Christ on the Avenue
Marion E. Isaacs
May 1893 — Congress of Women, Woman’s Building, World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago IL
A serious question for Christians to consider is, has not the weight and energy of Christian labor been thrown almost entirely in favor of reaching and saving those who, like the people of Christ’s time on earth, were most willing to hear, and consequently most easily reached? Has not the more difficult and stony ground of the wealthy class been overlooked, and is there not danger of over-concentration of the work in the direction of the poorer people in the slums and alleys?
It is true the great middle class, the respectable poor, and the low down, form much the larger part of the community. But this wealthy class for which we Christian people have never made especial effort, is it not time that we bethought ourselves, and prayerfully considered some means by which they can be reached? It can be said of us, “This ought you to have done and not have left the other undone.” When our hearts are aglow with desire to save souls, do we remember that one soul is as precious as another in the sight of our loving Lord? He would save the ruler just as quickly as the thief on the cross, did he but show the same penitence. Can not these nineteenth century Christians devise some means of reaching the smaller and wealthy avenue class, the heathen in the brownstone and marble palaces?
Our societies are formed with reference to the wants of every gradation of society, from the dark and loathsome cellar to the attic, then on through the lanes and highways — until we reach the avenue; there the work halts at the homes of the wealthy, each seeming to vie with the other in costly magnificence, looking to the casual observer as if every need was met, every desire gratified within those stately walls.
Let us then consider the case of the wealthy, and classify them into three divisions. First, the avenue homes where Christ reigns and is welcome in the hearts of the owners and dwellers; whose broad halls and drawing-rooms are often thrown open to God’s people for religious work of various kinds. These gatherings are among the most influential and practical helps to draw the thoughtless and godless of the avenue class to a realization of their responsibility toward their Maker and humanity. These wealthy and cultured Christians are a power used by God to make religion attractive and reach those whom Christians in a humbler sphere have not the opportunity to meet. It is an all-wise and never-erring God that has placed Christians in different positions in life, and given to each corresponding responsibility. Out of each and every station of life he calls his leaders. We have in our great metropolis, noble, godly men and women from the wealthiest homes, whose examples in deeds of charity, and in their consecrated lives, give us the highest type of a Christian life. This class clearly does not trust in riches. They will not go away sorrowful, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. This class does not need our efforts, but we do need theirs; the world needs them; their neighbors especially need them.
Two other classes or divisions we would consider, and it is for them we believe especial effort should be made. To the first of them, to whom religious observances are a passport for entrance into the refined circles of their avenue neighbors, we would give a little thought. To many of these religion is a beautiful sentimentality. They go to church on the Sabbath, especially in the morning. They pay some observance to the Lenten season; the fashionable avenue people do that, for it is then the weary bodies and the excited brains give themselves a little rest from the round of gaieties that fashionable society imposes upon its votaries. Now comes the time for the quiet card-party, and the home dance, and the drawing-room is opened for entertainments for the poor. These nominal Christians will sometimes aid you a little in your charities if you call upon them, and when you commence an explanation of the charity so dear to your heart, that you have prayed over, sacrified for, and finally consented to beg for, you are cut short by the gift of a pittance, perhaps — to aid in a charity costing thousands of dollars, and days, months, and years of prayerful planning and sacrifice! Oh, how the heart sinks as you feel the bitter disappointment and failure of your hopes! You have all experienced it.
We pass on to the third and last class of the avenue people, where our dear Lord is not recognized, nor his name ever mentioned with reverence. These are heedless and godless people. There is no open immorality; that would not do, for they are on the avenue. The sacred day, which in divine wisdom was made for rest, is the chosen one for their festivities. The dinner-giving among this class is largely done on the Sabbath. It is the favorite reception-day of the ultra fashionable. In the eagerness for rapidly accumulated fortunes these people have overlooked the acquiring of those higher, spiritual qualities that make truly noble and respected citizens. The strife for pleasure and distinction, and the bartering of precious souls for the few brief hours of mortal life, would be ludicrous were it not for the serious fact that the grand opportunity for the securing eternal life and uplifting humanity here is unthought of and utterly ignored. The influence too upon those around is one of the saddest features.
