Posts Tagged ‘Urban Ministry’

Ohio Trip 9: Urban Concern

July 27, 2009

The second day of the Xenos conference began with a talk from a former teacher of the church, Lee Campbell, on suffering in the book of Job. He did a great job of pointing out how Job’s friends didn’t have a bad encouragement plan to begin with–they just flubbed it up after they got very far into it, and they had some bad theology in there, too.

What struck me most was that they invested a good bit of their time and resources to spend time with Job in his loss, even to the point of sitting with him a whole week without saying a word. Lee explained that rabbinic tradition calls this “sitting shiva” (sitting a week). It’s significant because it simply involves moving with the sufferer, being with them and feeling what he/she feels, because that’s what is needed more than advice or platitudes (which Job’s friends couldn’t resist offering later). When C.S. Lewis lost his wife, he said he wanted most to be around lots of people who would just “leave him alone”. I think I get that. Anyway, it was a great talk, and you can download it for free here.

The rest of the day took a decidedly urban-missional direction for me. I had signed up to tour Xenos’ urban mission over lunch, and it was an encouraging tour to take. Nearly 20 years ago some folks from Xenos took an interest in ministering to a poor urban neighborhood close to the Ohio State University campus. Today there are house churches, after-school programs, and an easily affordable Christian school in that neighborhood. The Harambee School, financed jointly by Xenos and by government grants, serves to educate about 100 kids from K-5th grade. And while other schools in the area can only get about 20% of their kids to pass the state tests, Harambee’s kids are passing at a rate of 67%. That’s pretty fantastic! They must be doing really good work.

On the tour we heard from James Brown, the director of the larger urban mission, and Alex Steinman, the principal of the school. They explained how the church engages the neighborhood holistically, not merely babysitting kids for a few hours each day, but ministering to entire families, entering into their lives where they live. Families invest huge chunks of time, many of them permanently moving into the neighborhood. Over time they’ve built lasting relationships with area residents, including the crack dealers on whose turf they’re treading. Ironically, they seem to get a warmer reception from the thugs than they do from the local churches, who hardly give them any help in their work (most of those churches are comprised of members who commute from far away). Somehow that’s funny and disgusting at the same time.

Back at the conference, I attended a workshop entitled “Untying the Urban Knot.” Lisa Gintz told us of her own relocation to a poor urban segment of town, and of the subsequent validation of her ministry that produced in the eyes of the residents. She, too, found that the local criminals warmed to her presence so that now her house is the safest place on the block. The drug lords warn their underlings not to touch her place because they like her, and they trust her. When asked by conference-goers if she felt safe there, she replied, “The safest place in the world to be is in the middle of God’s will.” Well put. And she’s definitely earned the right to speak about urban ministry.

The gist of her presentation was that building incarnational relationships is the only way to truly impact a community. It takes years to earn the trust of people who have learned so much distrust. And it takes years to learn how to relate to people from a culture so different from your own. One helpful bit of advice she gave was to start by reaching out to people within your own culture before you make the leap to people in a significantly different one. We tend to romanticize “ministry to the needy,” so there’s quite a revolving door in urban ministry. People come dreamy-eyed and last for a year or two then give up. They too often come solo, too, and that’s a recipe for burnout as well.

In the end I was encouraged and challenged to see and hear from those who have built their lives around giving to others. None of them struck me as highly religious or legalistic about it, but seemed genuinely and organically compelled to be doing what they’re doing.

There were other workshops that day, but I’ve written enough for now. Next, I’ll briefly tell about the conclusion to the summer institute and the home group that gathered afterwards, then I’ll move on to the last church I visited: Grace Gathering.


