Giving up a year’s salary to start a charity isn’t something US pastor and church-planter Eugene Cho would tell anybody else to do, despite the fact that he did so to found One Day’s Wages, a grassroots humanitarian organisation aimed at tackling extreme global poverty. But the Seattle-based father of three does believe that Christians are called to explore what it is God might be calling them to do, despite what might be a heavy cost.

“We did it as a family together because we think it is a part of our discipleship,” he says. “I’m not suggesting that every family has to do this – in fact, that’s the last thing I want to tell people – but I do think that…we’re called to genuinely prayer and seek God’s heart for each person and each family. In that season, that’s what God called us to do.”

Eugene Cho

“I have no qualms about people saying it is at the heart of the Gospel. I guess the danger is that it is not the Gospel. And I think we have to make that distinction. We do justice because it is at the heart of the Gospel, because it’s a response to the Gospel and this it really is a reflection of our worship.”

- Eugene Cho

It was, according to Rev Cho, a “hard” experience – and one which took him a while to get his head around. “I often tell people, ‘All Christians love justice – until there’s a personal cost’. And I think that was what we experienced.”

The 46-year-old, who recounts the story of how he and his wife Minhee, a marriage therapist, came to give up a year’s salary - $US68,000 – in order to establish One Day’s Wages in his recent book, Overrated: Are We More in Love with the Idea of Changing the World Than Actually Changing the World?, was among speakers at The Justice Conference in Melbourne last Friday and Saturday.

Held at venues including the Melbourne Town Hall and Athenaeum Theatre, the conference – hosted by Tear Australia and one of a number of similar conferences now held in various countries around the world – saw hundreds of people gather to hear speakers representing various Christian ministries and NGOs talk about various perspectives on Biblical justice.

Rev Cho, the founder and lead pastor of Quest Church in Seattle, tells Sight that justice reflects the character of God and that the work of justice is about restoring “that which is broken unto that which God intended”.

“And while there are different words, particularly in the Old Testament…that speak to justice, the word that I often like is the word ‘flourishing’: that God intended His creation to flourish and because of sin, because of rebellion, because of oppression, we have all of the aspects of evil and injustice that exist. So the work of justice is then is then to seek to restore that which is broken so God’s creation can flourish.”

Rev Cho – whose own heart for justice was partly borne out of his experience as an immigrant (he migrated as a six-year-old to the US from South Korea with his family, who had fled North Korea during the Korean War), says justice, which reflects the heart and character of God, is “not secondary or tertiary” to the Christian walk.

“I have no qualms about people saying it is at the heart of the Gospel. I guess the danger is that it is not the Gospel. And I think we have to make that distinction. We do justice because it is at the heart of the Gospel, because it’s a response to the Gospel and this it really is a reflection of our worship.”

He says the idea of justice as a reflection of our worship is particularly important in the Western context where, in some cases, worship has been “reduced to an event”.

“We have church services, we have these events, and I’m not suggesting that it’s wrong or bad…but if we somehow get sucked into this whole Western consumption mindset and we have reduced worship to a 60 or 90 minute service - and yet what we learn and experience in that space doesn’t impact who we are and how we engage Monday through Saturday, then I would say it’s really disgusting, it’s a show at that point. And so, that’s what I mean by [saying ‘Justice is] worship’. We want all of our lives to be worship, when we’re seen or unseen, when we’re engaging aspects of justice and flourishing all around.”

Rev Cho says his heart as a pastor is to speak to those who occupy what he calls “dangerous camps” in the church. This includes those whose response to the justice conversation is to simply say ‘Just preach the Gospel’ (to which he replies, "This is at the heart of the Gospel”), and those who would make justice their idol (“Even good things, when it’s not grounded, can become idolatrous. Even justice can become idolatrous. And I think we have to be very, very wise.”). And then there’s also a camp “that’s more enamoured by the idea of justice - it’s glamorous, its’ sexy, it’s hip, it’s trendy, it’s cool” than justice itself, a group which Rev Cho confesses in his book he himself has been a part of.

The key to avoiding heading into these camps, he says, is to remain grounded in the Scriptures and to present the “whole Gospel”.

“[Justice] is not an event, it’s not a conference, it’s not a project, it’s not a fundraiser but it’s the very essence of how we live our lives. And then if we think about it in that way, then we have to do some truth-telling and say ‘A lot of it really isn’t sexy’. It’s not glamorous..."

Justice is, therefore, says Rev Cho, “rooted in our discipleship” as Christians. “So I tell people, the reason why we’re talking about this is because I want to help you as I seek to be helped and as I seek to learn so that together we can be on the journey of discipleship. And I can’t imagine anyone critiquing the desire to become a more faithful disciple.”

“[Justice] is not an event, it’s not a conference, it’s not a project, it’s not a fundraiser but it’s the very essence of how we live our lives. And then if we think about it in that way, then we have to do some truth-telling and say ‘A lot of it really isn’t sexy’. It’s not glamorous..."

- Eugene Cho

Rev Cho says collaborating with people and organisations outside the Christian world on issues of justice – such as human trafficking and extreme poverty - is essential. But he adds that at the same time Christians shouldn’t relinquish the ‘why’ of what they do.

“Because that’s our unique contribution…” he says. “It is really important because in a post-Christian culture, not only do we want to collaborate but I think this is a mechanism of how we build relationships and, dare I say it is, in itself, evangelism to this world. People are tired of our dogmatics and our theology. I think people are more keen to [be] hearing and learning and seeing and witnessing what we do about what we believe.”

The organisation he founded, One Day’s Wages - which encourages people to give one day’s wages at least once a year, aims to help what he calls the “everyday person” see themselves as philanthropists.

“Oftentimes...philanthropy has been hijacked by celebrities and billionaires and rockstars [so] we’re trying to reclaim that all of us are really philanthropists. At the heart of it all, the root definition of the word ‘philanthropy’ comes from the [phrase] ‘lover of humanity’. I can’t think of anything more beautiful, as a Christian, than to love our fellow man, our fellow human being."

Rev Cho says that while one day’s wages represents only about 0.4 per cent of a person’s annual income, “the impact that it can have is in a world of disparity is pretty shocking”. 

The organisation, which works with a range of partners on the ground, has so far raised $US5 million to help fund projects ranging from establishing an entrepreneurial training centre for mothers in Uganda so they can support their children through to building schools for Syrian refugees where they are taught in Arabic, a tongue they can understand.

Looking back now at the experiences he and his family went through in sacrificing a year’s salary to start One Day’s Wages, Rev Cho still gets emotional, particularly when he recounts how, as the self-imposed deadline for the raising of the funds approached, he had sublet the families’ home without telling his wife which meant, carrying just a bag each, they had to spend 10 weeks couch-surfing.

But he says that one of the great lessons he learned during that time was that even as they focused on what it meant to help change the world, God also “wanted to change us”.

“I often tell people generosity is not simply for us to help other people, it’s the means by which God wants to liberate us from the greed that captures our own hearts.”

~ https://eugenecho.com

~ www.onedayswages.org

~ www.thejusticeconference.com.au