magazine and want to become subscribers to WORLD Magazine. Go to FamilyLifeToday.com, and both of those links are available to you there. FamilyLifeToday.com is our website.
Of course, we’ve got information there as well about Marvin’s memoir, Unmerited Mercy: A Memoir from card-carrying Communist to Bible-carrying Christian. If you’ve heard Marvin share any of his story this week, you know it’s a compelling testimony. It’s well-told in the book, Unmerited Mercy.
Again, find out more about how you can order a copy of the book online at FamilyLifeToday.com; or call toll-free 1-800-358-6329, which is probably more easily remembered as 1-800- “F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then, the word, “TODAY”.
We want to close the week, by saying, “Thanks,” once again to those of you who help support the ministry of FamilyLife Today with your donations at the end of the year. We heard from a lot FamilyLife Today listeners who made a year-end contribution in 2011. We are so very grateful for that, but we are also grateful for those of you who are Legacy Partners.
Each month you help support this ministry with a regular monthly donation to make sure that our production and syndication costs are covered and that we can remain on this station—on our network of stations all around the country—and, of course, online at FamilyLifeToday.com. So, thanks for your financial support in helping to sustain this ministry. We appreciate your generosity and always look forward to hearing from you.
We hope you have a great weekend. Hope you and your family are able to worship together this weekend, and I hope you can join us back on Monday. We’re going to talk to a young woman who, when she was 18, headed off to New York to become a fashion model—only to find that her career was not moving her closer to God. It was moving her farther and farther away from Him. Rachel Lee Carter is here to share her story with us on Monday. Hope you can be back for that as well.
I want to thank our engineer today—his name is Keith Lynch—and our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine. We will see you back Monday for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas.
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