Ohio Trip 3: Vineyard Central, a Liturgical House Church

July 18, 2009

Sunday morning I (along with my hosts Scott and Angela) visited a unique community of house churches who call themselves Vineyard Central. Apparently they originated as a church plant from “The” Vineyard, but that hardly seems to characterize them at this point. This group of believers, like the one which I am a part of, chose to buy houses close together–in the same neighborhood. They are a “neighborhood church” as a friend once called it, like my group. This church, however, chose to inhabit a poor, urban section in the heart of their city. They did this because they felt a calling to establish a presence in that community, and they appear to be doing just that. Amazingly, there are around 80 of them in the neighborhood, with some still moving in!

It’s pretty raw, authentic, incarnational living. I could tell from their interactions with their neighbors that they are at work doing what they set out to do: building relationships with those in their neighborhood, maintaining community gardens, helping out people in need, and (formerly) operating a cool coffeehouse as a point of entry for people in the community (sadly, economic times being what they are, the coffeehouse may have gone the way of the do-do). It’s messy work, fraught with the costs of giving your lives over for the sake of needy people. But they struck me as a very hospitable, giving, accepting group of people. Their house churches meet weekly while the whole group only assembles together about once a month.

Another unique thing about this group is that they are liturgical. They are “low church” in the sense that they are a clergyless, decentralized and informal assembly who show up in t-shirts and jeans, meeting primarily in their homes. But they read from “the lectionary,” pray the creeds, and pray “the hours.” After someone reads a portion of the Bible, he or she says “the word of the Lord” and everybody responds in unison with “thanks be to God.” Haven’t done that since my teen years when I used to visit an Episcopalian youth group.

It’s unfortunate for us that we didn’t get to be a part of their bigger monthly gathering. On those days, typically coinciding with festivals from the traditional Christian calendar, they all come together in an old catholic church building called Saint Elizabeth’s which they purchased and renovated over a decade ago. This morning’s meeting, however, happened upstairs in the house across the street. We were greeted warmly, we sang songs recently compiled by one of them on a songsheet, and we read aloud and discussed verses from the lectionary, a standardized grouping of Bible passages used in liturgical churches (Anglican, Catholic, etc). Next someone brought out a plate with a multi-grain bagel and a bowl of wine on it. They passed it around, tearing off a piece of bagel and dipping it in the wine before eating it. Each person passing the communion repeated something like “the body of Christ which was broken for you and blood of Christ shed for your sins” (I couldn’t remember the right words so I just passed it on and shrugged). When we finished with that we had a time of prayer, then we ate and chatted with folks for a while.

They were warm, caring people who obviously carry the burden of ministering to their neighborhood in a very incarnational way. The fatigue of some of it showed, as did the resolution to keep giving, keep serving, and to keep meeting and praying for those around them. In the end I found the liturgical worship too foreign to easily enter into. I find it hard to internalize standardized phrases and prayers, no matter how time-tested they may be. But I also think that these folks don’t experience those things in the same way I do. For them, it seems living and somehow vibrant. In the end it’s all about what’s going on inside, isn’t it?

For me, reciting rituals easily lends itself to mechanical repetition, disconnected from the heart. But I’m not sure it has to be that way. I suspect some can take those pre-formed prayers and creeds, connecting their hearts to the messages preserved therein, and it becomes living words for them. I bet that works better for first-generation folks than for second or third ones, though. That’s my guess, anyway.

Coming out of that meeting I bumped into a completely separate group of people gathered on the front steps of St. Elizabeth’s. They were from neighboring cities and were using the neighborhood facilities as a centralized point at which they could all gather for prayer and fellowship. Although they were not really connected with VC, their example seems to have encouraged this group to pursue community in their own way as well. Pretty cool how groups seem to inspire one another along the way. Folks thinking about building deeper community among believers seem to get so much from just seeing other people doing something similar. It’s great to steal ideas, too, while you’re at it!

When I got done talking with that group, I looked up and saw something growing out of the building above us. Kinda crazy, isn’t it? Seemed somehow metaphorical to me of some of the things I’ve been discovering lately. I’ll let you figure it out yourself 🙂

Well, that just covers Sunday morning. In my next post, I’ll share about the third group that I met that day.