Neglected ministry of the ghetto

Our inner cities may be the world's last mission field.

Teresa S. Caine is a freelance writer from Grand Bay, Alabama.

The dark, trash-cluttered streets are damp from the mist of the night. A stray dog roams about, scrounging for scraps to fill his empty belly. He stops suddenly and sniffs the air, catching the scent of human blood. He howls mournfully. The sound of it echoes eerily throughout the ghetto.

In a back alley lies a mutilated youth in a puddle of his own blood. His clothes are in tatters from his attacker's knife. Shreds of cloth stick to the hair around his gaping wounds. Scattered about are a few remaining stolen bills intended for a drug deal. Helpless and barely conscious, he moans, "Dear God, if You exist, where are You now?" Tears mingle with sweat, stinging the cuts on his face.

In a dingy tenement high above the street, a woman hides her two toddlers in a closet just before her drunken husband staggers through the door. She greets him cheerily, hoping to ward off further trouble. He responds with curses, condemning her as "no good," and at the same time demanding supper. She offers a small plate with what little she could scrape together. He frowns at the food and shouts, "Can't you do any better than that!"

"It's all we have left," she cries. "The kids ate only a potato, and I haven't eaten at all. I need a little more money to—" Before she can finish her statement, his arm sweeps the plate to the floor, shattering it into pieces.

"All you want from me is money!" he yells insanely. "You're no better than a slut on the street!" Seeing the red glaze in his eyes, the woman tries to run. He grabs her by the hair. "You want food? Then you eat this garbage!" He mashes her face into the broken pieces of porcelain, causing the jagged edges to tear her tender skin. She screams and begs him to stop hurting her, but like someone possessed he continues to grind her face unmercifully.

In the closet the two toddlers huddle together. Their muffled cries harmonize with the dog's mournful howl outside.

Misfortunates in a rut

These stories are real. In the heart of every inner city lies the ghetto, a dismal society whose members cry out for help but usually find little. They are stuck in a rut because of social unacceptance, low self-esteem, and a lack of skills, com pounded by problems ranging from addiction to the severest cases of codependency, abuse, and neglect. These misfortunates manage only to exist from day to day. Don't expect them to think or work their way out of their environment; they have long since lost their ability to think or work for themselves.

Their only hope

Their only hope is the transforming power of God. But how can they find Him? Yes, the marvels of nature testify of an omnipotent God and His everlasting love, but the ghetto has no majestic mountains, living forests, or lovely birds. Nevertheless, just as a velvety rose counter acts the evil thorns, just one blossoming Christian can reveal the grace of God in a slum.

When we experience God's love in our own lives, we are equipped to help others know that He is a "compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin" (Ex. 34:6, 7, NIV).

Unfortunately, few good Christians ever venture into a rugged ghetto to share the gospel. It is one of the most neglected ministries on earth today.

Neglected by the church

Most of our churches are situated in nice suburban areas, ministering to the suburban classes. Away from the inner city, most of us tend to be out of touch with people of the ghetto, unable to meet their needs.

Sometimes ghetto dwellers manage to find their way into suburban churches, only to be ostracized back out again. A pastor and his wife took into their home three inner-city kids who were taking a stand for Christianity. Two were boys who had been repeatedly threatened by gangs, and the third was a teenage girl who had been sexually abused by her stepfather after he had dragged her mother to sleep. The boys were first to be baptized. The girl, sitting in the audience, found herself moved by their public witness. She asked for permission to stand up before the church and testify about her gratitude that God had come into her life and rescued her from the ghetto. Her request was declined. A couple church leaders decided that her testimony would be inappropriate. Besides, they said, fellow members didn't appreciate their pastor taking street people into his home.

The girl ran out of the church in tears and never returned. She may have had rough edges to her character that some members found offensive, like nature's prickly thorns, but a rosebud had begun to blossom. Had she found acceptance in the church, she might have become a powerful witness to others of her back ground. Instead, the church's lack of social acceptance crushed the tender buds of first faith.

