LOOKING FOR CHANGE THAT IS HONEST
In my city we have a certain zip code that has made an amazing transformation. It has gone from one of the most dangerous places in our city to what I have heard is the fastest gentrifying zip code in our nation. When I was a pastor in that neighborhood the intersection of where we met for church was the number one address for murders. Today there is sculpture, art work, coffee shops, restaurants, start up companies, new and remodeled housing scattered all over the place. Hipsters abound. Not only has the neighborhood been transformed but a bunch of churches are vying for space to plant or start new churches. I am not sure if there will be space for them all, or if they will all survive but somehow, somewhere, the decision has been made that this is the place to plant a new church and they all seem to be seeking to enroll the same demographic. I admit that Hipsters need good churches too. My experience with the neighborhood began around 1970 when a Presbyterian Elder who had a small factory/shop on one of the side streets told me of his burden to reach the people that he saw everyday wander close to his business. Many were some variety of alcoholics, drug addicts, prostitutes, male transvestite prostitutes, and the children abandoned by their fathers. There were some stable families, there were some churches, but most of the churches were made up of commuters who drove in and drove out, and the stable families weren’t seen very much. This Elder took an interest in me as I told him of my desire to minister in that very kind of neighborhood. Eventually this was where our church would meet from 1972 until 1985. The churches that were present when we worshipped there began to move out, and hardly any made any effort to reach the inner city, urban poor that dominated the community. When our congregation outgrew the facility we were in and moved to another neighborhood we not only left ministries in place and continued to minister there for years, but started ministry in other impoverished neighborhoods. For our city this zip code represents success, it represents progress, and it breathes of money. I really like urban culture, appreciate art, appreciate innovation, and love hip architecture. For many reasons I am glad the neighborhood doesn’t look the same. At the same time I recognize failure and a Christian culture of non-missionary church planting when I see it. The failure is in facing reality. The reality is that displacement is not transformation. Removal is not renewal, and ethnic cleansing via market forces and city planning doesn’t mean we have changed anybody’s life. Last week in church I saw a man who was there with his wife and a couple of children, and he had grown up and lived in the neighborhood of which I speak when our church was there. He escaped being another statistic and is now in the Body of Christ. His old neighborhood is gone but we reached him there, and he was saved there, and he is a different man because of it. There are others who came to Christ, others who now serve God, and they needed a church that would pursue them and love them, and serve them, rather than simply gather them so they could support the church. I remember seeking to organize that neighborhood so they could get some community development money from the government. Their streets were busted up, the sidewalks crumbling, the once beautiful stone walls holding up the yards were falling down. They succeeded, the money was obtained, the breach in the walls was repaired and the streets were restored. Today the streets still look good, but the people whose lives needed restorative grace just live somewhere else. Our contemporary churches of the thirty something generation seem to enjoy urban ambiance. They seem to want to engage the culture, use its music, use its art, and even create some of their own. What they seem to be lacking is a missionary sense of sacrifice of going and ministering among a people who don’t seem to have a lot of tangible art and culture to offer. We can all celebrate how the Blues came out of misery, we can take intellectual stimulation from the naked and raw poetry of rap music and original hip hop, but the hard reality is that the stories of the Blues and rap come from an abused and abusing, suffering, addicted, illiterate, immoral, ignorant, violent, broke, and abandoned by legitimate centers of power population. This is not to stomp on the people at the bottom, for they are indeed people, and because of that the image of God is in them. They have dignity and there is beauty, and courage, and endurance, and stories of amazing triumph over trouble, and friendship and faithfulness. Yet, if the truth be told and I am trying to tell it, the Church doesn’t go there. My experience tells me that there are testimonies waiting to be consummated among these very people. They will be told one day, by someone who met an invader to their block, someone who was loved by a stranger, someone who was told a message they didn’t at first ask to hear. My experience tells me that there will be a few missionary type church planters, Black, White, Latino, Asian, willing to risk their comfort, their security, the unknowns for their children. Church planters who aren’t after the fast and thrilling rise of numbers or money to somehow prove to his peers God has blessed him. I have learned not to label something conspiracy nor blessing just because it seems to look like one. It is okay with me if neighborhoods look good but I think it is better if the poor get saved, become blessed by education and resources, take control of their own communities, and transform their neighborhoods into beautiful places. Beauty reminds us of God so I’m in favor of that. I know that there will always be godly grandmothers, some refusing to leave faithful dads, and loving mothers who either find Jesus and/or know Jesus, and will transmit the Gospel to their own poor children. This will happen for some. It is not sufficient for amount of people who die without hearing or seeing the Gospel, it is not fast enough for those living in the oppression of poverty. They need the Church militant, invasive, missionary, sacrificing, serving, loving, and life laying down committed to the communities of the poor. Missionaries who not only love the people but love the culture and heritage too, and bring the Gospel to enrich and transform it. Then the repaired walls and streets will be indicative of substantive change, and not just a change of demographics.