Eugene Cho, lead pastor of Quest Church in Seattle and co-founder of international anti-poverty movement One Day's Wages, takes his message of generosity and justice to Willow Creek Community Church's Celebration of Hope 2013 this weekend. Pastor Cho shared with The Christian Post his message for the Illinois megachurch, his hopes for ODW and why he believes Christians are compelled by their faith to practice both righteousness and justice.
Cho and his wife, Minhee, and their children founded One Day's Wages over three years ago after the Washington pastor came back convicted from witnessing the challenges faced by impoverished communities in Burma. They felt a need to act and sought God for guidance. The response Cho and his family received, however, was not at all what they were expecting. But they obeyed, took up the challenge and sacrificed a year of their family income to launch a movement that has since inspired people and organizations all over the world to join the fight to eradicate extreme global poverty. One Day's Wages and its partners have managed to award grants that are helping to provide necessities like electricity to the maternity ward at a South Sudan hospital, HIV treatment for children in Togo and nutritional support and education for malnourished children and expectant mothers living in rural Guatemala.
Pastor Cho told CP that he hopes his message inspires two things this weekend among those who gather to hear him and others speak at Willow Creek Community Church.
"My hope is to inspire [people] to live a life of generosity and to remind people what the Scripture calls us to, that much has been given and much is to be expected. [In] Matthew 6, I love the bluntness of how Jesus speaks in that context where [he says] everything that we have will perish," said Cho.
"He speaks about the metaphor of moths and things going to rust. It's to remind people to keep things in perspective and to live generously and not succumb to the idolatry of possessions, of upward mobility, of the constant need to upscale everything; that while we can enjoy that which God has been so gracious in giving to us, that we can also respond to the invitation to live a life of generosity. As we live a life of generosity, I want to remind people that we actually can make a bigger impact than we think," he added.
"Sometimes, and I know I struggle with this, when you hear about the ailments of the world, whether it's locally in our neighborhoods or in the larger world, it can lead to paralysis. We hear numbers like 1.2 billion people, that's a lot of zeros. But our call isn't to change the whole world or to save the whole world – Jesus did the saving. We're called to participate in what God is doing, has done, is doing and will do. That's part of the message I hope to share this weekend at Willow Creek."
Below is a transcript of CP's phone interview with Pastor Cho. It has been edited for clarity.
CP: Please tell me about One Day's Wages, such as how it started, where it is now and where you hope it will be in the future.
Cho: One Day's Wages is a nonprofit humanitarian organization that my wife and I and our three children started a little over three years ago. It's an organization that seeks to combat extreme global poverty. Extreme global poverty, for those who might not be familiar with it, are the 1.2 billion people in the world who survive on less than five quarters a day.
It started because I was on a trip about five or six years ago, when I was in the jungles in Burma, also known as Myanmar in some circles. I was in the jungle and was in a makeshift classroom and was blown away because there was a poster in front of this makeshift classroom. It was a poster of pictures kind of taped together of men, women and children with missing body parts, and there were some oozing, bloody body parts. It was a way to instruct and warn children how to avoid landmines. It was very startling.
It was later when I was speaking with one of the leaders or elders of the village when I asked about some of the challenges that they experience, and he mentioned teaching or education in schools. I asked him how much teachers' salaries were and he said $40. I thought he was talking per day, which wasn't the case. I thought it was per week, which wasn't the case. I thought it was per month, which wasn't the case. It was actually per year. I remember hearing this from him and thinking about the quote from Mother Teresa: "If you can't feed a hundred people, then just feed one."
We were convicted, came back and shared this with my wife and shared it with our kids. We went into some time of prayer about how we could respond to this. It wasn't the most pleasant response that we got from the Holy Spirit. We were convicted to give up a year's wages of our family earnings or salary. My wife then was a homemaker and I'm a pastor, as you know, and that was very uncomfortable. It was a very clear conviction. My salary as a pastor then was $68,000 a year. It took us about three years to save up, three years to sell off many things, just make a decision to live more simply. That was a lot more difficult than we envisioned, but that's how it got started.
We started this organization called One Day's Wages. We gave $68,000, a year of our wages, to get it started. And we challenged, invited and hopefully inspired people – family and friends and strangers alike from around the world – to consider giving at least one day's wages, even if it's just once a year. One day's wages comes out to 0.4 percent of one family's salary. What we try to do is communicate the impact that it can make around the world for those that are living in extreme poverty. Our goal is not to facilitate or foster a hand-out mentality because we think that could be destructive. We do a lot of analysis and vetting to find the right partners. In a little over three years, we've raised about $1.6 million from donors from 42 countries around the world. We've had churches that have also chosen to partner with us.
We really value the story of everyday donors. You don't have to be a rock star. You don't have to be a billionaire or a celebrity to make an impact. … We had a 16-year-old boy last summer who chose to bicycle across the country to raise funds for One Day's Wages. He raised $10,000. There's a story of a youth pastor in Florida who donated half of his salary to a human trafficking fund. Those are a couple of stories that really inspire us and remind us of everyday people.
CP: What do you say to Christians who believe that social justice issues aren't supposed to be the focus of the Church, that the Church should just be preaching about salvation in Jesus – what do you say to someone with that viewpoint?
Cho: I think that's a legitimate conversation. I think it's a legitimate criticism, if one could call it that. If the only thing that we as Christians are doing is what some would deem as social justice, then I think that's a legitimate criticism. But it's not. I think simultaneously, if the only thing that we're doing is just preaching and there is no accompaniment of a lifestyle of choices, of actions, of convictions, of decisions that speak to what we're preaching, then I think what we're preaching lacks credibility. So both are really essential. For those that are simply doing actions without illuminating or pointing to the Person of Christ, to the foundation of Christ, I think we're also doing it at the detriment in some ways.
