Discipleship happens best life-on-life.
— Brian Dye
I had another excellent “escape-the-bubble” experience this past weekend. I love Cedarville University and greatly appreciate the last five years of my life, but the conventional “bubble” culture of campus can be restricting and blinding, and for that reason, I jump at any purposeful opportunity I can to see the real world. Through this very brief survey tour of urban ministry in Chicago with 14 of my peers under the direction of Dr. Jeff Cook, God continued to shape the way I view urban evangelism and discipleship and my purpose as a Christian at large.
Our hosts for the weekend, Joel and Jackie, are Cedarville alumni who are pursuing intentional community living in Cicero, a predominantly Mexican neighborhood in Chicago. I was first introduced to this idea of “living in community” by another Cedarville graduate, Brian Dye (founder of Vision Nehemiah), and his wife several years ago when I viewed the video capturing their unique home ministry. I also had the privilege of hearing Brian speak on a panel at The Gospel Coalition’s Christ+City conference last year. As you can see in the video, the lifestyle of both of these couples is very counter-cultural. Upon our arrival Friday night, the Dyes came over, and we got to pick the brains of both couples regarding the fundamental reason and actual practicality of this lifestyle. It was frankly quite an honor to meet Brian, as he has been one of my “heroes of the Faith” for the past few years.and
The Christian’s earthly home in modern America is widely viewed as one’s retreat, their personal space, a crib for their family alone. If I am striving to be a Christian, “Christ-follower,” with the entirety of my life, why do I reserve my home as solely a chill spot or personal space? I am merely a steward over all of my God-owned possessions, and when I resort to selfishness or partition off large sectors of my life as not part of my Christian ministry, I am telling God that He does not deserve all of me. Granted, the family should be the first focus of ministry for its members, and times of solace are undoubtedly necessary for spiritual and physical refreshment. However, I see so many benefits in community living (which takes many different forms) and want to entertain the idea in my family as well as continue using this blog as a sounding board for future thoughts on this lifestyle.
Saturday was a packed day of touring beginning at the Lawndale Christian Health Center. LCHC was founded in the 1980s when a community church in the under-resourced neighborhood decided to begin seeking how they could meet the pressing physical needs of their neighbors. The health center has flourished over the past several decades into a clinic staffed by over 400 professionals who holistically treats approximately 150,000 patients annually made possible by visionary Christians and government financial aid. Creativity amongst Christian ministry is a must, and when a church sees the total of its ministry as an annual children’s camp and weekly Biblical survey classes, though both good things, it neglects Christ’s compassion for the whole person, including their physical needs.
By mid-morning, we made it over to the facilities of Breakthrough Urban Ministries in East Garfield Park. Breakthrough is an organization providing holistic solutions to the problems of homelessness, youth violence, and malnutrition. I was so encouraged to see another group seeking to meet the comprehensive needs of the community, not just preaching the Bible, but living it out. The Church is not in opposition to all non-Church groups, so we must not feel that every deed of reconciliation must be accomplished exclusively by the Church. Breakthrough also places great priority on rebuilding dignity in conjunction with lives by not being simply a handout institution. They build the self-respect of their clients by operating a grocery store rather than a pantry and incremental transitional housing rather than an overnight shelter. Poverty is more-so a state-of-mind rather than merely a low income, and by investing valuable resources and creative effort into reconstructing the whole being, we can see lives transformed both physically and spiritually.
After lunch and a few hours of exploration in Chinatown, we made our way to the Boystown neighborhood of North Chicago to meet with Andrew Marin and Kevin Harris of The Marin Foundation. This short hour of conversation with Marin tied with the Brian Dye conversation the previous evening for my top highlights of the weekend. What Marin is doing through his small but well-known 501(c)(3) is “to build bridges between the LGBT community and the Church through scientific research, biblical and social education, and diverse community gatherings.” Though his focus is targeting relations with the gay community, his revolutionary ideas and articulate speech have dramatically increased his popularity, both positively and negatively. One of the things Andrew shared with us was the observation that first world culture is moving more and more towards disengagement from reality. Through drastic improvements in communication technologies, we can effectively be present anywhere in the world without actually being present. Breaking news from anywhere on the Earth is available instantly at our fingertips, and therefore we think we know everything there is to know about problems and solutions in other communities. As can be seen in Marin’s foundation itself, physical presence is still required to have the full understanding of complex problems in a particular location. His work with the LGBT community in Boystown has earned him a vast amount of negative press from conservatives and liberals alike from nearly all corners of the modern world… except for Chicago itself! Most Chicagoans who know the community well and who are semi-educated on the issue appreciate Marin’s love for the people of this largely unloved population. Sounds like who Jesus is—present and loving. Ironically enough, he condemned many who have tainted his reputation through condemning via this very outlet. He says of bloggers and other media personnel that “cowards type on keyboards,” and that he has enough time to sit down with anyone who cares to disagree with him in conversation. This discussion convicted me of both my tendency to apply local solutions as sweeping generalizations for all societies as well as my gravitation towards challenging those whom I disagree with through the free written words of the social internet rather than approaching them privately first.
