Within urban ministries, as Christians we seem to have identified a plethora of ministries – from soup kitchens, to referral services, to clothing ministries, over-night lodging, ‘well-being’ checks. Some of these efforts are left to the non-profit service agencies. Among these are rescue missions, the Salvation Army, Good Will, child welfare, and others. They are the “professionals”. Whether or not an awareness of Christ and the teachings of his ministry is present to those served through these agencies is a private matter, an individual choice made by a ‘case manager’. Indeed many of these agencies cannot receive government grants if they espouse a specific Christian creed. One such agency in my town had to change its logo because of the verbiage, “Jesus Was a Carpenter – A Shaper of Lives” in order to receive federal and state grants. How do we address the “Commands” of Jesus? How do we hear “Call”? What do we do with this?
In our time and age, we seem acclimated to short-term, quick fix efforts. We apply ‘hash-tag’ logic to issues that go far beyond ‘144 characters’ of assistance and help. Thus there is an appeal to serve a meal at a soup kitchen, drop off a bag of un-needed clothing, sponsor annual event for poor children or families – perhaps a cook-out. Our food pantries are so over-whelmed that hunger is never satisfied with one bag of groceries, per family. Some have kept records informing recipients that they can’t come back for one or two months. Those of us of the ‘middle class’ have sustained a culture that goes back to the Depression Era of the 1930’s. The center of this culture is the local Church. It reflects the needs of this ‘middle class’, sustains it, nourishes it such that we now find ourselves within the fortress of four walls – closed off from “Go ye, therefore into all the world”.
There is a desperation to poverty. I stopped to drop off my laundry at a cleaner that is in the heart of an impoverished neighborhood in Rockford. Inside the door, it reminds me of a prison cell. There is a huge drawer extending through the counter to pass my dirty clothes. Bars are in every window. As a white person, every time I enter that cleaner I know I am in a different culture. But “Lee” who knows me does such a great job with jeans, giving back to me heavily starched, creased levi’s that I can wear to Church – provided you don’t look too closely. A women approached me in Lee’s parking lot and said, “Excuse me sir, do you have 30 cents I can have?” I asked her “Why thirty cents?” She said, I need a pack of cigarettes, and I’m thirty cents short”. My response was, “I quit forty years ago. They were 35 cents a pack”. She quickly dismissed me with a “Thank-you” and searched the parking lot for someone else. It was a brief chance encounter that could just as easily have been done at a Soup Kitchen”. “Here’s your food!” “God bless you”. I left her with mixed feelings.
The prophets of my young ministry are now the Elder spokesmen who have all but disappeared. Their words are still found. The issues of poverty, the symptoms of that poverty are no longer prophecies. Drugs, addiction, alcohol are in every corner of most neighborhoods. Crime is rampant. Gun violence and murder continue to escalate. Single parent families are the norm. The drop-out rates from high school are over 50%. For all the efforts of my Church over the years, for all the “rally’s” I attended, for all the missionaries I heard speak, I don’t think we’ve come very far. The world is no better for all the messages I’ve heard preached by eloquent pastors. Many churches are dying. Far too many churches in Rockford abandoned the urban centers to move out to ‘the growth edge’ of the city…..thinking they would grow along with all the new subdivisions being built. They left behind ‘the least of these’.
When Jesus left us with the “Great Commandment” and said, “Go, therefore, into all the World” while he knew about the “New World”, we didn’t. A day’s journey – on foot of course – was about 20 miles. The Church has a new mission front. It is not to far-away places. Its outcomes cannot be measured in “souls saved”. Yes, we can build a house, repair a school, or plant an ‘urban garden’. What is needed are urban missionaries that can move into these impoverished neighborhoods and live out the Gospel to new-found neighbors. It’s painstaking. It’s a life-long commitment. God’s hope and purpose is not a ‘hash-tag’ proposal. If we are to make a difference as a Church, as the soldiers of Ephesians, if we are to ‘see’ the hungry, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned, the lonely, then it’s time to go back home to where we belong.