eflections on Returning to Urban Ministry.
Rev. Jonathan David Faulkner
When I was living and serving in Denver we would go on walks through the city to learn about the different parts of the city. We walked through Five-Points and some other areas and we did a Dry Bones City Walk where we went to the places where many of the people we were serving were living. On this city walk we made our way up a drainage pipe, after our guides had checked to make sure no one was sleeping inside. As we podded along into the deepening darkness, watching with ever step for needles we eventually came to a place where you could no longer see the light of the opening. We stopped and our guides turned off their lights and we were plunged into total darkness. We then did an exercise where we were challenged to observe how dark and quiet that drainage pipe was, but not simply because of the lack of light, but because of the spiritual darkness that so often accompanies homelessness, spiritual darkness we were all accustomed to seeing every day. After we became completely acclimated to the darkness one of the leaders would turn on a watch face whose dim light would completely flood the dark space. They would then talk about how the smallest amount of light can transform a dark life. With Denver’s gentrifying inner city, and cool summer climate, spiritual darkness and homelessness were on the rise. The city itself did not want its homeless, everywhere you go you can see updated infrastructure with closed bridges, along the river there are rocks designed to keep the homeless from sleeping there. The song “Lonesome for Heroe’s” by Five Iron Frenzy resonates with me because I know exactly what they are talking about. The way Denver treats its homeless is atrocious, every day I had guys come in and tell me they had been run out of where they were sleeping. I would sit with the guys I ministered to on the Mall and see them get spit on or ignored by passers-by. I was reminded one day while walking home in a thunderstorm that I was heading to a place I was relatively safe, the guys I ministered too had to find shelter wherever they could, most likely at the Denver Public Library.
Each class day we would go out into a different part of the city and learn about the different challenges to ministry there. In one community we learned how healing and reconciliation had taken place between the community and law enforcement after a shooting. In another community we learned how the building of Interstate 90 had split a primarily Black neighborhood in half and cut off the working poor from jobs that had previously been in their backyard. In yet another we saw exactly the effects Gentrification can have on inner city community as the housing got nicer and the property values went up, it forced more and more people out of housing and onto the street. It was on one of these excursions through the City that we encountered that house owned by the evangelists who had left their yard in shambles and who refused to clean the yard up despite many requests from neighbors and the city.
Where was the Church? It was there, in some cases right down on the same level as those in need. Christ’s Body Ministries where I worked was a church that fed the homeless 365 days a year and which held services Sunday Nights for the homeless which looked a lot like I imagine the early Church did. But it was also, like the city, at different places trying to distance itself from the city like the Episcopal Church I passed every day on my way to my Lite Rail stop that had put up high gates that were locked day in and day out, the stated reason for doing so, to keep the homeless from sleeping in their garden. It was also in the seeming benevolent visit from Grace Chapel Youth in the suburb who graciously served at Christ’s Body, but who also led VBS as a “Missions Trip” at Joshua Station which excluded the indigenous leaders God had placed over the kids as Spiritual Leaders. I am sure this is the same everywhere, one lament I heard from a Minneapolis Resident after all the unrest last year was that the Church was: “Nowhere to be found with very few exceptions.”
In his book Theirs is the Kingdom: Celebrating the Gospel in Urban America, Robert Lupton tells the stories we lived for that summer in Denver. Stories of restoring dignity to the suffering, better ways to minister and care for the Urban poor in an unjust world and system. It is a great book, and I highly recommend it to anyone who is looking for reading in Urban Ministry that is practical and encouraging. Lupton reminds us what Jesus taught, that “Blessed are the poor, tor theirs is the Kingdom of God” (Matt 5:1-5). One story stands out, they had brought food and presents to a family around Christmas time and while the kids were opening the presents he noticed that the father had got up and left the room. It dawned on him that the man was downcast because he had not been able to provide for his family, Lupton’s conclusion was that he should give the man agency to purchase the presents and food for his family by helping him find a job or by teaching him a trade skill. I have since come to the conclusion that helping someone understand that one of the primary functions of the Church is to be a means of agency for the poor, that is a resources that helps lift up people out of poverty as the Early Christians did (Acts 2-5).
Yes, it is incumbent on the Church to seek Justice, love mercy as we walk humbly with God, because we can walk humbly with God. That is true whether you are living and ministering in a small town or among the Urban Poor. No matter what, we are tasked with helping people gain agency as people created in the image of God with inherent worth and dignity and we are to do that by meeting needs where they arise and helping them build bridges out of poverty. Again, whether that be in an Urban Setting or a Rural one. But that requires us to know what our neighbors needs are and that requires proximity, something many of us are unwilling to attain. One odd side effect of Gentrification is that typically wealthy suburban elites are having to, at times, come face to face with the people they are forcing out of the areas they are gentrifying. The passing interaction is temporary, it hard to not see someone’s humanity when they are sitting right in front of you. Unfortunately the result is that the person donates money to a local shelter or calls the police to run off the homeless man or woman who once lived in the house they could afford down the street. Proximity is essential, because it is only through proximity that we learn about the needs and learn how to help our neighbors, but proximity requires us to give up our comfortable lifestyles for less glamorous living. This was the path Robert Lupton followed as they left their suburban home to move to an inner-city apartment to be in close proximity to the people they were ministering too. The bars on the window of the Stucco apartment building we lived in while in Denver were a small inconvenience as they opened up the door to do ministry there in the Five-Points district.
This proximity leads to “Seeing.” Seeing is the greatest need and the hardest thing to do in any type of ministry. I remember the first time I heard the story of the Levite and his Concubine in Judges 19. I had read the story probably 100x’s but sitting in what used to be a fairly nice neighborhood before the interstate split it the story took on new meaning. In the story a Levite goes through a town on his way home and after finding a place to stay men came who wanted to rape the Levite. The owner of the house offered the Levite’s concubine instead and they through her out so these wicked men could “have their way with her.” In the morning she has crawled to the door of the home where the Levite is staying and he takes her home, cuts her up into twelve pieces and sends those twelve pieces to the twelve tribes. The story ends with: “these things happened because was no God in the land.” The challenge of the story is to see those who suffer from the injustices of a godless society. The Concubine is the victim of an unjust society that did not see or value her as being made in the image of God. And it was a man who was consecrated for service to God who did this to her. By the way, the story never says she died, nor is there anything in the Hebrew to suggest she did until she was cut up by her master. Again, the challenge is to see the woman, to see what happened to her because Israel abandoned Yahweh. Today we see this woman’s story lived out in the victims of sexual assault in the church, but also the urban poor and homeless who have placed there by a system that is unjust and by forces like gentrification or interstate construction that are out of their control.
As we head to Spokane Washington I look forward to the opportunity to hear these kinds of Street Psalms again. We have heard them here in Iowa in different forms, we are saddened to leave so many of these men and women we have seen and ministered to through child births, poverty, abusive marriages and more. Ministry does not end when we move, my original training was in Urban Ministry and so this is a return to my roots as we seek to be Jesus hands and feet in our new city. God will use us even while we heal and rest from the last year of ministry. We have several large crockpots and roasters and we intend to use them. After all, Rosaria Butterfield is correct, the Gospel comes with a Housekey and we are to steward it well. This type of ministry is hard, it is gritty and it is transformational and we are looking forward to working alongside our new church family to minister to those whose God’s heart beats for. We hope you’ll join us there, one chapter is closing, but a new one is beginning.