By David Kamphuis
Originally published Oct. 7, 2014, at “The Fire Escape.” Republished with the permission of the author.
The congregation where I am pastor – believe me, it’s here to stay.
“That church is so beautiful. If only it wasn’t in that neighborhood …”
Someone says that comment to me on a regular basis these days. You see, I’m pastor of a congregation in the inner-city. My church is a beautiful cathedral of a building that was built in the 1930s. Since that time, the neighborhood has changed. The neighborhood is more African American, less White middle-class, and has a lot more abandoned buildings then there were in 1936. So when I tell people that I am the new pastor in town, and then tell them where, the conversation frequently goes like this: “Oh, I love your building. Too bad it is in that neighborhood.”
And you know what? I love the building too, but I also love the neighborhood. Actually, it’s not just “the neighborhood” but MY neighborhood because I live right next door to the church. Honestly, I wouldn’t trade my neighborhood for anything. I originally thought about writing a sprawling treatise on how that comment everyone keeps saying to me is really insulting (because it is folks), but maybe the better way is for me to just come out and say the reasons why I care so much. Why I care for my neighborhood. Why I am attracted to congregations in the inner-city. Why I find inner-city ministry to be so life giving. So here it is – five reasons why I find inner-city ministry to be awesome:
1. Inner-city ministry is easier
Yep, you read that right. Look, you either have to be seriously blind or not paying attention if you don’t see all the opportunities for great ministry in the inner-city. From empty lots that can be turned into garden spaces (and do you know how many empty lots there are around me!?) to all the kids that just need a safe place to be after school, there are just so many opportunities. I have a list of about 15 ministry goals that I would love to get done that came from just walking around my block. You can’t miss what people need, what the community needs, what the congregation needs, and where God is working. You basically get smacked in the face on a daily basis with where God is working in the world.
And for a pastor who is pretty dense and needs to be frequently smacked in the face by God, I find that the inner-city is the place for me.
2. The people and stories are never dull
Look, I have been dressed up in a camel costume for a Christmas Eve production, met ex-convicts who have the most brilliant theology I have ever heard, and just the other day I was accused of being an undercover cop (I even had my collar on). You could probably say that all ministry that is done well is never boring, but in the inner-city that principle is on steroids.
3. Money is frequently less a problem
Money is always a problem in congregations, but in my experience I have had less arguments over money and funding in the congregations that have less of it. It’s a funny paradox, I know, but in the congregations that are cash poor, money is less of an issue to fight over.
Notice I said “less of a problem” and not “no problem at all.” I suspect that the church will always face conflicts over money. (Has anyone ever read Acts 5:1-11?)
I suspect that even when Jesus returns someone will be asking what the budget for this New Jerusalem thing is.
4. Trusting only in God’s mercy
This is less a point about inner-city ministry in general and more about inner-city ministry done well. The point here is that precisely because there is less (less money, fewer official members, less worldly marks of success) that means the only thing you can really depend on is God. Inner-city ministry done well means following Martin Luther’s belief that we are to “trust in Christ more boldly.” Following from the story about Elijah and the ravens, I constantly say, “Don’t worry. The ravens will feed us.” It can be a little stressful to depend on those ravens, but often there isn’t anything else we can depend on.
5. Inner-city ministry is chaotic – and chaos is fun
A former supervisor of mine, when he heard that I was interested in inner-city ministry, asked me, “Are you comfortable with chaos? Because this work is chaotic.” Admittedly this is a personal preference, but I like chaos. Inner-city ministry doesn’t submit well to planning and complete organization (a good thing, too, because I am not organized).
Did you know that in Hebrew the word for spirit comes from the same root word for tempest or storm? I love inner-city ministry because the inner-city is one of those places where it is so clear that the Holy Spirit is working. And you know what? The Holy Spirit is an agent of chaos. It’s holy chaos though – the kind of disorder and chaos that shakes up our lives in good ways.
In the book of Job, God speaks to Job out of the whirlwind. In the whirlwind of inner-city ministry, I find that God speaks pretty clearly.
All I can really say is that these are five reasons why I love ministry in the inner-city. If they are not true for you, well that is because you are not me. I can sum up everything by saying this: I got into ministry because of the inner-city; I am completely excited about the congregation I am working at because of the neighborhood it is in. My congregation may have a beautiful building, but it also has a beautiful neighborhood.