Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Spreading the Gospel in Poor Communities - Part I

I was challenged and intrigued by Julie Lyon's op-ed and interview in the Dallas Morning News regarding the role of spirituality in the transformation of the poor in general and South Dallas in particular. Ms. Lyon's, a white journalist, who is a member of a predominantly African-American church in South Dallas, speaks very well - even authoritatively, about the need for the spiritual to address issues that are essentially spiritual.

I was intrigued because I've met her pastor on a number of occasions; the church which neighbors their church is pastored by one of my very good friends, and I served a church as pastor in that area for more than 20 years. It is another reminder of how small this world is and how interconnected we all are. The Morning News' new 'gapblog', also contained a number of comments that I also found interesting. They contain a number of assumptions about the area - and about the poor in general and what it takes to work in an area like that. These are assumptions which appear to be borne of some compassion, but there are some which also rise from stereotypes that show why more progress hasn't been made.

As a former pastor (and as a preacher and Christian still), let me say that I agree totally with Ms. Lyon's and Rev. Eddington's (her pastor), emphasis on personal spiritual conversion. I believe that a personal relationship with God, through faith in Christ, is a foundation point for personal transformation. I respect other religions and faiths which do not have the same perspective on scripture as my own. So far, in 34 years of preaching, what I have learned about other denominations, faiths and spiritual points of view, only enhances and deepens my own faith journey.

The streets Ms. Lyon's talks about, are streets that I have walked with church members and pastors for years. We've walked those streets in evangelistic campaigns, Vacation Bible School promotions, listening campaigns for education, sick visitations and prayers for new families who have moved into the neighborhood after new homes were built. In every case I can assure anyone who would listen, that spiritual problems can only be handled by spiritual solutions. My perspective on the matter is, however, that I never encountered one problem in those South Dallas neighborhoods that wasn't spiritual.

The churches in South Dallas - even the youngest ones, are filled with all types of men, women and children. They tend to be mostly drive-in memberships, the older congregations have members with generational ties to the neighborhood. Ours was a typical working class congregation with a few upper middle class members. But there were obviously poor people among us. Some came from the housing projects, others were older members, some young people whose parents were not members of any church. 

Some members who joined our church were single parents, some were whole, intact traditional families. 

There seems to be an assumption that churches in poor communities don't preach family values. The idea seems to be that there is a type of tacit acceptance of immorality of the community, if not a condoning of it. Personally, I find that assumption pretty offensive. I do not believe that you will find more vigorous, fervent exhortation towards moral behavior, the preservation of the family, a life lived with dignity - holiness, as it is called in church, than in these churches. But the fact is most of these churches are in triage mode. They cannot minister to the congregation, or community as it should be, they must minister to people as they are. All changes are not immediate, or miraculous, in the popular sense. There are substance abusers who relapse, there are young people who have children out of wedlock. There are divorces and people who live together out of wedlock and irresponsible people who won't work and take care of their families.

But there are also children who are baptized, weddings for people who come to the altar in serious commitment. There are vacation bible schools, youth retreats, marriage retreats, finance seminars, tutoring, day care and after school centers. There are graduations from college and graduate schools, as well as high schools. People buy new homes and new cars. They have babies in the context of marriage. Members 'adopt' children whose parents are too poor to provide school clothes and supplies. They give Christmas gifts to children who might not have them otherwise and, yes, poor and middle income alike, share the gospel in the neighborhood, as well as with their friends and family. 

I guess my point is that the presence of these churches - 'struggling' as they may appear, have a life much like any other church. 

Our church participated in the strategy that resulted in new homes being built in the area. As a matter of fact the strategy was born and most of the work was done in our church. Other churches, Rhoades Terrace Bible Fellowship and New Hope Baptist Church, worked with other churches across the city to bring the resources into the neighborhood. While we did that, we witnessed, we preached, we taught and we nurtured the spiritual lives of our respective congregations. 

One family who bought one of the homes right across the street from our church. I remember one of our Sunday School classes went on a Sunday morning to spend time with them and share their faith. At that time they weren't interested. They had prayer with them and came back to the church. 

Months later, the family went through a spiritual crisis that resulted in their realization of their need for faith in Christ. They joined our church. Shortly after I left, I got word that they became leaders in the church and are there to this day. 

When Jesus changed lives through preaching, meeting human needs and miracles. His formula: He dealt with what the people in front of him were dealing with. He transformed every need into a spiritual need. In doing so, He showed us that there is more than one way to bring people to faith. 

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