- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
Revelation and Renewal tells of churches that infused new life into urban communities. It is the story of brave men and women who refused to walk away from an apparently hopeless situation. Their inspiring example of faith-based social action presents a blueprint for reclaiming the future of our cities.
Revelation and Renewal tells of churches that infused new life into urban communities. It is the story of brave men and women who refused to walk away from an apparently hopeless situation. Their inspiring example of faith-based social action presents a blueprint for reclaiming the future of our cities.
Stories That Tell the Story
Zechariah, the Hebrew prophet, had a vision for the city. It was a city that was yet to be—a vision that generated faith in the face of the ugly realities of the Jerusalem of his day. Zechariah did not despair as he looked upon the devastation of blighted Mt. Zion, nor did he throw up his hands in surrender at the sight of grinding poverty. He did not lose hope in the face of the crime that pervaded Jerusalem's neighborhoods, nor did he deem incurable the social pathologies that destroyed the peace of that city. Instead, Zechariah looked beyond the sorry condition of the Jerusalem of his day and dreamed of a time when God would make its streets safe for children and for the elderly to once again venture out of their homes without fear.
We find the vision of this city that was yet to be in scripture:
Thus saith the Lord of hosts; There shall yet old men and old women dwell in the streets of Jerusalem, and every man with his staff in his hand for very age. And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in the streets thereof. Thus saith the Lord of hosts; If it be marvelous in the eyes of the remnant of this people in these days, should it also be marvellous in mine eyes? saith the Lord of hosts. Thus saith the Lord of hosts; Behold, I will save my people from the east country, and from the west country; And I will bring them, and they shall dwell in the midst of Jerusalem: and they shall be my people, and I will be their God, in truth and in righteousness.
But now I will not be unto the residue of this people as in the former days, saith the Lord of hosts. For the seed shall be prosperous; the vine shall give her fruit, and the ground shall given her increase, and the heavens shall give their dew; and I will cause the remnant of this people to possess all these things.
So again have I thought in these days to do well unto Jerusalem and to the house of Judah: fear ye not. These are the things that ye shall do; Speak ye every man the truth to his neighbour; execute the judgment of truth and peace in your gates: And let none of you imagine evil in your hearts against his neighbour; and love no false oath; for all these are things that I hate, saith the Lord.
Thus saith the Lord of hosts; In those days it shall come to pass, that ten men shall take hold out of all languages of the nations, even shall take hold of the skirt of him that is a Jew, saying, We will go with you: for we have heard that God is with you. (Zeeh. 8:4-8, 11-12, 15-17, 23)
Is that not what we all long to see happen to our own city? Is not Zechariah's vision a vision we can all embrace?
The way to transform the city that is into the city that ought to be is not easy to prescribe. The simplistic answers to the urban crisis that are flung about in cavalier fashion by journalistic pundits on C-SPAN do not readily work. The chaos and evils that wreak havoc on urban dwellers are not really addressed by the ideological rhetoric that comes from politicians on either the left or the right. Granted, there are those in each of the parties who have some good insights and suggestions to make, but in the platform of neither party do we find the sure formula to transform the city into what God wants for it to be.
The political left, generally expressing itself within the Democratic Party, tends to believe that ameliorating the problems of the city will be brought about by intervening in the socioeconomic order of the city and restructuring its institutions to facilitate justice and prosperity for all of its people. Political liberals believe that structural evil is what creates the pain and troubles of individuals, and that life will be good in the city only when the various institutions of the social order are transformed into paragons of virtue. The city, they claim, can only be changed from the top down. A good social system, they say, is what creates good people—and what they say is somewhat true.
Those on the political right, who usually identify with the Republican Party, believe that the city can be changed only from the bottom up. The city, they say, is nothing more than an expression of the character of the individuals who make it up. Consequently, the conservatives' approach to social change requires that we deal with those whose sinful behavior is destructive to themselves, as well as to others around them. Conservatives believe that ultimately individuals determine the quality of life in the city, and that urban policies should be designed primarily to convert individuals into good people. Good people, they believe, are what make a city good—and they, too, are partly right.
In this book we will affirm both the left and the right—both the liberals and the conservatives—both the Democrats and the Republicans. In this book we will contend that changing the city into the kind of place that actualizes Zechariah's vision requires both a "top-down" and a "bottom-up" approach.
If the church is going to be the "lead institution" in bringing something of the city of God to urban America, we believe that it must, on the one hand, address institutional evils and simultaneously challenge its people to bring the lost souls of the city into transforming relationships with Christ. We believe that the church must combat evil on the macro level by working to eliminate racism in the business sector, bring true justice to the courts and to the juvenile-protection agencies, end corruption in the housing authorities, improve the educational system, clean up the environment, create good recreational programs, eliminate the drug traffic, outlaw gambling, improve family services, and organize neighborhood people to address all the problems inherent in the urban social system. In this book we will try to provide some directives and guidelines for making the church effective in doing such social action. But even as we challenge the church to embrace the call to work for social change, we will, at the same time, remind the church of its God-given calling to bring individuals into the new life that comes from Christian conversion.
