A Few Verbal Snapshots of Life With My Friends
[ALSO... A few of my own personal reflections]
Moving to an inner-city church can be quite a culture shock.
In many churches, "shut-ins" are remembered during the Sunday morning prayer. Our list of "shut ins" includes not only those who have old age and infirmity, but also those who are "shut in" because of murder, incest, rape, breaking parole, sexual imposition, prostitution and drugs, etc. Each person is mentioned by first name only... For 2½ years, my name was on the second list - of course, it was a different person! Last year, he was released, and I was finally able to meet him. (Some of the others I will never be able to meet - at least in this present life.)
Of the adults, many of them have come out of the drug scene. Many were former alcoholics, or were involved in sexual immorality; many were in prison. Many were (and still are) poor. When people like this turn to Jesus, they become the weak, who God will use to shame the strong (1 Corinthians 1:27).
The church is full of single parents with small children and teenagers; I can recall only five families in which both parents are still present - and in two of these instances, involving parents who are not in the church, the situation could be described as "dysfunctional." Since single parents have to work, in order to survive (normally at a low paying job), many of the children are totally unsupervised for much of the time.
Many of the youth come to church-related activities without their parents. Some do so, not because of any interest in God, but because they do not get along with their parents, and are looking for any excuse to get away from them. Others are looking for any opportunity to be with the opposite gender (for physical contact) - and we have to constantly fight this desire of theirs. Both of these issues result in people who have short attention spans, who are easily distracted. Add to this others who are generally unruly, simply because that is what they have learned at home (and school)... All this creates a need for having a number of adults at youth activities, in order to "police" the situation. Yet, for whatever reasons, there are few adults available to help. (We once had to discontinue Sunday evening youth group activities, because of this problem Many teens wanted to be involved, but few adults were willing to help. Now many of the teens are permanently gone.)
I personally do not know what it is like, to come home to a mom who has a different man each week. Or to have a parent who constantly screams and threatens, or who is normally drunk or on drugs. But I have many friends who do know what it is like - it's a daily occurrence for them. This is the only training that many of the children have, for learning how to raise a family and how to show love to others. Unless God stops this vicious cycle, these children will grow up and follow the examples of their parent(s), and then teach their own children the wrong way to live. The sins of the parents tend to repeat for generation after generation.
The Bible's type of love is absent in many of the families. Many of the adults don't seem to care. Of the few who do care, the majority don't seem to know how to express it. They themselves never experienced it, when they were young.
All the typical problems of urban life are here. Crime is rampant; many of my friends know what it is like, to be a victim of crime. Many have had their lives endangered; some have been sexually abused. Drugs are sold openly, with little fear of arrest. Pollution is a part of life. In some areas, there are gangs who are more-than-willing to "rearrange your face," on the way home from school.
There is also the occasional problem of an "unpoliced police force." At least some seem to think that the law does not apply to them. There are also times in which justice and injustice seem to trade places.
Most of the people are in a borderline poverty situation, with minimum-wage jobs that lack even the most basic benefits.
Children are desperate for love - and they will do anything for it. Unfortunately, many only know of it as a three-letter word ("sex")... and there are plenty of people who are willing to offer that kind of counterfeit "love" to them. Society around them, as well as the media, constantly reinforces this perspective.
How big is our total church budget? About the same as what one typical middle-class worker would earn in a year.
In our specific church, there is a wide age group, with nearly equal numbers of men and women. There are many single parents, as well as many adults who have never had children, or who have lost them (through divorce, or by other means). Many have tried (or are trying) to improve their situation, by taking college courses. About half of the people are from the immediate neighborhood; the rest live farther away. (Some of these were originally in the neighborhood, but have moved into the suburbs.)
There are very few people in my church with any ability to play musical instruments - nobody who is young - or even "slightly young." There is no one available to play music in the evening service - which is mostly comprised of people who do not come in the morning. Most of the people I know who do have some type of musical ability live outside the city, and have no interest in becoming involved.
The typical background of those who join the church: Many have only a nominal exposure to Christianity. Others come from churches of many diverse theological backgrounds (or in some cases, churches which are relatively clueless about the Bible).
The people have varying degrees of involvement in the church and in the lives of others. This is one thing we have in common with most churches.
I'm sure there are some who think they are "Christian" just because they "go to church." Even though I stress that it is not how a person becomes a Christian, some don't seem to hear.
Can you imagine it? Some of the parents "punish" their children, by forcing them to not go to church!
A larger number of the youth are female. This tends to leave youth activities somewhat "one-sided," as far as gender is concerned. It doesn't help matters, when the guys are under house arrest or when they have no telephone (so we find it difficult to contact them). Also, many of the guys seem to be focused either on sex or on sports, so things related to Christianity are often very low on their list of priorities.
How should a person respond, when talking to a youth group about sexual sins... and one of the girls interrupts and says, "I did that last week!"
On Sunday mornings, an invitation is often made for those with special needs to come forward for prayer. Normally about a fourth of the people go forward.
I wonder... if I looked closely, would I discover that some of these people were actually Jesus in disguise?
The size of church buildings says nothing about the number of people in those buildings. If spirituality were based on building size, one would wonder if we were living in a "spiritual paradise." Some of the large and ornate - yet almost empty - buildings are probably still here only because of financial endowments made by past generations.
