Poverty is a condition, not an identity.
This article is intended to create space for our faith to engage hard truths about impoverished neighborhoods and provide pathways on how to do ministry in that context.
“The hood,” as I define it, is a condition where a high concentration of people who have inadequate financial resources live. Traditionally it is associated with specific city neighborhoods, but in today’s gentrifying world it could easily be in the suburbs. Ironically, if you compare suburban neighborhoods’ challenges with those in rural populations, they mirror each other. We must accept that hoods don’t just happen. Policies and practices were put into place to make it tough for groups of people to exit and/or make the neighborhood better.
These actions have underlying issues of race and social class. There’s a sociological term for this process called racialization. A racialized society is a society wherein race matters profoundly for differences in life experiences, life opportunities, and social relationships. It is one that allocates different economic, political, social, and psychological rewards to groups along racial lines. Concerning neighborhoods, typically when whites move out at a high rate so does access to financial resources and quality of life, and the neighborhood is doomed to fail, mainly because it is not given a fair shake.
The mostly black and brown people who are left are seen more as projects than people. And the prevailing thought is that if she or he would get their act together, they could escape that hell hole. The hood is a place where people drive through as quickly as possible, and they certainly don’t want to be caught there at night. It is the city or suburb’s quarantined areas for high poverty.
In April 2001, Timothy Thomas, a 19-year-old African-American with a history of non-violent misdemeanors, was shot and killed by a Cincinnati police officer. It was Ferguson before Ferguson. His death caused outrage and civil disobedience, resulting in millions of dollars of damage due to rioting. My wife and I planted a church (River of Life) in the middle of it all, right in the neighborhood (Over-The-Rhine) where the shooting occurred. At that time, Over-The-Rhine was the second most violent neighborhood in the country.
Two decades later, the church has become a beacon of hope of what God can do when people from all walks of life live in unity for the advancement of the kingdom in the hood.
In my present position of CEO of World Impact, I am committed to bringing hope to the hood. I’m often asked, “What’s the biggest need for the hood?” My answer is healthy local churches. My experience is that if healthy churches exist in the hood, they become major players in improving the quality of life. Due to the challenges, we can never have enough church leaders and workers. I’m often asked, 'What’s the biggest need for the hood?' My answer is healthy local churches. Click To Tweet
You may not have heard the name Howard Thurman before, yet if you haven’t, I would bet you unknowingly know of his work. He was called Martin Luther King, Jr.’s personal theologian. King based much of his work on Thurman’s teachings; his most famous work was a book entitled Jesus and the Disinherited. If you have never read it, I highly encourage you to do so.
Thurman dedicated his life to exploring and explaining “what the teaching of Jesus has to say to those who stand at a moment in human history with their backs against the wall…the poor, the disinherited, the dispossessed.” Throughout his life, he pursued the question of how humans could withstand the pressure of poverty without losing their souls. He eventually planted an urban church in San Francisco to provide a solution.
Jesus said in Matthew 16:18, “I will build my church”—not food pantry, tutoring program, or community development enterprise—”and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” I am all for good works like the ones mentioned. Yet I also believe the church being the church is undervalued in urban communities.
In my nearly-three decades of urban ministry experience, I’ve seen the following story play out countless times. A person goes in to do good works in the hood. Time passes, and they get frustrated because the citizens do not “act right,” which often means upper-middle class values, attitudes, and beliefs about life are not displayed in response to the help given. The relationship goes sideways, and all involved are bitter about the experience. A person goes in to do good works in the hood. Time passes, and they get frustrated because the citizens do not “act right,” which often means upper-middle class values, attitudes, and beliefs about life are not displayed. Click To Tweet
Contrast that to how suburban populations are treated. The citizens are rarely viewed as objects, personhood is automatically granted, and no deficit must be overcome to earn it. Good works involve entering the civic life of the community. The goal is to build enough goodwill to form healthy relationships to share the gospel, leading to the assimilation of people into a church. That is always the finish line in suburban contexts yet rarely the finish line in the hood. Good works and goodwill are considered enough—but what about the good news?
A Model to Consider
Regardless of whether the hood is in New York or Nairobi, I believe each one of them share the following ten concerns:
- Economic development
- Public safety
- City budgeting
- Health Care
If this is the case, how should we function as a church? I believe by becoming a neighborhood anchor. We become an anchor by playing the following roles:
Empower: To empower someone is to help them do something. Who doesn’t need help navigating life? This is a highly undervalued function when people think about the hood. I’m not talking about a vibrant small group program. I’m talking about authentic relationships built over long periods of time. A healthy, local congregation provides space for people to do life together.
Partner: Because of the way hoods are formed, the community must be built from the inside out. That can only be done with partnering with other local institutions. When a congregation is mobilized by a skilled leader, it becomes a neighborhood asset. Having impact on the local neighborhood becomes so natural that the church has no walls.
Reach: Reaching the hood is two sides of one coin. Evangelism (transmission of the Gospel message of the transformative power of following Christ) is the Church’s response on a personal level to issues of hood life. Justice (genuine concern for both peace among and respect towards individuals and people groups) is the Church’s response on a community level to issues of hood life. It is not an either/or but both/and situation.
Want to hear more from Alvin on this?
Check out the Missio Webinar he did on “Church Among the Urban Poor.”