The kingdom of God in the city begins with persons who surrender to the lordship of Christ or it does not begin at all. While we believe that social institutions and urban culture condition what happens to individuals, we also believe that individuals make their personal influences felt on the societal level. But when we consider both sides of this interactive process, we must conclude that the conversion of individuals into radical followers of Jesus is what will get redemptive social change started. Therefore, we believe that whatever else the urban church may get into, it must always hold its ministry to individuals as primary and, like its Lord, "seek and save those who are lost." That is why, before getting into the roles that the church must play in bringing justice and creative socioeconomic change to institutional systems, we must first declare what the church can and should be doing to change individuals and to impact their lives with God's transforming love.
Over the years, I have been involved in urban ministries on both the societal and the personal levels. I have done my best to earn my credentials as an advocate for social action, identifying with those ancient prophets who demanded justice and help for the poor and oppressed. But over the years I have also recruited and organized an army of young people who have set up ministries that have reached out to distressed individuals in the city—especially to children and teenagers. These young volunteers, who come to us mostly from colleges and universities, have formed the backbone of a variety of programs for city people that are incorporated under the direction of The Evangelical Association for the Promotion of Education (now renamed EAPE/Kingdomworks).
During the last two decades, the young people who have come to work with EAPE/Kingdomworks have touched the lives of tens of thousands of children and teenagers who live in some of the worst ghettos of America. They have organized after-school tutoring and recreational programs. They have put together alternative schools, which have rescued the kids who were falling between the cracks of the public school system. They have developed youth programs in churches that had never before tried to reach the young people in their neighborhoods. They have placed teams of young adults in neighborhoods to go door to door with ministries of prayer and evangelism. And they have run summer day camp programs for thousands of children in urban neighborhoods across the country.
Of all the young people who have come to join our ranks of dedicated youth workers, none has proven more faithful and effective than a young Canadian named Bruce Main. Bruce now heads up our affiliate ministry, Urban Promise, in Camden. The work that Bruce has done has rightfully earned him the recognition of Christianity Today as one of the 40 most outstanding young Christian leaders in America.
For a decade and a half, Bruce has labored long and hard in a city which Time magazine labeled "the worst city in America." In local churches in a half dozen neighborhoods of that city, he has established a variety of programs that have turned "throwaway children" into college students of promise and led untold numbers of "lost" kids into lives of hope and promise. When it comes to change on the micro level, Bruce Main is a blazing example of what can be done. While calling for social change and supporting those who struggle against "the principalities and powers" that perpetuate structural evil within the institutions of the city of Camden, Bruce has not given up his first love, which is a personal ministry to the at-risk youngsters who roam the streets of the city.
I can think of no better illustration of how the church can bring the love of Christ to individuals than to give you a glimpse into some of what Bruce does in his daily rounds of service. Allow me to share with you some of Bruce's own stories. Read them and be inspired by what the church can do when it takes seriously its calling to rescue the perishing and care for the dying who live in the city.
Baptism by Fire
Our mission organization had been using the almost vacant Baptist church for a year and a half. In that time carpets had been stained, door handles had been broken, and graffiti had appeared on the bathroom walls. Utility bills had skyrocketed, toilet paper was being used at an astronomical rate, and the Sunday morning service was being interrupted by the restless commotion of over a hundred city kids. Our mission organization was covering the costs, yet it still appeared that this mission project was becoming a little too expensive. After all, what was the payoff? What was the church gaining from the project? There were no new members. The weekly collections were not increasing. And there were no visible signs that the children were changing.
The deacons finally called me into the pastor's office one Sunday after church. It had been the usual banner morning. Some child had clogged the toilets, and one of our five-year-olds had thrown a tantrum during the responsive reading. I approached the office with some trepidation for I knew that the news was not going to be good. Stepping into the office, I was greeted by the stares of five elderly men. The deacons. They made up one half of the attending congregation.
"Have a seat, Bruce," gruffed one of the aging men. I sank into the collapsible, cold metal chair that had been placed there especially for me. The pastor, who was sitting behind the desk, took the initiative.
"Well, Bruce," he began slowly, "you know your youth program has been in the church for about a year and a half." I braced myself for what was to come. "People in the congregation are beginning to wonder whether it's making any difference. The people need to see some change."
I could see the deacons nodding in unison with the pastor. Obviously they had had a meeting previously and the pastor was simply seizing the opportunity to collect some political points to substantiate his leadership.
"What we really need, Bruce ... what we really need are baptisms." I almost fell off the chair. After all the discontent, after the relentless criticism, all I needed to do was get some kids baptized? It couldn't be that easy. I don't want to take the sacrament of baptism lightly, but it was difficult to believe that a baptismal service would make the deacons happy. Had I misread them? I have never been one to play the political game or sacrifice the spiritual integrity of a person to prove a point. We had, however, had a number of children commit to following Christ, so there was a strong possibility that some of them might want to be baptized.
"I think it could be arranged," I replied, repressing a smile. "Give me a week and I'll see if there are some interested candidates."
"How many do you think there might be?" asked one of the deacons who had yet to make a comment. I did a quick tally in my head.
