In the middle of one of the wealthiest counties in the country, Melissa Jansen, 49, occupies herself with the poor. As executive director of Western Fairfax Christian Ministries, she has clients who sleep at campgrounds and in the woods, and some who are barely holding on to their homes and apartments. Her agency's food shelf has seen a 15 percent increase in the number of appointments in the past year, and they recently opened a new office in Centreville to cope with demand. Jansen spoke with The Washington Examiner about our responsibility to the poor, and a faith that inspired her to leave what she knew to serve them. Do you consider yourself to be of a specific faith?
I am a Christian, and what I most appreciate is that it's a free gift. I didn't have to do any specific works to earn God's grace. In fact, none of us could ever do good enough, or be good enough, to deserve that.
Did anyone or any event especially influence your faith or your path in life?
My older sister was very influential during my college years -- she had decided to surrender to God a couple of months before I did. We were all wild, rebellious teens and young adults -- but she never passed judgment on me. She really just encouraged me and loved me through the changes in my life. She saw me follow the same self-destructive pattern that she had followed, and she prayed with me and encouraged me along the way. We're still the best of friends today.
Later in life, around 2000, I had been working at a for-profit corporation. But I felt a very real conviction that I needed to help people, to reach out, to strip my closet of all the things I had, and to start reaching out to people who truly needed help. I had a sense that I'd always been in a place not only of economic health, but emotional and physical health. I had a great life, but it didn't have meaning for me when it was only about me, and I had a very, very overwhelming conviction that I needed to get out of that, and reach people the way I believe God would, with his love. That's when I switched paths to the nonprofit sector.
Counties around the D.C. region, including Fairfax, are struggling with tight budgets. Social services such as affordable housing programs, or reduced-price transportation and child care often are proposed for the chopping block. Why should people be asked to pay higher taxes, or to sacrifice other initiatives, so that the poor among them can be subsidized?
Jesus said that there would always be the poor. And even though counties like Fairfax are considered to be wealthy, there are still 1,500 homeless people here, and many more on the verge. People need basics like housing and child care so that they can work. We need ways to keep them off the streets and out of the campgrounds -- and I believe that sometimes, higher taxes are an appropriate sacrifice.
In the Washington area, the poor often feel invisible amid all the success, wealth and power of the region. If they could be better heard, what could some of your clients teach the more visible Washingtonians?
Any of us could go from wealth to poverty -- especially in this economy -- and many have. More and more of our clients are middle class people who dropped into poverty because of the loss of a job or a home. I think they would tell us that the poor don't need the wealthy, but the wealthy need the poor. We need to humble ourselves and realize we are still called to love them, and to care for them, and to reach out and help them. Jesus said that the first shall be last and the last shall be first. Things can change -- people go from rags to riches, and riches to rags, all the time.
At your core, what is one of your defining beliefs?
I believe that we are called to love God, and to love people. I believe God created each one of us, and sees each one of us as equal, and has the power to love us unconditionally. If we can view people -- everyone with whom we come into contact -- as God views them, then we can love and care for them regardless of race, class, religion, status or political party. It's as simple as "love them."
- Leah Fabel