In the year 165 the Roman Empire was ravaged by an epidemic of disease. As much as one third of the empire’s population died during a fifteen year span. Whole villages and even cities were deserted in some provinces because of the pervasiveness of death in those places. The once thriving urban centers were allowed to fall into ruin. If that was not bad enough, only a few generations later in 251, another epidemic broke out, with equally devastating results. At the height of that second disaster, it is estimated that as many as 5000 people were dying every day, just in the great city of Rome. Dionysius of Alexandria commented that it was better in Egypt during the time of Moses when the firstborn of each house died. For, he wrote, “There is not a house in which there is not one dead—how I wish it had been only one.”
While philosophers discussed the meaning of life, pagan priests fumbled to explain why the gods inflicted such disasters, and famous doctors fled from the cities, common Christians remained behind to care for the sick, not only among their brethren, but also their pagan neighbors. Dionysius described the actions of the Christians in his congregation,
“Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to every need and ministering to them in Christ…Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead.”These were not superstar Christians; they did not have theological training, missionary training, or even medical training. But they were faithful Christians, responding with Gospel care to the needs of their neighbors. They were sick sinners themselves, who had received the healing love of Christ, and were in turn sharing that love with fellow sinners.
Their faithfulness produced astonishing results. In many cases, people only needed a small amount of nursing care in order to get through the worst symptoms of their disease. So those that were cared for by Christians were far more likely to regain their health. And since the Christians already had a caring community network, their survival rate was far higher than the general population. Then once the epidemics had passed, so many people were impressed by the love and faith of the Christians (and in many cases owing them their lives) that they felt compelled to investigate this new message about a Person named Jesus.
The history of the church is instructive for the church of today. It is of course a sad reality that there are epidemics of disease in our own day, such as AIDS and cancer. But these are not the only epidemics we face. Our city of St. Louis is plagued with crime, racism, poverty, and other sinful patterns. The response of many people, as in ancient Rome, is to flee the problems of the city. For that reason, many of our once thriving urban neighborhoods are falling into ruin.
Our Christian community at Memorial, however, has decided to respond differently. Our mission is “to glorify God by being an urban evangelical church.” Jim and Tammy McGarry are trying to faithfully carry out this mission, and indeed to be faithful to their calling from God, by founding and developing the More Than Carpentry Christian Ministries. This ministry, that combines Jim’s skill in carpentry and their family’s gifts in hospitality and mercy, is located in one of St. Louis’s urban neighborhoods that are most suffering from the epidemics of sinful patterns. The building they bought at 1259 Stephen Jones, in Wellston, will not only be a home to their ministry and business, but also their family. As they live, work, and minister among the people of Wellston as their neighbors, the McGarrys will face and share many of the same hardships that their neighbors experience, but they will have the grace of God to empower them and the Gospel of Christ to give them hope.
But the McGarrys are not superstar Christians. In order for their ministry, or any ministry, to have its full impact, it will require the faithfulness of a community of Christians. The Christian response to the epidemics of the Roman Empire was successful because believers worked together, trusting in Christ and loving their neighbors. Likewise, the More than Carpentry ministry needs a network of support from believers who are willing to join its mission in faith. The McGarrys need prayer and financial support, and they also hope for Christians to join in their work in Wellston. Saturday work-days are one opportunity to volunteer, helping to prepare the building and grounds for long-term ministry. Just as the faithfulness of early Roman Christians had an astonishing impact upon their communities, God can work just as powerfully through His people in St. Louis today.
The ministry is just getting started, and their website doesn't really have any content yet. But here it is for future reference: More Than Carpentry Christian Ministries.