"Probably fifteen to twenty," I said with a tinge of satisfaction and pride, for the church had not seen a baptism in the past ten years and now the deacons would have to contend with the fact that they did not even have enough robes to clothe all the children who would desire baptism.
Just then the old deacon curtly commented, "You know that they'll have to be interviewed by our committee. Yes, every one of those children will have to be approved by the deacons." I began to sense what was going on. Baptisms were not the real issue. The issue was power and control. With the presence of the outreach program, the leaders had lost control of their church. Their hope was to back me into a corner. But to their surprise I responded to their game. They thought I could not deliver with the baptisms; I caught them off guard. But even now, their power had, once again, to be asserted. No child was to be baptized without their stamp of approval.
The night arrived when the children were to be interviewed for baptism. The kids were nervous and scared. They feared these white, old men who seldom smiled or made them feel welcome. Seated in the back room of the church, the fifteen baptismal candidates huddled around in a circle and waited to be called.
"Kenyatta Mickey," yelled a voice from down the hall. Kenyatta hesitated. The ten-year-old little boy didn't want to move from his seat. He just sat there and shook his head at me and mouthed the words "not me."
"Come on, Kenyatta," I whispered, not wanting the deacons to hear of the problems we were having. I reached, grabbed his hand, pulled him to his feet, and walked him down the hall. We entered the office. There were the five old deacons, sitting in the same five seats, staring at us with the same blank faces. There were no cordial greetings. There was no "Welcome, young man, it's so good to have you interested in surrendering yourself to Jesus." Just the blank stares and the penetrating eyes. I could see little Kenyatta begin to perspire. What an introduction into the Kingdom! The poor kid. He was terrified, he was nervous, and he was definitely not experiencing the warmth of Christian fellowship.
"When did you become a Christian?" started one of the old men.
"This summer at the church camp." By this time my heart was leaping for joy. My pride was screaming silently that there were kids changing because of this program.
"How has becoming a Christian changed you?" asked another deacon, still without expression or warmth.
"Well, I used to be bad. I got'n all kinds of trouble, and fights, and I said a lot of bad words. Now I don't do all that stuff," replied Kenyatta while satisfaction wrinkled across his brow. After a few more questions and a sermon from the oldest deacon about the importance of tithing, they released Kenyatta from his interrogation. Kenyatta flew out of the door and skipped down the hall with his arms raised, screaming, "I did it! I did it!" When Kenyatta got back to the group, he burst forth with his story. The others were relieved that he returned alive and yet envious that he had finished.
One by one the children went through their interviews. One by one they returned by running down the hallway bubbling over with joy that they had completed the encounters with the deacons. What an introduction to the Christian life: horror, fear, and intimidation.
The day came when the children were to be baptized. Ten minutes before the service, when I was already dressed in my robe and hip waders, the pastor called me into his study. He informed me that the deacons had decided to vote the Outreach Program out of the church. I stood in his office in total disbelief. Fifteen children waiting in robes to be baptized, fifteen children who had given their lives to Jesus, fifteen children and teens who had been approved by the deacons, and yet they secretly decided to vote us out of the church.
As I baptized the children I felt both joy and sadness. Joy because these beautiful children were making a statement to their families and friends; sadness because the deacons were going to ax the very thing that Jesus commissioned us to do—reach those who are lost and preach the good news to those who need Good News. The church had lost its vision and had become a place where power could be misused, where peace and quiet and reverence were treasured and children were not counted as real humans. Ironically, as I scanned the congregation between immersions, I saw not one deacon.
The program was to leave. But before the deacons could bid us farewell, the decision needed to be brought before the congregation and voted upon. Realizing that the deacons had a sort of intimidating presence, with the ability to sway the congregation, we decided to visit the congregation individually and get their feelings about what was happening in the church. Were the deacons actually reflecting the sentiment of the whole body? Was the leadership really listening to the concerns and interests of the congregation?
We were greeted with some surprising responses. Overwhelmingly, the responses of the parishioners were positive. Although many were elderly, couldn't get out to church too often, and "didn't understand the ways of the youth," they did believe that the church needed to become more community oriented and that the children were the future. We encouraged all to get out to vote.
The day of the congregational meeting arrived. The twenty or so members gathered after church. In addition to the members, we had encouraged some of the parents to come out and share what the programs had done for their children. About fifty children were outside the church, waiting and praying for the outcome of the vote. They were concerned that they wouldn't have a place to go after school and in the evenings. They were concerned that their clubs and activities would be canceled.
One of the deacons got up to speak. A hush fell over the group as he began to speak. "The deacons of the church feel that it is time for the Outreach Program of the church to be terminated. We come here today in full confidence that you will vote in agreement." One of the older men in the church, Mr. Brown, stood up. I had never heard him speak publicly before. He was a quiet man, so to see him rise to speak was a surprise. "You know, in the Bible Jesus speaks about the disciples who shooed the children away. If I'm not mistaken, Jesus got a little mad. In fact," he continued, gaining a little momentum, "Jesus said that we have to become like little children to get into heaven, didn't he?" A few of the deacons were getting a little restless. Old Joey Brown wasn't about to sit down, and he was obviously having an impact on the crowd. "If we turn away these children, I think Jesus will be real mad."
