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Sunday worshipers wondered, Is he an alcoholic? An ex-con?

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CLINTON, Miss. (BP)–His clothes were worn and ill-fitting, and his tennis shoes ragged when he walked into the church and took a seat close to the front just before the Sunday morning worship service. Toboggan hat in one hand, he clutched an old Bible firmly in the other hand.

His large frame wasn’t the only reason he stood out in the crowd gathering for worship. Obviously, he didn’t “look” like other folks in the room. He was different -­ the type of mostly invisible people one hurriedly passes by every Sunday on the way to church.

A street person, maybe, or an alcoholic who wandered in because he had no other place to go on a chilly fall morning in Clinton, Miss.? A convict just out of prison, possessing only the state-issue clothing on his back? A mentally ill man in search of who knows what?

He was none of the above. He was Steve Nelson, director of hunger concerns for the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission in Nashville, Tenn., and he was at Clinton’s Parkway Baptist Church to cast a spotlight in a unique way on the needs of the impoverished.

With his real identity known to only pastor Ken Anderson and a few others, he sat quietly through the opening of the service and sprang from his seat at the appointed time for the sermon.

“What you see is not always what get. The Bible says we may be entertaining angels,” he told the Parkway crowd.

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Nelson commended the congregation for accepting him into the worship service, even though he dressed and acted differently from the typical Sunday morning visitor. He said when he visits Baptist churches in his street person garb, he usually has a pew all to himself.

“Several of your ushers made me feel welcome. There were some dear sisters who walked over and sat next to me,” he observed.

Focusing on Southern Baptists’ World Hunger Fund, Nelson told the congregation that well-meaning people often feel overwhelmed or inadequate for the task of feeding the hungry.

“Ministry to the poor is relegated to the dingiest closet in the church. Seventy to 80 percent of Southern Baptist churches are ‘plateaued’ [not growing]. Why? We get so busy with church work that we forget about the work of the church.

“God cares for the needy,” he said.

Nelson advocated that Baptists rediscover the concept of gleaning, as found in Leviticus 19:9-10: “When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the alien. I am the Lord your God” (NIV).

“This is not a tithe or special offering. This is the discipline of gleaning.” Nelson explained.

In an interview after his October visit to Parkway, Nelson said he came up with the idea of showing up at churches in scrubby clothes to make a point about the needy to be found in every community.

“It takes us out of our comfort zone and raises our awareness that we can’t judge people. We can’t ‘pigeon-hole’ people,” he said.

How do Baptists respond to his shabby appearance?

“Some people are uncomfortable. Some people show the love of Christ. A lot of people just look away.”

Nelson was a homebuilder for 11 years before surrendering to the ministry. He was a pastor for five and a half years before accepting the position of ERLC’s director of hunger concerns.

“I want Baptists to know the joy that comes in ministry to the ‘least of these.’ That is when we are near to God,” Nelson said.

Christians should be well aware of God’s concern for the needy, Nelson counseled, quoting Proverbs 21:13: “If a man shuts his ears to the cry of the poor, he too will cry out and not be answered” (NIV).

“If we refuse to hear the cries of 800 million hungry people, we can’t hear the still, small voice of God,” Nelson said.

The Southern Baptist World Hunger Fund is a partnership effort by the International Mission Board, North American Mission Board and ERLC. One hundred percent of the special offering is used for hunger relief, with 80 percent going to IMB ministry evangelism projects and 20 percent to NAMB initiatives.

For more information, contact Nelson at ERLC, 901 Commerce Street, #550, Nashville, TN 37203-3696; telephone, (615) 782-8409 or 1-800-475-9127; e-mail, [email protected]