You can’t afford not to take this class!
— Dr. Jeff Cook
I am so blessed to have the opportunity to take “Intro to Urban Ministry” this semester. Dr. Jeff Cook, also known as “Papa C,” actively serves on the pastoral staff of two urban churches while teaching various urban and contemporary missions classes at Cedarville University with nearly 30 years of experience in evangelizing the city.
Last weekend, as part of the course, I spent the weekend homeless. To avoid being shunned by the urban ministry community on campus, but more importantly to preserve the impact of the trip for anyone who may still have the opportunity to take the course (a shameless plug for students, take this class!), the details of the weekend remain completely confidential. That being said, I cannot keep silent about how God is working in my life through this and other experiences as of late.
I think that the most common misconception about the poor in America is along the lines of “they got themselves into it, and they can get themselves out of it.” I shamefully admit that I had this notion myself looking in from my middle-class refuge outside the concentrated sin and pain present in areas of our American inner-cities. There are occasional stories of those who can and do work their way out of homelessness. I met a gentleman roaming up and down Main St. in Dayton this summer who had been employed his way up to a part-time job at a local store simply by volunteering to pick weeds for them as he walked past. That being said, I would argue that most homeless people, contrary to what I would perceive as popular belief, do not have this opportunity. When you do not know where your next meal is going to come from, or where you will put your kids to sleep that night, or where to get enough money for a bus token to the local clothing bank, how is it that forming a long-term plan to get a job would even cross your mind? Even if it does, the opportunities to do so are rare when there are professionals with degrees seeking those same jobs.
So, because real work beckons so that I can maintain my employment, I will progress with posing the question, “where do we go from here?” I am exploring the idea of two general pathways that Christians must take to regain our image as the hands and feet of Jesus. We clearly need modern-day Nehemiahs and Moseses in influential positions in politics and business that can push for greater social justice. If that is your skill-set and passion, please pursue it! I would caution you, however, that in your upward mobility, it is vital to maintain friendships with people who are on the streets. Influence is best framed by those who have loved ones in their target audience.
The other option I am wrestling with is downward mobility. Modern North American Christian culture looks at those who are radically forfeiting high-paying jobs and safe homes to serve the “least of these” (ref. Matt. 25:31-40) as people with great hearts but an unspoken perception of, to be quite blunt, foolishness. As I have experienced Christians in the urban context over the last few years practicing a holistic and utterly self-sacrificing view of evangelism, I have seen more examples of restored lives than I ever have in many traditional suburban churches (not bashing the Body, by any means, but challenging). Movements like new monasticism and general residential urban ministry (such as the members of the Urban Hope Training Center) excite me greatly, but so much more is needed.
The Church’s Response
Christ stated that “as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to Me.” (Matt. 25:40) We must push to re-balance the seesaw of evangelism that has arguably tilted far too much towards spiritual discipleship to the neglect of meeting the day-to-day physical needs. I am the first to admit that I have joined many Christians in the heated debates surrounding government economic policies affecting the poor, while I neglect to love and provide for those in my community as is a primary role of the Church. God forgive me and push me towards the contrary.
There will hopefully be much more to come over the coming weeks and months both from Dr. Cook’s class and my pursuit of effective urban ministry. All of my thoughts posted here are meant to challenge and strengthen the Body of Christ, so I hope nothing that may have been read as abrasive or harsh has been a catalyst towards disunity.
In cities, you have more Image of God per square inch than anywhere else in the world.
— Dr. Timothy Keller