Old Joey sat down. He had said more in those two minutes than I had heard him say in two years. But his words had gone forth with power. However inarticulate he was, the words had made an impact. Before anything more could be added, the deacon seized the floor.
"We need to vote! All those in favor of keeping the program, raise your hands." Fifteen of the twenty hands shot up. Only the hands of the deacons did not come off their laps. The program would remain! We still had a home. The children would have their facility. But the best was yet to come. Although the outcome was obvious, the administrating deacon now asked, "Those who oppose the program, raise your hands." Fully conscious of the stares of the congregation, only two raised their hands. The other two walked out of the church and have never returned. The last deacon just sat, a little bewildered, unable to comprehend what had happened.
When we walked outside, the children came running up to us. "Did we win? Did we win?" they screamed. When they heard the news, they erupted with a yell of approval. Two of the boys I had baptized just weeks earlier said they had been on their knees praying the whole time. Now they were beaming because their prayers had been answered. God had heard them. They would not lose their church—a place that, for many, had become their home.
* * *
"We better get outta here quick! Who knows what they'll do with a bus full of niggas in this neighborhood," yelled fourteen-year-old Gooter. The old church bus, packed with teenagers, instantly erupted into a roar of laughter.
Little did Gooter realize that his joke would hold a prophetic message. Already I had sensed the urgency to get the bus started and out of the neighborhood. I was panicking. There I was, in one of the affluent white suburbs of South Jersey, in a bus filled with black city kids.
Before I knew what was happening, three police cars had encircled the bus. An officer, who looked like General Patton, approached the bus and yelled, in a demeaning tone, "We've already had ten complaints from the neighborhood! You've got 15 minutes to get the bus and all these kids out of here, otherwise I'm taking the whole bunch down to the station." Probing the officer for an explanation for his panic crossed my mind, but I could see that he wasn't in the mood for dialoguing about the injustice I was sensing, so I bit my tongue.
But the teens did not bite their tongues. "This wouldn't happen if we were white," exploded one young man from the back of the bus. The comment somehow carried over all the yelling and discontent that was surfacing quickly and pierced my heart. The young man was right. The hostility and rudeness of the police would not have existed if the bus had been full of middle-class white kids. If these kids had had influential fathers and mothers in the community, they would not have been treated in similar fashion. And somehow they knew this truth. And it made our children angry.
To this day I am still amazed that the officer did not offer me a "jump," or provide some options as to what we could do to get the bus rolling. After all, are not the police a public service, paid by the public to serve the public? And yet we were not served, we were not helped, we were just reprimanded and ordered to get out of the neighborhood or be arrested—for the crime of breaking down on a public road.
For those of us who did not grow up in poor urban areas, who did not walk the streets of high-risk communities, and who were not born with a skin color that has been victimized for decades, it is hard to understand the stigma that these children carry with them. They are harassed in shopping malls, they are stopped unnecessarily by police, and they are denied the privilege of cashing checks or receiving an education that is comparable to that of their suburban counterpart who lives five minutes away.
And people say that the plight of the urban poor is in their own hands. "Why don't they just go out and get a job?" says the conservative critic. But if the jobs are in the suburbs, and if the dignity of our urban youth is stripped from them when they go to the suburbs, then how can they get jobs?
As Christians we must begin to break down the barriers, stereotypes, and fears that exist between the people of the suburbs and the people of the inner city. Some of America's finest youth are poor. Some of America's finest youth do not have the opportunity to hide behind the garb and pallid veneer of middle-class protection. The fear of the unknown has always been a problem for humans. Never has it been so apparent in the fears of urban youth. Not all are drug dealers, not all are on welfare, not all are lazy, and not all have no vision or hopes for the future. Recently Time came out with a story about our city. Our young women were portrayed as people whose only ambitions in life are to become "hairdressers" and yet end up as whores. Our young men were portrayed as young gangsters who tote $400 grenades and cradle Uzi machine guns under their jackets. And yet as I talk with our youth, I hear dreams of becoming doctors and lawyers. I see young men and women striving to become significant people in society.
The reaction to the article by the youth in our city was interesting. Many wrote to Time and challenged its view of city kids. Others started groups that will strive to get urban youth more accurately portrayed in the media. Our organization sponsored a gospel choir tour to California, which gave our youth the opportunity to speak in front of large crowds and share boldly that they were from Camden—the same city that Time plastered "Who Could Live Here?" above its name. "Who could live there?" heralded our lead tenor to an audience of over 2,000 college students. "We live there!" He then motioned to the sixteen other youth behind him, dressed sharply in bright blue and red choir robes. The audience exploded with applause.
The media does its job in highlighting the urban problem by painting bleak pictures and holding up the negative. But the media portrayal is not all accurate and the images that it has created must be re-created. Christians must take an active role in this re-creation. The media will continue to uphold the negative and enforce the stereotype, and those who read the papers and watch television will continue to base their judgments on what they experience first- or secondhand, and not from their encounters with real people and real hearts. Let's be courageous. Let's take risks to get to know the unknown—because in the unknown, in the quest to discover, we will find beauty and life that will ultimately enhance our own.