Specifically, on this issue of gay relations, the Church and the non-gay culture as a whole have not been adequately talking through a proper response. In targeting the Church specifically, Marin stated that “Theological debates don’t answer the question of ‘What do I do?’” It is the “Holy Spirit’s job to convict, the Father’s job to judge, and my job to love.” I felt this arrow of challenge hit me in the heart; my desire to be correct frequently results in pride and evidence itself as a theological debate rather than a simple search of what should be my actual response. Most of the discussion in the Church on gay relations is an argument from somebody holding one moral position against someone from the other stance. Though there is a place for debating in humility through the guidance of Scripture, ultimately as Believers, we should spend more time seeking out what we should do to love rather than bickering with each other about who is right. That is the essence of the Marin Foundation, building bridges of love between two drastically different viewpoints, and that should be the vision of the Church. I am convicted.
As a follow up to the Marin Foundation, we spent the late evening hours at Emmaus Ministries, also located in Boystown. While the Marin Foundation focuses its attention largely on the middle-upper class gay residents of Boystown, Emmaus focuses its efforts on the other end of the spectrum—male prostitutes. The men in Boystown, who sell their bodies on the street, are considered the lowest of the low class, regarded by their fellow homeless peers as being even lower-class citizens. Emmaus has had pairs of volunteers on the streets of Boystown every night from 11pm–3am for over 20 years. The community is very aware of their long-standing loving presence, and the men need only to approach one of the passive missionaries roaming the streets during the wee morning hours with their Emmaus-tags to enjoy a listening ear over a cup of coffee or meal. In fact, Emmaus has a policy never even to mention anything about God initially, but somehow the conversation always ends up talking about the Savior, who loves all people, usually by the prostitute’s initiation. My class spent a couple of hours with one of the interns at the organization’s single-room ministry center discussing the need and viewing the testimonies of the men in this video. Then we were released to roam the streets in the bitter Windy City cold instructed strictly not to identify ourselves with being from Emmaus, as their rigorous two-day volunteer training program is vital to their mission and reputation, but just to experience the drastically unique culture. What I experienced that night in Boystown, believe it or not, is in many ways what I imagine the Church should ultimately be. No, the sex shops and gay bars I hope will not have a dominating presence in the consummated Kingdom of God, but acceptance of all people, no matter their baggage or sin, is what I understand and hope the Kingdom to be. Otherwise, I am not getting in either. No, I still refuse the postmodern and liberal thinking that is seeping into the American Church that practicing homosexuality is not necessarily a sin, but do we shun people from our church for being gossipers? Then why would we place judgment on an Image-bearer of Christ just because they have fallen to their unique sinful temptations? Again, convicted, and a never-before-had experience.
Before our return to Cedarville on Sunday afternoon, we attended the Spanish service at a branch of New Life Community Church in the Little Village neighborhood. Pastor Paco Amador is a member of a much larger visionary church body across the city that has the resources of a mega-church with the mission of intentionally reaching each small community in which they serve. Little Village is home to two of the most famous Latino Gangs, the Latin Kings and the 2–6 Nation, who populate respective halves of the small but densely populated hood, and New Life is passionately and creatively seeking out ways to disciple all members of its community, gang members and single mothers alike. Paco’s personal challenge to Cedarville after the service was inspirational, demanding of us to make a difference. I was also extremely appreciative of the albeit somewhat painful experience of sitting through an entire two-hour church service, something I am deeply comfortable with, however not understanding more than a handful of words. It gives me a new appreciation for immigrants and aliens in a land of English-speakers, and calls me up to a new level of patience and understanding with my foreign brother, sound like Deuteronomy 10:19?
Other small highlights scattered throughout the weekend such as meeting one of a set of twin world-class Mexican gymnasts, experiencing a personal freestyle rap performance on the streets of Boystown, and trying cow tongue for my first time at an authentic Mexican restaurant in Little Village made this an unforgettable weekend. God is shaping my worldview, increasing my love for Him, and preparing me for a service to Him and His people both now and in the coming years. Moreover, I am so humbled and stoked to be a part of it!