Two churches (and a few volunteers from elsewhere) are working together to have a youth-oriented worship service on Sunday afternoon. (We call the group, "Lost and Found.") There once was another church involved, but they lost interest. (Ironically, I think they have one of the largest buildings and one of the smallest congregations in the area.)
It amazes me, how often industry and "big business" abuse the poor. People are treated like expendable commodities that can be abused to almost no limit, and then disposed of, whenever the business entity feels like doing so.
Many of the low-paying jobs available to the poor don't provide medical benefits. The business entity can work a person until he is either injured or sick from overwork... then it can get rid of him and leave him to find some other way to pay the medical bills.
It's amazing how expensive rent is - sometimes twice the cost of paying a mortgage... for a dumpy, run-down apartment. Duct tape holding the widows together; plaster falling off the ceiling; carpets worn and frayed to the point that they can cause people to trip and fall... Yet the "up front" costs required for buying a house seem almost designed to keep the poor people from getting out of such conditions.
What do you say to a girl, when her mother has a different man each week... supposedly to help pay the bills?
What do you do, when all the "good Christians" leave the city? Leave with them? Stay behind, with the "bad" ones, fully realizing that those who have left will condemn you as "compromising"? (They are the ones who moved away. Why should we be condemned for still having a willingness to associate with the needy and the oppressed?) We have to work with whoever is left - and realize that, if God wants to, he can change the leaders, as well as the laity. My criterion for deciding who I can work with is not whether or not they have reached "spiritual and theological perfection" (which I have not reached, either), but whether or not working with them would require me to compromise my basic focus on the Bible.
Perhaps it shouldn't bother me... but sometimes it does... when I observe how many "church goers" (who claim to "believe the Bible") would rather send a couple dollars to someone else in a far away place, than to become personally involved themselves, anywhere, in living for Jesus... especially when they spend the bulk of their time and money preoccupied with pursuing and gratifying an endless list of pleasures and desires and cravings. Jesus didn't die so that we could live for pleasure. He died so that we could stop living for such things.
According to my recollections, Jesus wants our lives before he wants our money.
I don't listen to news reports, very often. If I paid attention to all the bad things that happened in the area, I'd probably forget the good things. I'd probably panic and leave for some remote place in the country. I'd probably forget to focus on what Jesus said about the life of a disciple. (If being a disciple includes a willingness to "die daily," then what do I have to complain about?)
God's Word tells us, "It is hard for the righteous to be saved." This is from 1 Peter 4:18, and occurs in a context that focuses on suffering for Christ. Those who share in Christ's suffering will also share in his glory. This being the case, what right do I have, to complain when things aren't easy? Do I really want to not share in his glory?
How does a person teach Biblical truth to a generation of youth who have spent most of their lives in an almost morally unconscious (if not morally hostile) environment? Even trying to work on the "basics" is a major struggle. Well, I suppose, if there was hope for Corinth, there is still hope for us.
Once, while playing a "dictionary" word game, in which people compete in guessing the selected word, based on clues given by one of the other players, the one person said the word "marriage" and almost everyone else in the room instantly blurted-out the word "divorce." For most of them, "divorce" isn't just an unfortunate thing; it's the natural "next step" after marriage. (And often, "getting pregnant" is considered the natural "first step" before getting married.)
One week, it may seem that one of the teens has experienced a "spiritual breakthrough." The next week, it may seem that the same person is further behind than ever before.
After all the talks about morality and sexual purity, after frequent reminders to the girls, that the guys who are just after their bodies don't really love them... another girl is pregnant.
Where else could I go, where we could conclude a lesson about "love for neighbor," with a fight in front of the building?
New converts can have really weird ideas.
There are certain topics I never expected to hear girls openly talking about, in a mixed crowd.
Suppose we randomly pick four "typical" youth-related activities. Most likely, one of them will leave me somewhat encouraged. Another time, I will probably feel "neutral." The remaining two times, I will probably be quite depressed, because of the actions, words, or seemingly "spiritual cluelessness" of the youth.
I never thought I'd be in a situation in which I would wish that kids didn't have to go to school. For some of them, the main thing they learn in school is how to sin. It's like a prison they must endure - one that will leave most of them with no hope for better circumstances in the future. Many of them have no hope of ever having anything better than a minimum-wage job - one that is only marginally better than slave labor.
When kids become addicted to cigarettes at the age of eight, who should I be upset with? They're only doing what they've been taught by their parents and peers... and by the large corporations who have spent millions of dollars trying to enslave them at such a young age - the corporations who plan to take their money (and keep them poor), to the day they die.
There are also the issues of alcohol, drug abuse, immorality, and the rest. All these things are not only encouraged at school, at home, and by their peers, but it seems that there are many in the business world - and even in the government - who see it as a means for financial gain. Just look at all the billboards: They testify to the fact that there are business entities that consider it financially profitable to encourage just about every form of moral depravity and habitual enslavement. Even the government is in on it - just look at all the sins that have been "legalized" for "tax purposes."
Sometimes, I feel like my situation is similar to what the Old Testament prophets experienced - those who never saw anything good come from all their efforts. But then, I remind myself that I need to wait for the final Day of Justice, to know for sure. The only frustrating thing about it is this: If, at the Day of Justice, I find out that something I'm doing now is accomplishing nothing of value, it will be too late to change it.
The longer I live in this world, the less I feel at home in it. This is an unfriendly, hostile world. I will never be at home, until I am with the One who saved me. I am looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth - the home of righteousness (2 Peter 3:13).
Dennis Hinks © 2001; slightly updated 2005
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