* * *
One morning after church, as the congregation was slowly shuffling toward the exit, an elderly woman named Mrs. Bennett grabbed the arm of one of the intern staff. Mrs. Bennett was a widow, somewhat hard of hearing, lived in the neighborhood, and had been coming to the church for years.
"Stand right here beside me," she whispered in a tone of desperation.
"Why?" echoed the staff worker, who was now a little perplexed as to why Mrs. Bennett wanted her to stand in this particular spot.
"You see that woman over there?" Mrs. Bennett gestured with a tilt of her head. The intern turned slowly and noticed an elderly black woman coming up the center aisle of the sanctuary.
"Sure, I see the woman," replied the intern, who by now was a little confused as to why such a big deal was being made out of the departure of one of the church members.
By this time Mrs. Bennett had grabbed the intern's arm and pulled her close to her rickety body, all the time making sure that the intern stood between her and the black woman. Finally the woman passed and the elderly Mrs. Bennett released her grasp of the intern's arm. A look of relief came across her face, much like the look of someone after they have withstood a very tense trial. She thanked the intern with a deep sense of gratitude and then whispered, "She always wants to give me a hug."
Mrs. Bennett, who had grown up in the South, was not going to be hugged by a black woman.
About two weeks later Mrs. Bennett was out for her weekly milk run to the Three Brothers Store on the corner of Fortieth and Westfield Avenue. Her normal route consisted of four city blocks. She would leave her house on Thirty-seventh Street, shuffle half a block to Westfield, make a left turn, and then walk about three blocks to the corner store. This particular day Mrs. Bennett, after picking up her milk, began to feel a little faint and decided to sit on the curb outside the store for a few minutes to catch her breath. While resting, a little black girl walked by and saw the old woman in distress. Feeling led to help, the little girl called to the old woman, asking if she could use some assistance in carrying the milk to her home. Unable to hear the question, Mrs. Bennett just sat and stared at the little girl, all the while nodding her head up and down in rhythmic fashion.
Taking the nod as her cue, the little girl hoisted the aging lady to her feet, picked up the milk, and began the laborious four-block trek to the lady's house. Upon arrival, the little girl shouldered Mrs. Bennett up her stairs, handed her the milk, gave her a big hug, and then blurted out, "God bless you."
The event went unnoticed until the following week at church. After service Mrs. Bennett cornered one of the interns and relayed the story. As one who previously had been unable to understand why we would want to work with these children, she concluded the conversation by claiming that we "must be doing something good."
After hearing the story, my curiosity got the best of me. I wanted to find out the identity of this little Samaritan. I began to drop little hints throughout the children's programs. Finally I posted a little reward for anyone who could tell me the name of the anonymous helper. At first I sought out all the well-mannered little girls. "Was it you, Francis? How about you Taquea, Susana, or Joy?" But I drew blanks. Finally one day I got a lead. Someone had seen Tiombe help an old woman down Westfield Avenue. At first I couldn't believe it. Tiombe was far from the angelic child. In fact, a week earlier I had suspended her from the program for fighting.
Odd as it may seem, the day before Tiombe was suspended from the program her class had studied the story of the Good Samaritan. Tiombe had heard the Word spoken and had then implemented it. The Word had become flesh; the Word had come to life through the actions of a child. And because the Word had not lain dormant in the subconscious of someone's mind, it sent a life-changing message to an old churchwoman who had probably heard sermons on the story for years. Ironically, scholars will continue to debate the sources of the story, and pastors will continue to exegete "the text" with precision, but it will be the simplistic obedience—the literal obedience like that of a child—that will speak the loudest and change the hardest of hearts.
* * *
How Good Is Good?
"The Good Samaritan took a risk! If we are to follow the way of Christ," I said in a final crescendo, "we too must be willing to love without considering the cost."
I closed my sermon with a prayer and dismissed the congregation. There was the usual milling around in the vestibule. On their way to the door, a few commented on what had been said. The final cluster of people began moving toward the side exit. We chatted about the coming week and how bitterly cold it had been. It was December and the cold chill of the eastern seaboard had settled for the winter. Outside, the frigid winds ripped through the row homes and hurled the debris of the street into the darkened alleys.
As we were ending the conversation, there was a knocking on the door. I opened the door and in rushed a man, his arms tightly wrapped around himself. "Geez, it's freezing out there!" he exclaimed. I studied the man for a moment. His hair was greasy, his beard unclipped, his teeth tobacco yellow, his fingers dirty and cracked—he'd not had a shower in days. Before I could introduce myself, he started his story.
"Could you help us? Me and my wife got no place ta go. All we got is our car. We'll freeze ta death if we stay out tonight."
"Well ..." I stuttered, not knowing quite how to handle the situation since I wasn't familiar with any shelters that would be open at that time of night. It was cold. And I just, after all, had finished my best Good Samaritan sermon. "Exactly what is it that you need?" I continued to probe, stalling.
"There's a motel a few blocks away that we could get a room at. It'll cost only about $30 for the night, I guess. Could you help us out with a loan?" By this time I could see those who earlier had been escorting me to the door watching me with intense interest. Just moments ago I was telling them the Good Samaritan was a standard for all Christians to live by. Now my words were coming back at me and cutting to the core.