Part of me as a pastor is that, as the pastor of a church here, I'm constantly teaching and preaching. All of this speaks to the whole Gospel. I believe that the Gospel is such an amazing thing, that not only does it save the souls of wretched people like myself, but that it's able to redeem and reconcile and restore all things in this world. I believe that there will come a time when Jesus will return to restore all things. Because I believe that without a shadow of a doubt, that is an invitation for me not to stand idle, but as I preach the Gospel, that I'm also doing the Gospel, which includes participating in what I believe Jesus would do when he comes back to restore all things.
CP: Please talk a little about Quest Church, such as how long you've been lead pastor, the congregation, its denomination, membership size, etc.?
Cho: My wife and I started Quest Church 12 years ago. It's been a dream for us even though it has its challenges like any other church. We are in Seattle, in urban Seattle. It is an urban church, it's a multicultural church and it's a multi-generational church. The fact that our church is intentionally diverse is very, very important to us where we feel like we want more churches, all churches to more deeply reflect the diversity of the kingdom of God. While it's multi-generational, I would say a good chunk, maybe 80 percent of our church are folks in their 20s and 30s. Our church size is about 700 people. Because of our commitment to the Gospel, we wanted to reflect the diversity of the kingdom, we have a diverse staff. One of my teaching pastors is someone named Dr. Brenda Salter McNeil, an African-American preacher and professor here as well. We're an evangelical church that believes in the whole Gospel.
Going back to your previous question about social justice, I think those words come with a lot of … it's a loaded phrase. People argue about those words, social justice. I fear that a lot of us, we're talking about those things without being quite sure what they actually mean. Or it's been hijacked by the political conversation.
For us as Christians, we do justice because justice matters to God. If you want to call it social justice, go for it, but for us as Christians, we do it because of the Jesus that we serve, because of the God we worship. I try not to argue about the semantics of words. But the reason why we do it is because our God is a god of justice. God cares about justice. He calls us … to speak justice as well. Our church is in alignment with those values, that while we believe in the centrality of the Gospel that Jesus came to save, he also came to restore.
Our church, aside from our Sunday worship services, again like other churches we have many small groups where people gather. Two of the things that we do that I really, really love and appreciate about our church – we have a nonprofit neighborhood cafe and music venue Monday through Saturday that we run in our neighborhood in our commitment to be a good neighbor. Then we also run a homeless advocacy center, our justice center, in a different location than our church because we want to treat and we want to welcome our homeless community. We want to treat them as friends, treat them as human beings, we want to treat them as people that we can learn from as well, but we also want to advocate for them, we want to be on their side, as well as [challenge] them. Those are some of the things that our church seeks to do.
CP: On the issue of being intentionally diverse, how do you go about that? There are some churches or leaders that believe that the congregation should be diverse but they don't necessarily know how to go about that. So when you say "intentionally diverse," what kind of things do you mean?
Cho:That's a great question that could probably be a long, long conversation in itself. I get this question a lot. I've had pastors and leaders contact me because they see what we do and they go, "How do you do that?" What I'm sensing is that I think for any legitimate Christian leader or pastor, they get it from a theological perspective. They get it that in the kingdom of God there's neither Greek nor Jew, slave or free, male or female (Galatians 3:28), they get it. I think what's difficult for them to connect is that they don't personally live it out. It's not part of their personal worldview. So for me, I say this not to elevate myself, I think if anything it explains that I'm not doing anything extraordinary other than simply living consistently to my worldview.
What I mean by that is that I grew up in the city in San Francisco. When I first immigrated to this country at the age of six, I was reminded that I was an "other," being an immigrant, being Korean. So that was part of my worldview, that my eyes naturally go constantly and consistently toward the marginalized, the outside. The other thing that growing up in San Francisco really impacted me [with] is that it was such a diverse city. My classrooms were diverse, my neighborhoods were diverse, my parents' grocery store in San Francisco had a very diverse clientele. What I would say is that it's not just a theological truth or construct for me, but it's just part of the way I see the world. I think being in a homogeneous setting would actually be something challenging for me. As a result, I'm constantly teaching with those things in mind.
Having said that, it's still a challenge. It's still a challenge because I think people generally migrate or acclimate toward those that look like them or think like them. A couple of things that we do is that we have a diverse leadership intentionally, we strategically pray for people with shared values. We also are mindful of worship … We have a worship pastor who is amazing. She's Asian-American but she's able to lead in styles that are true to her but also resonate across cultures. Another one that I would share is that every single year, we host a five- to six-week class called "Faith and Race." It's an in-your-face, in-your-heart, in-your-mind discussion, conversation, engaging the Scriptures about issues of faith and race. We talk bluntly about racism, about racialization, we talk about model minority (stereotypes), we talk about white privilege, we talk about entitlement in a difficult conversation, but we do this every year as a way to encourage people to be thoughtful and mindful, prayerful and intentional about kingdom values.
CP: Finally, are there any upcoming projects planned for One Day's Wages, any campaigns at Quest Church, or anything you want to mention that you haven't already mentioned?
Cho: Nothing comes to mind as a church. We're not a fancy church. We want to be a steady church that speaks to the light and salt, and not as a one-hit wonder but as a long marathon. As for One Day's Wages, our goal a year from now, three years from now, five years from now, whatever it might be, is to do what we're doing now and to do it deeply, to do it faithfully. We want to be known for transparency, we want to be known for integrity. We raised $1.6 million and our goal is to raise, hopefully in the next five years, $10 million. Our pledge to people is that a hundred percent of all donations that come in, minus credit card fees, go to projects to empower people around the world.