On the City – Reflections on the Poor and Skid Row

I must say that these conversations as of late have been very stimulating, all this talk about living and not living in places of perceived danger and felt danger.  I have some last words to say before I head out on a two-week hiatus in a couple days.

I am not trying to con-vice anyone and especially Shane of my position for I know that if I were to seek to do that I would be trying to convince someone to Wess’ truth not God’s.  However, I do not see myself as one who is misled by the Spirit and thus I feel it necessary to exegete my view further, with a greater depth and clarity so that there may be peace and understanding of how I see (and how I ultimately feel the Spirit has led me to see) these things discussed.

First to my friend (and I mean that with the utmost sincerity) Shane, In one of your recent posts you said, “it seems like some Christians want to frown upon my wife and I for moving out of a not so nice neighborhood (which I’m just going to call the ghetto) because too many Christians are moving out.” I must respond in an offer of peace, that I would much rather you think of my comments as first coming from friend and then coming from a Christian.  The reason for the splitting of these hairs are that often to say a “Christian thinks this or that about me” equates “He or she is judging me.”  I have added comments first as a friend who feels that I have room to make comments in a constructive way and further, and in the hopes to create dialog that will be beneficial to all for I know that as we seek to have clear and fair dialogue with one another the Spirit is able to teach us all.  This was a basic premise that underlined our Monday Night Bible study back in the day, we believed that everyone had a right to speak, that is those who are of faith in Christ, because we all have the spirit of God within us.  So take this as a peace offering.

Secondly, I think as people of faith we ought to be intentional about becoming more aware of those who are underprivileged, oppressed or just down and out.  This is why the word “Ghetto” makes my spine tingle, and why the connotations with that word are even worse.  What we I think we mean (and I mean we because I am guilty of it too) when we say Ghetto is something more discriminatory, and often classist or racist.    What I mean is that Ghetto has a very negative and hurtful connotation, hurtful to God who is the God of the oppressed (and Ghettos are often times homes of the oppressed – this is a basic historical point).  The Minor Prophets in the Old Testament, and Psalms such as 130, and 136 tell us that God intentionally seeks justice for the poor.  If this is true then we ought to as Christians as God, how can we be active in helping him in his pursuit.

Notice I said “His pursuit” this is because to minister to and with those who are poor and unlovely (and often times dangerous) is not our pursuit as human beings, it is not the thing that we choose naturally, that is why it is so hard to find social workers who have worked in the field for a long time (and if you can – ask them is they still enjoy their job).  Working with the unloved is the business of the church. No one argues this point; it is just how we interpret the unloved that makes this tricky.

Who are the unloved?  I think there are many in every race and class that are unloved.  I think that we ought to have the church serving all peoples, and loving all.  But the problem comes when everyone wants to love, serve and live in specific suburban areas.  That is to say, there are too many people being called to the Suburbs (if that is what it is) and not enough being called to the city.  Is God unaware of the needs in places like skid row in downtown LA where 20,000 people are homeless every night (In America)?  And Skid row is just blocks wide and a not many deep.  There are not many churches down there, and the ones that are really need help surviving because there are little resources.  But In Pasadena where the city seeks to be a “Utopia” (this is literally what council members have said they want that suburb to be) there are churches (and wealthy ones at that) all over the place.  Some of the largest and most influential churches in the country are here.  So I ask who are the Unloved? And what are we doing to put our lives on the line to love them.

Isn’t this what Jesus did?  He said if you seek to save your life you will lose it, but if you seek to lose your life you will save it.  Did he also actually live this way?  Shane brought up a good point about the times when Christ fled when his life was in danger.  Christ did flee, but it tells us three things about Christ: 1) he had a certain appointment with death that could not be interrupted or maligned for his appointment would change the course of history (my death certainly is not anywhere close to this category); 2) If Christ fled from danger more than once that assumes that he continued to go back to dangerous areas; 3) and/or Christ was not in dangerous places because poor people and unloved people are not dangerous to him, rather danger came to find him – that is those who sought to kill him watched for opportunities to do such, such as the chief priests, Pharisees and Herod  (Mark 2).

There are so many accounts of Christ working with those that would by today’s standards fall into one of our negative labeling categories that we ought to begin to re-evaluate what it is that underlies those categories.  Is it Americanism? Is it the Church having fallen victim to wanting to grow in numbers and material goods?  Is it our fear of loss and pain? Our search for safety? These latter two are not wrong, they are true for all humanity, but they must be fit into Christ’s upside-down values instead of the other way around.  Those upside-down values are the things like the Beatitudes where the mourners are happy and the poor and feed – where Christ tells people to love their enemies instead of killing them, and if need be lay down your life for others, where he tells people to lose their lives instead of trying to save them, and where the last keep on truckin.  This is the Christ who calls for a reversal of “White-Flight.”

I agree with my brother who stated that it is funny for one to say that Christians are leaving the city, when in reality most people want to flee to the suburbs.  The clarification is that it is mainly the whites who are the ones leaving, this is an actual statistical fact and in the anthropology and sociology books you will find the exact term “White-Flight” to explain the phenomena that rules much of white Americans and that includes the church.  Why are they running…fear. 

But the God of Upside-down values says, “Fear not for I am with you,“ and Ephesians 1 talks of the triumphant power we have in Christ, Paul talks in Gal. that “I no longer live, But Christ in me“ (meaning he has forfeited all of his “rights“ to God, and in Phil. he say “to live is Christ and to die is gain (drawing a paradox of equal value between life and death).“  Finally we know that James Jesus’ brother told his audience that “religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress…” Who are the orphaned and widowed in our day, the powerless, the hopeless, the unloved and rejected?

Finally I think that we should as Christians at least at Prayerfully “what is my part in helping to serve the poor and unwanted.”  Because this mindset is a much more active response to the problem than noticing it and wanting to do something about it, but yet making no move.  This Our fault in downtown Canton, we loved living on 8th street, and knew a couple of people that lived on our street but neither of us were pro-active in being Christ to our neighbors and that is where we messed up.  Because all God asks us to do is to be His people to those around us – to pro-actively love and serve whoever may come across our paths.

I guess I think often about Luke 4:18-19 and what Jesus said he came to do, it was his inaugural speech for his ministry, here are the things that were on his agenda that is pretty powerful and I want to have that same Christ-centered agenda because it was good enough for him.  Secondly Matthew 11:4-6 Kind of tells what Jesus had accomplished that far into his ministry, which were the things he said he was gonna do “…the good news is preached to the poor…” they had to be preached to because many of them had never heard before, because they were not welcome in the synagogues etc. 

“These are my thoughts that cloud up my mind, and take over my heart in passion.”

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Wess

…is the William R. Rogers Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC., PhD in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary, served as a “released minister” at Camas Friends Church, and father of three. He enjoys sketchnoting, sharing conversation over coffee with a friend, listening to vinyl and writing creative nonfiction.

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