But I didn't have $30; that was just as real as my sermon. And I didn't think my wife would be too happy if I came home with a couple of strangers. I shot up a silent prayer and grabbed for another idea. They could stay at the church. This was, after all, The House of the Lord. Why shouldn't it be used in situations such as this? "What about just staying here for the night?" I suggested. "We can put you and your wife on a couple of couches, and we'll give you something to eat in the morning." I was pleased with myself, my quick thinking, and God's answer to my prayer.
"Now, Bruce," muttered Deacon Smith, who had remained behind and was watching this drama with growing concern. He was obviously annoyed. "You know the church policy." To be honest, I didn't know the church policy. I was only the "resident missionary," still too young and naive to know that church doors couldn't be thrown open to meet unplanned-for needs. "A situation like this would have to be voted on and approval would need to be granted by the committee," he concluded.
I winced. It took a moment to process what had been said. Not only was I hearing correctly, but the deacon had the bad form to point all this out in front of this freezing homeless man. I was embarrassed, and I quickly tried to come up with something to say in defense of the church and of Jesus. We would all go home to our warm beds that night, yet here were a man and a woman who needed a place to sleep and warm their bodies. My indignation rose. The church would be empty; it could keep them warm and shield them from the bitter wind for one night. But the need could not be met. Votes needed to be taken and insurance policies reviewed. No room for risk.
While we had been talking, a gentle, white-haired woman slipped an envelope into my hand and whispered, "This should cover them for the night."
I motioned the homeless man aside and passed him the $30. I apologized about the situation and suggested he come back the next day. There were some chores around the church. I could pay him a few dollars that could help him with further financial needs. He thanked me and left. I wasn't optimistic. I'd often heard empty promises from those we'd helped.
To my surprise, the next morning the couple showed up. Rested and clean, they looked like new people. I showed them the kitchen. They made a pot of coffee and fried some eggs. With a little food in their stomachs they were eager to do some work around the church. I was ecstatic! This was one of the few times we seemed to be helping a couple who really needed it. They were receptive to discussions about faith, and they even wanted to get involved with some of the outreach programs at the church.
Over the next few weeks, the couple came to the church to wax floors, do office work, and help with our after-school programs. In both of them I saw a renewed sense of happiness. Soon they would be able to find employment, I prayed. And with enough money saved, they could possibly get a small apartment.
Christmas. The other missionaries went home, leaving their living quarters empty. This seemed to be the perfect opportunity. The couple could stay in the staff house for two weeks, work at the church, and save enough money to make a down payment on an apartment and get their lives started again. Christmas would not have to be spent on the street. It would be spent in a warm place, with comfortable beds and cheerful decorations. Our homeless friends had gotten a break that few in their situation get. I was pleased, too, that we had been able to be Samaritans.
New Year's was a dreary day. The phone rang. I recognized the voice as my homeless friend. Something was wrong.
"I had an accident and I'm in the hospital," he began. He paused.
"What ... what happened?"
"I borrowed one of the staff cars and went to Philadelphia. Somebody ran into me as I was coming off the bridge. The car has some front-end damage. Don't worry, I'll be able to fix it." He assured me that he would look after any damages. He claimed that he had been in the auto body business before he was laid off. Within a few days, he claimed, the car would be fixed. I had little interest in the Rose Bowl or any other football game for the rest of the day.
A few days passed, but there was no progress made on the car. In the meantime, the police called, inquiring why this man was riding in a car registered to another person. He said there had been evidence of alcohol in the vehicle and on the breath of the driver.
The car never got fixed. It had to be sold for parts. The homeless couple disappeared. They were spotted wandering the streets, but they never got involved in the church again. The whole escapade had turned out to be a costly endeavor with no "payoff."
Did we do the right thing? There was nothing to show for what we had done. There was no boost in church membership; there were no souls saved; there was no friendly couple who now had a home. We were out about $5,000. We'd been burnt.
But, Samaritan, at what point does one stop giving? Should we protect ourselves from being taken advantage of? Must there be a "payoff"? What is a good way to give, and what is poor stewardship?
Tell us, Samaritan: How much did the encounter cost you? We know there was a needy man left at the inn with the promise that you would return and pay whatever was needed to cover the remaining expenses. How much were the expenses? Were you ever thanked?
The fact is that the Samaritan saw a need, a desperate need. He did not calculate the cost as the other passing people did. He just let the compassion of his heart guide him. It was that kind of spontaneous compassion that Jesus affirmed.
The homeless couple is now gone. Right now they may rest in a warm bed, or they may continue to fight the cruelties of life on the street. I don't know. I do know one thing, however, and that is, for a brief moment of their lives, they experienced a little taste of God's Kingdom on earth. It may not have been much of a taste, but it was a taste. And who knows? It could be that their brief brush with God's people will one day call them back to the Author who can provide warmth, security, and an eternal home.
* * *
The Holiness of a Broken Door
I once met a Catholic priest who had a fascination with doors. He believed that the front door was the most important part of a church. The door, he claimed, should be something that beckons people to come in. It should be something intriguing, something that "whispers the mystery that lies beyond it."
