For I was hungry, and you gave me food, I was thirsty, and you gave me drink, a stranger, and you welcomed me, naked, and you clothed me, ill, and you cared for me, in prison, and you visited me.
Then the righteous will answer him and say, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’’
And the king will say to them in reply, “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’’
It’s a portion of Matthew 25, the foundation of the “Matthew 25 Challenge,’’ a weeklong event held at Orlando’s Pine Castle United Methodist Church. Its members were energized by not only giving back, but also by undergoing real-life exercises that were everyday occurrences for the least of their brethren.
“I think it helped us come together in prayer and unity,’’ said Michelle Taylor, Pine Castle UMC’s worship service coordinator who oversaw the Matthew 25 Challenge.
The event’s concept was originated and executed by World Vision, an international Christian organization that provided the necessary instruction and infrastructure.
Bernie Anderson, World Vision’s senior church advisor, pointed out that sponsorship of one child would essentially work for several children. The organization didn’t just offer clean water, for example. It installed a water system for the entire community.
“I think everyone could relate to sponsoring a child in a faraway land, probably something they had done several times before,’’ Taylor said. “But the way this was different was the way it really hit home. It made you feel what the kids might feel.’’
By joining the Matthew 25 Challenge and texting information to the opt-in number (or filling out a card for the technologically challenged), participants received inspirational verses, photos, videos and specific instructions for each day of the week.
Monday — Fast at lunch. For dinner, only have beans and rice.
Tuesday — Only drink water — no caffeine, no soft drinks, no coffee, no tea, no milk — with your food.
Wednesday — Give your bed the night off. Sleep on the floor.
Thursday — Wear the same clothing or outfit that you wore on Wednesday.
Friday — Reach out to someone going through a difficult time.
Saturday — Take a 30-minute prayer walk.
Then the congregation assembled for “Celebration Sunday,’’ an acknowledgment of a successful mission, a reflection on the lessons learned and an affirmation of sponsorship/support for the needy children.
“Essentially, we underwent an Americanized, cushy version of things endured each day by people in Third World countries,’’ Taylor said. “It did make you think of all that we have and all we take for granted.’’
According to World Vision, 32 percent of Pine Castle UMC’s congregation opted into the Matthew 25 Challenge (20 percent is normally considered a success). Financially, the campaign worked well. But the intangibles were the biggest difference-maker.
“I thought it was run very well,’’ said Donna Elliott, a Pine Castle UMC member since 1980. “It was a unique way of helping me understand what it’s like to be poor and impoverished. What Christ refers to as the least of these, it helped my understanding of what they actually go through.’’
Elliott and her husband participated in the Matthew 25 Challenge’s daily tasks.
“Yes, we actually did sleep on the floor,’’ Elliott said. “The average age at our church is 60 and up. We would be considered seniors. I know it was difficult for some, and many weren’t able to do it. It wasn’t easy. There was lots of tossing and turning.
“For me, it wasn’t just about all the poor people who live in huts and sleep on the floor. I was also conscious of the refugees. I learned about a teenage boy from Syria who was living with his family in a refugee camp in Lebanon. It hit home a little more.’’
The day of drinking water also brought challenges. Elliott said some milk was put out with dinner—the by-rote choice at night—until they quickly realized that wasn’t allowed.
“Sometimes, you have so much; you don’t even know what you have,’’ Elliott said. “It’s very hard to focus on a life of not having these things. Again, it made you aware that many people are forced to live so differently, with so little. We learned a lot.’’
The biggest lesson?
Think more about others instead of yourself.
“I feel like our Methodist church, especially in Florida, is in a state of great division right now,’’ Elliott said. “We’re focused on ourselves. I really feel like the enemy is using that to divide our church when we should be focused on so many other things.
“We’re losing the vision for God’s love of all people because we’re so focused on ourselves. This gave us an understanding about the reality of what poor people live with. It was relatable, and it helped us focus on the things that are really most important.’’
—Joey Johnston is a freelance writer based in Tampa.