How to help the helpless

1. Accept them where they are. This is difficult for many members whose primary interest is maintaining high standards. We must consider, however, people's backgrounds. Many struggle with the inherent afflictions of a dysfunctional society. To overcome and change, they require time and nurturing in a safe environment. The outcasts especially need compassion, unconditional love, and mercy before they can change. Christ's two great commandments, to love God and love your neighbor as yourself, clearly commission us to honor His open-door policy regarding church fellowship. Jesus said, "For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.... I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me" (Matt. 25:35-40, NIV).

2. Acquaint yourself with spiritually oriented recovery opportunities in your area (Parents Anonymous, Alcoholics Anonymous, Al-Anon, Adult Children of Alcoholics, etc.). In these pro grams your baptismal candidates can find specialized help. A church should not attempt to solve all personal problems most churches are not equipped to do so. The knowledge of God's love and Bible truth is wonderful and essential, but it may not be enough to carry alcoholics through the detoxification process. Along with the loving support of the church, they need the practical help of an AA-type program to fully recover and rebuild their lives. In addition, many community social services offer family counseling on a sliding scale for low income families. Churches should not only familiarize themselves with resources available but also supplement them with prayer and transportation.

3. To minister effectively, church members must be helpers without becoming enablers of dependency. Ghetto victims become dependent on others for what they should do for them selves, having lost the ability to manage their own lives. They are experts at imploring pity and handouts from those willing to give. While these victims do need compassion and items of necessity, they also need rehabilitation. Everything about them needs to be converted and re created every day. We must teach them to persevere in overcoming their many temptations, like Mary Magdalene, who be came repossessed six times after her con version before she finally conquered in Christ.

Self-sufficiency is the goal. Unfortunately, too many pastors are frustrated and even burned out because they made themselves enablers instead of helpers.

4. Traditional evangelism seldom works in the ghetto. We must devise creative ways of reaching people on the streets with the gospel. Here are four ideas that have proved effective.

a. Van ministries. Find a name for your group ministry, post it on a van, and make weekly trips into the ghetto. Do blood pressure checks and other health screenings. Church members will find opportunities for personal witnessing, leaving literature relevant to felt needs. (All literature should bear the church's phone number and address.) Volunteers can also drum up Bible study interests for follow-up. Later, the van can transport interests to and from the church for weekly worship and other meetings.

b. Clown ministries. The youth are especially good at taking this wonderful ministry to the streets. They dress in clown attire and perform skits or mimes containing relevant Christian themes. Afterward they mingle with spectators, passing out literature for both adults and children. Sometimes balloons with mes sages can advertise upcoming meetings.

c. Street preaching. Pick a corner, set up a microphone (and platform if possible) , and preach the love of Jesus! Other members' personal testimonies will add power to the preaching. Just make sure they give testimonies people can relate to. If your church has musical talent, here is an opportunity to use it. Bible workers in the crowd can pass out literature and find study interests. For the best turnout, advertise ahead of time with a clown ministry. Since the poor rarely read news papers, the best advertising is through flyers distributed door-to-door a week in advance, or through commercials aired over a popular radio station.

d. Branch Sabbath schools. Bringing street people into a suburban church spawns problems that most members are not prepared to face. However, branch Sabbath schools can bridge the gap be tween the slums and suburbia. Housing projects generally allow churches to rent an apartment for Christian ministry. These extremely inexpensive apartments en able the church to meet ghetto dwellers on their own turf. Everything from prayer meetings to cooking schools, Bible studies, youth meetings, and anonymous 12-step recovery programs can be conducted from this one branch Sabbath school. The better these programs, the faster word spreads on the streets and the more people come to Christ and begin attending church.

What did Jesus do?

Throughout His ministry on earth, Jesus invited everyone into fellowship with Him. Those who were down and out won most of His attention, perhaps be cause in the dregs of humanity Christ found humble souls who were hungry for His unconditional love.

We who bear His name reach across the ocean and baptize thousands daily, but at home many would-be saints are left alone to suffer in the slums. Our neglected ghettos may be the world's last mission field. Time is short and what we do we must do quickly.


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Teresa S. Caine is a freelance writer from Grand Bay, Alabama.

August 1992

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