The door of our church used to be white, shiny, and metallic, smooth and new looking; it could have graced the cover of a church supply catalog. The door was seldom used. As a matter of fact, the door reflected the church that existed inside the door—unused. With only a couple of hours of use of its hinges each Sunday, the door had little chance to tarnish its beauty. It just sat there, not living up to its calling as a church door—that is something that is used to allow people to enter a place where the mysterious Divine dwells.
But last week we had to replace the door. Since our rambunctious youth program arrived at the church three years ago the door had changed. The shiny, white metallic finish had been dulled by the continual touching and thumping of dirty hands. There were gouges, dents, and holes in the door created by kids who were late for events and needed to be heard. The bright brass trim around the mailbox had been ripped off. The inner core of the door could now be seen and had begun to spill its contents onto the surrounding sidewalk. Perhaps the brass had been stripped to be sold or taken off in an effort to rob the church. Whatever the case, the fancy trim was gone. All that was left was an ugly, roughly cut metal hole, through which the mail person could shove the mail each day.
Days before the door was replaced, it would hardly open. The only hinge connecting the door to the frame was the top one. And even that hinge had been reset a number of times. The other hinges had long ago been ripped out of their homes and tossed in the scrap pile. As the door was opened, shut, slammed, and propped over the last three years by children, teens, and staff, the door collapsed. Finally the screws gave way, and the wooden door posts disintegrated.
So the door was replaced. The cost: eight hundred and fifty dollars to put in a new frame and metal door. Unfortunately the trustees in our church didn't share in the same door theology as my priest friend—that a door should create a sense of mystery and intrigue. We got a new, white, shiny metallic door.
Although I grimace over this expense in our budget this year, I do have to chuckle over the fact that we wore out a door. Children broke the door! Not intentionally, but because they wanted to get into the church. Something was happening inside these walls that was calling them off the street to come into this place where God lives. The door had begun to serve its purpose. Despite its lack of ascetic intrigue, the door had begun to live out its calling as the threshold leading to one place where God dwells. What was taking place on the inside had become intriguing and a mystery to the little ones who desperately wanted to get in.
The more I have thought about our door, the more I have wondered how many churches in America can boast over the fact that they have had to replace a door because of the dents and holes made by young people trying to get in.
But if the church really lives up to its calling, should it not be replacing its doors more regularly? Wouldn't it be exciting if churches across America all of a sudden had to start ordering custom-made doors to replace all the doors that were being broken. Just think how wonderful it would be if churches had to start hiring special "door ministers" just to keep doorknobs from falling off and hinges from snapping. Right next to Minister of Music and Christian Education Director in next year's budget would be "Door Minister."
Yet if the church really does become that "beacon of light on a hill," those who surround her should be lured and drawn in through the doors. If the church becomes a vibrant and integral part of a community and if spirituality does begin to intertwine itself with everyday life, doors should wear out. The church should be a place of traffic.
What changed in our case? Why did the church begin to change from a mausoleum to a beehive of activity? Why did children from the community start coming to a church that had lost its voice in the community? One of the reasons is that we started going into the community and extended an invitation to its people to come. But the invitation was not just to come and fill our pews for an hour Sunday morning. Children were invited to come and express themselves through dance, play like creative children, study things that are fun and interesting, sing crazy songs, eat ice-cream sundaes, go on trips to out-of-the-way places, and produce their own silk screened tee-shirts. In short, we tried to make what was behind the doors of the church intriguing. We tried to evoke the curiosity of our children. We created programs that would speak to the needs and desires of children and teens. Since 50 percent of our city's population is under the age of eighteen, we decided to make children our focus. After-school programs, evening Bible clubs, computer class, and dance class are just a few of the events we designed to make the church an appealing place to come. And they have come. And, Lord willing, the children will continue to come. And, quite probably, a few more doors may be broken before it's all said and done.
* * *
Behold a Child
Sounds of music fill the air. Fifty children are on their feet, singing, clapping, and dancing. The room is exploding with excitement and spontaneity. Nothing has been taught, rehearsed, or practiced. These are children—God's children—who are responding spontaneously to music. The song changes, the beat shifts, yet the children still stand and lift their voices to the Lord.
There is a particular song that really gets the children excited. It's not a rap song, nor is it rock and roll. The song is Jewish in origin, and it has a very strong Middle-Eastern beat. But each time the song is played, the children begin to dance. They twirl, they spin, they lock arms with one another. There is laughter and it is a joyful time.
But this motion all takes place in the basement of the church. When the children go upstairs to the sanctuary, they somehow believe that this type of worship is not appropriate during service. They lose their spontaneity and their freedom.
One day the "Jewish" song was played in church. Although the beat was a little slower, the children still recognized it. Upon hearing the song, a little nine-year-old girl named Kusa burst up from the pew and started to dance. Before she realized that no one was following her lead, little Kusa grabbed one of the staff by the arm and hoisted her to her feet. She linked arms with the woman and then began to twirl her around. Absorbed in her own world, Kusa was having the time of her life. She was praising God the way she wanted to—the way she knew how to.