We have said there are societies formed to reach every phase and condition except the godless homes of the rich. We have our Salvation Army for the masses; who will devise measures equally efficient for reaching the dwellers on the avenue? We have admitted that the latter are more difficult to reach; but is that any reason why we should not form some plan and attempt the difficult task? We have the parable of the unjust steward, who was commended for his worldly wisdom; and can not God’s stewards use as much shrewdness and wisdom in spiritual and immortal interests as the ungodly in worldly matters? It is in the power of every Christian to be a missionary, and God has given to every one a mission. There is no one fact that requires to be pressed upon men and women more emphatically than this. One of the earliest lessons God taught was care for others, and that we are our brothers’ keepers. As all have a mission, what is yours? What is your station in life? Are you in some position where you can reach and influence the godless upon the avenue? And if so, do you use your power for good there? Do you take every opportunity to uphold the religion of Jesus Christ in whatever position he has placed you? Among the lofty or among the lowly, the gospel is equally needed. Do you adapt yourself to the different phases of life and the different characters you meet? Are you, like Paul, “become all things to all men for Christ’s sake”? As no two faces are alike in all this wide world, so no two characters are alike. And each one you plead with personally will need the adapted word that the Spirit only can give.
What a fine illustration of quickness to seize the opportunity to preach Christ is found in Paul’s prison life, where he was chained to a guard. Little chance, we should think, to spread the story of salvation through Jesus Christ, yet there was his chance, and grandly did he improve it. The guard was changed every four hours, so in each twenty-four hours in the loathsome prison Paul taught Christ to many Roman soldiers during his long imprisonment. Those men told the wonderful story to other men, and so it was carried to the whole Roman guard.
It is seldom that the heart of any woman, whatever her position in life, is entirely barred against softening influences. There are channels of sympathy by which the inmost recesses may be reached. On meeting an ultra fashionable woman, who apparently thought of little else than her elegant mansion, her equipage and entertainments, the conversation turned upon a social scandal concerning one of the oldest and wealthiest families of the avenue. The daily papers were filled with the details and painful proofs verifying the story. The lady remarked, “They are not so much to blame, for their entertainments are so sumptuous, the wines so fine and plentiful, and they indulge so freely, they cease to be responsible.” What a sad picture! That lady well knew what she was describing, for her life was much among such scenes as she had described. By the length and freedom of the conversation opportunity was given to talk of better things. Philanthropic work was discussed, in which some of the fashionable people were engaged. This interested her. Next, accounts of religious works were dilated upon, and the heartfelt satisfaction and pleasure derived from them was recounted. After listening attentively, she said, “Tell me more about your work. I often wish I could do something of the kind. I have time enough.” And truly she had, for she had little to do but to amuse herself.
We have said that work could be found wherever we were placed. The magnificent example of a godly woman who commenced work for Christ among the avenue classes thirty years ago is cited, by those who knew and loved her, every day. Her memory is fresh and her work goes on, although a decade has passed since her living presence was an inspiration to all who came in contact with her. An organized society of Christian women of all denominations is a living monument to her memory. This society is so broad in its scope that it is known all over the Christian world, for its members may be found in all countries. This beautiful lady possessed the graces as well as the virtues of a true Christian woman. Her position called the worldly about her. She felt that she must maintain her Christian principles under all these adverse surroundings. She communed with her Saviour, and he pointed out the way. She took Christ with her into her avenue life, and was the means of leading many a thoughtless, fashionable woman of her own circle up to a higher and better life. There are many monuments to her memory in the form of Christian work and organized societies. This woman was as clearly selected and equipped for God’s work as any missionary appointed by our boards. She was a missionary to her own people, and they rise up and call her blessed.
All missionaries, ministers, colporteurs, and effective Christian workers of every kind will concur with the remark of a well-taught graduate of a missionary training-school, that the longer she worked the stronger her conviction was that the best work for the Master must be done by personal effort.
Have you exhausted every means in your power personally to influence the unconverted to accept the truth as it is in Jesus? Will you not press home the truth that Christ will come to judge all, and possibly sooner than we think? Should he come to-morrow, would you be ready for him and be one of the first to welcome him? Have you warned those friends of yours in those great mansions on the avenue that Christ is coming?
Source: World’s Congress of Representative Women, Vol. 2, Ed. May Eliza Wright Sewall (Chicago Rand and McNally), 1894, pp. 1-90.