Thursday, June 18, 2009

Spreading the Gospel in Poor Communities - Part II

There are a number of people that I think of when I reflect on more than two decades as a pastor near the Ideal Neighborhood in South Dallas. Two of the people I think of sometimes are 'Bo' and 'Eva' (not their real names). They were not members of the church. Today we would call them 'homeless'. They both were addicts, they 'lived' in an abandoned house on a street behind the church that has long since been torn down. They would sometimes appear on Sunday morning, quiet, trying to be inconspicuous, but made much more so, by their dirty clothes and their unbathed bodies. 

Sometimes they would come down the aisle after church asking for prayer. Sometimes they would wait around after church and ask for money. Many times we had members who would share food with them they brought with them to cook as we waited for an afternoon service or sometimes it would be our day care center's food (much to the chagrin of the director come Monday morning!).

They were two people we tried to reach with compassion and Christian love. Most often I would wonder what good it was doing. Neither 'cleaned up'; they never got jobs; they never became homeowners, apartment renters or stable citizens. They are probably dead now. No one in their conditions last on the streets this long. 

I was a much younger preacher then and didn't have the connections or knowledge of services that I have now. But I like to think that we became the one place that they knew where they wouldn't be mistreated or hurt in anyway. 

'Bo' and 'Eva' were two of a number of people who roamed the streets at that time. Some of them clearly mentally ill, like the old man who used to wander the streets in little more than rags, yelling at no one in particular. 

They were people we were never able to help. Not in any substantive way. But they were in the community where we were. For them, and for some people like them, you do what you can: you pray, you offer food, you listen to them and you welcome them whenever they show up.

I am really proud of the way the congregation responded. As far as I know, before I became pastor, there was not much in the way of interaction with some of these people. But as we taught and tried to emulate Jesus' compassion for the poor, some of the one's I least expected exhibited a patience and gentleness that I hardly expected. 

Another couple I remember were twin girls who lived in the Rhoades Terrace public housing development. That was a place where we did major promotion for our Vacation Bible School. 
I'm not sure when they joined and there wasn't much in the way of their membership that make them stand out. They sung in the choir, came to Sunday School, participated in youth events. 
But I do remember that they weren't from a very happy home. 

I remember though, before I left the church (I hadn't seen them in a very long time), they came to church one Sunday. They were both beaming! One was a young mother, the other had graduated college and had a teaching career I believe. The point is they do credit their time at the church with helping them live stable lives. 

Julie Lyon's op-ed in Friday's Dallas Morning News, makes some general observations, which - as is the case with general observations - have some truth to them. For example:

•Every well kept, owner-occupied home is inhabited by a family with a strong church connection.
•Virtually every inner-city kid with high academic achievements whose name appears in the pages of this newspaper cites a relationship with Jesus Christ as one of the biggest factors in his or her success.
•No one gets out of drug addictions such as crack cocaine and heroin without spiritual intervention and the strong support of a church.
•Few escape a family legacy of poverty without the discipline and hopeful perspective afforded by a church upbringing.

But there are other observations that she makes that don't take some realities into account:

"In South Dallas, you will find more church houses per block than anywhere in the city. But most of these congregations, safely ensconced indoors and serving just a few families, barely touch the communities they're in. They could play a big part in the revitalization of South Dallas, but first they'd have to push outside their comfort zones and, as Jesus Christ said, lay down their lives for their friends. Because money alone won't remedy the problems right outside their doors."

First of all, I was a full-time pastor from day one. And probably the youngest of about only three full-time pastors in the area at the time. Most churches of the older churches had middle aged drive in memberships.  Our church gradually began to reflect my age and tended to be a little younger with quite a few young people in it.

Smaller churches tended to have more people from the neighborhood in them. They tended to have bi-vocational pastors who were at their church mainly on Sundays and Wednesdays (or whenever they had prayer meeting). Because of our day care center and because we grew younger and more active we were open pretty much seven days a week. 

Most churches don't have professional ministry staff. They have volunteers who work jobs where they don't get off in early afternoons. Because they tend to be drive in congregations, most things that do take place in those churches happen in late evenings. Check out a bulletin of nearly any church in these areas and you will find that most weekly activities don't start until 7:30 pm. It gives members from outside the community time to go home from work, get dinner, gather children when necessary and drive to church. 

There isn't a lot of time for many of the 'church houses' on every block to do the training, organizing and coordinating, to 'push outside of their comfort zone'. 

I can assure you, that I have been frustrated on more than one occasion, by an inability to engage some of the pastors. But I had to learn that they not only have the same mission that I had, they had the same battles that I had with less time to deal with it: inexperienced leaders, internecine internal church political battles, denominational responsibilities, hospital visitations, financial challenges (because we were open all week, you should have seen our summer light bill!), facilities...just like all churches. 

I'm a little sensitive for all of these colleagues and fellow church members, when it is suggested that they aren't doing what they can. Can they do more? Certainly. Can they do differently? You bet. But they all have had their 'Bo's' and 'Eva's' and 'twins'. Some of them have done better jobs with them than we did with ours. 

They're pastors just don't have blogs to tell you about them. 

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