After a few moments, Kusa snapped out of her trance only to see the other people in the sanctuary staring at her. By this time, the other children—who normally would have been dancing downstairs—were laughing at their friend. Kusa caught on and began to slow down. Finally she stopped her dance altogether and took a seat back on the pew. The staff worker, by this time, had also found her way back to the pew, not knowing what to think and feeling terribly awkward.
Never again did Kusa dance in church. Never again did she feel the freedom to respond to praises and songs in the way that felt most natural to her. Those around her had crushed her spirit. They had sent a message that she was wrong and foolish for doing what she did.
It is interesting that we are called to be like children by Jesus. In fact, if we desire to enter into the Kingdom of heaven, we must become like little children. And yet what does it mean to become like a child? Part of what it means is to shed the expectations and veneer of "propriety" created by other adults. It is others who often crush the childlike spirit in each of us that desires to be nurtured and released. Jesus holds a child on his knee and basically tells the adults who surround him that they are to become like this little one.
Children are our greatest teachers. If children "behold the face of God," then we must draw near to them and tap into the mystical connection they have with the Divine. If a child can reflect the heart of God, then we must allow ourselves to be taught by the little ones of this earth. In their spontaneity, their freedom, and their imagination, they can teach us what it means to be a child of the living God.
* * *
Power of "The Story"
Two children left the room with tears running down their cheeks. Another student sat hunched over, her head buried in her lap, sobbing uncontrollably. The remaining students sat with their eyes riveted to the television.
Fifteen minutes earlier, it looked as if our teen Bible study would be just another dud. The kids were acting tough and cool. They wouldn't sing the songs and everyone wanted to be the clown when games were played. The young men present had just finished running the streets and still held their macho guard securely in place.
The ladies were talking trash and exchanging verbal blows with the young men who dared challenge them. The atmosphere was far from spiritual. The climate was far more conducive to a neighborhood brawl than to a Bible study.
This was our Faster Club. More than ever I wanted to communicate the message of the Cross to these kids. As part of the program, there was to be a clip from the movie Jesus of Nazareth. I had seen the crucifixion scene earlier and had been very moved. I prayed that some of our teens would be just as moved.
As I started the film, the kids were still making their little quips; the words of Jesus could barely be heard over the laughter and jokes.
Then something strange happened. As Jesus was being flogged by the Roman guards, a silence came over the room. Jesus was nailed to the cross; the teens remained speechless. The jokes stopped, the verbal jesting finished. All eyes were on the television. And then, to my amazement and surprise, tears began to flow. I could not believe what I was seeing. Both boys and girls began to drop their guard and experience grief.
After Jesus uttered the words "It is finished," I walked to the front of the room and turned down the volume. I asked the kids to bow their heads and reflect on what they had seen. I explained the rest of the story—that Jesus had died, then victoriously, triumphantly came back to life. With their heads bowed, I prayed for the group, then dismissed them all to go.
To my surprise, nobody moved. Silence. Forty kids sitting silent as if they wanted more. I couldn't figure out what was going on. From the back of the room came a voice that shattered the silence. "Yo, Bruce, ain'tja gonna show the rest of the flick?" The others chimed in with agreement. So there we sat, huddled around the TV for the next forty minutes, watching the end of the movie.
A few years ago I did the same club. In a suburban community in Southern California, I showed the same film to a group about the same size. The reaction of the affluent students was totally different. There were no tears. There was not the same fascination with the character Jesus, nor the same identification with his pain.
Inner-city kids see slasher movies all the time. People are killed in their own communities frequently and they talk about it casually, candidly. Death and suffering is part of their life. So why all the tears when Jesus is put on the cross? Wasn't this just another movie? Wasn't this just another person who lost his life? No. The cruel death of God in the flesh struck a responsive chord. For a moment the children saw a man who felt the hurt and some of the victimization they have experienced. That man was God. For children who live in a broken city, seeing anguish and pain on the face of God touches something deep within their souls.
Christ's story continues to be a story for those who hurt. It is this story, and this story alone, that is always the story for the poor and oppressed—not only because the Bible "tells us so," but because the children who sat in a room that night, watching their Savior being crucified 2,000 years ago, tell us so.
|1 Stories That Tell the Story||1|
|2 Camden: The City Invincible||33|
|3 Partnering with Government||47|
|4 The Church as the "Lead Institution"||57|
|5 Getting the Church into the World||63|
|6 The Acceptable Year of Our Lord||73|
|7 How to Have a Town Meeting||89|
|8 The New Politics||101|
|9 When Work Disappears||113|
|10 Incubating Churches||127|
|11 Faith-based Programs in Economic Development||137|
|12 Old Things Pass Away, All Things Become New||147|
|13 Job Creation through Koinonia||161|
|14 The Churches and Urban Education||175|
|15 The Church in a Servant Ministry to Public Schools||191|
|16 What the Church Can Do about Crime||205|
|17 How the Church Can Help Business Development||219|
|18 Networking for the Kingdom||227|
|19 What's a Suburban Church to Do at a Time Like This?||235|
|20 A Brief Theology of the City||243|
Posted April 8, 2010