What would you get arrested for?

Published 8:45 am Saturday, November 15, 2014

by Andrew Book

I have a new hero. His name is Arnold Abbott and he is an advocate for the homeless in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He is also a 90-year old World War II veteran who earned two purple hearts fighting for this country. Abbott has made the news recently because he has continued a ministry of feeding those who are homeless despite a new law that made providing food in an open air setting illegal without permits, restrooms and list of other requirements. He has been arrested twice in recent weeks and potentially faces 60 days in jail as well as substantial fines. Despite the arrests, fines and possible jail time, Arnold Abbott has continued to feed those who are hungry and is committed to continuing! (You can read more at http://goo.gl/7VHzFy and http://goo.gl/ACVLFm)

Arnold Abbot is a hero to me for a couple of reasons. First, he is deeply committed to caring for those who are in need. This commitment is deeply biblical, and I truly believe that our world would be much better off with more people committed to helping others have their basic needs met. Abbott is also a hero to me because he is willing to pay a price for living out what he believes in. He is undaunted by an unethical law, which opposes him, and is willing to go to jail rather than give up the passion he has for feeding those who are hungry.

As I have been thinking about Mr. Abbott’s situation, it has led me to wonder: “What would I go to jail for?” If there was a new law impacting Courtland that said we could not give out food at Courtland United Methodist Church, would I be willing to face jail time to continue this essential ministry that we carry out every week? More specifically than the question, “What would I go to jail for?” is a question that is harder to answer: “What would I go to jail for to help someone else?”

For many of us, facing the personal loss of jail time or even the stigma of being called a “criminal” would be too much. I suspect that, if we are honest, many of the ways we help other people would be off the table if we knew we might go to jail for helping them. When our personal comfort or reputation is on the line, our willingness to reach out to those around us dries up.

I am thankful that we live in a country where our freedom of religion is protected and values rooted in Christian faith are usually supported by our laws. However, the situation in Fort Lauderdale highlights the reality that we cannot simply rely on what has been written into law to guide our ethics. Fort Lauderdale is concerned with tourism and projecting the image of a “clean” city where people are not confronted by the realities of poverty and hunger. They are more concerned with the people who might come spend money in their city and those who currently pay taxes than they are about the poor who are present. From a municipal perspective, the new law makes sense: get the poor, hungry, smelly, disheveled people out of the public eye and away from people with money to spend who might be made uncomfortable by their presence.

The problem is this: simply pushing those who are hungry away does not fill their stomachs. So, while this law might make sense from a municipal perspective, it is an affront to me as a person who believes God loves each hungry person as much as God loves each person who has money to spend. I can’t support an immoral law, and I am glad for people like Arnold Abbott who are willing to face legal consequences when they recognize that the laws of our cities, states, and country are not always going to be in line with our morals.

My hope is that there are more people like Arnold Abbott in this country. People for whom there is a higher standard than the local judge and people who are willing to face consequences for doing the right thing. I hope you will take some time this week to consider your own priorities. Would you face jail to help someone else? When? Why? What are the values which you would stand up for even if the law opposed you?

At Courtland United Methodist Church, we take seriously the call of God to care for those who are hungry and are working towards our goal of ending food insecurity in Courtland. If you are interested in joining us in that pursuit, we would love to have you partner with us. Call the office at 653-2240 if you are interested. Otherwise, I want to invite you to go out and get arrested: for feeding someone, for putting a shirt on their back, for getting a roof over their head, or for saying that there are things like loving your neighbor that are more important than the next opportunity to make a buck.

ANDREW BOOK is the pastor of Courtland United Methodist Church. He can be contacted at 653-2240 or andrew@courtlandumcva.org