I can’t breathe

Can the church help our cities to breathe again? It must!

Robert Davis, DMin, pastors the Denver Park Hill Seventh-day Adventist Church, Denver, Colorado, United States.

The image of Eric Garner being choked to death on July 17, 2014, for allegedly selling untaxed cigarettes on a street corner in Staten Island, New York, remains burned into the consciousness of the American psyche. While being placed in a chokehold for 15 to 19 seconds, Mr. Garner can be heard on a cell phone video saying 11 times, “I can’t breathe.” His dying declaration helped spark the Black Lives Matter movement and came to symbolize the plight of minorities in America. Mr. Garner’s words can also be seen as a greater metaphor symbolizing the asphyxiating condition of urban residents.

Anguish of spirit

We remember Moses’ frustration with the children of Israel and their struggles to trust God throughout their wilderness experience. Again and again the Israelites complained about the slightest hardship. This reaction began in Egypt when Moses first approached them. Yet, while the Israelites received scathing rebukes for their stubbornness and lack of faith once they crossed the Red Sea, God did not condemn or chastise them for their faithlessness when they were in Egypt.

The Lord understood the spiritual, emotional, and psychological experiences that affected the way the Israelites received Moses and, ultimately, God Himself. The debilitating incidents of everyday life in slavery left the Israelites in a state of human exhaustion. “So Moses spoke thus to the children of Israel; but they did not heed Moses, because of anguish of spirit and cruel bondage” (Exod. 6:9, NKJV). It was not that the Israelites were naturally a recalcitrant people, but, rather, the cruel bondage, which produced anguish of spirit, rendered them incapable of heeding Moses.

This expression anguish of spirit comes from the two-word Hebrew phrase miq-qō·ṣěr rûaḥ. Miq-qō·ṣěr means “shortness, to be lacking, or to be missing.” Rûaḥ means “spirit, breath, or to breathe.” Literally translated, the phrase indicates shortness of breath or not being able to breathe. Exodus 6:9 leads us to understand that the Israelites could not listen to Moses because they could not breathe. Miqqō·ṣěr rûaḥ tells us that the shortness of breath resulted “from anguish, inward pressure, which prevents a man from breathing properly.”1 The Israelites had been so overwhelmed by hardship and systematic oppression that they could not breathe.

Principalities, powers, and pain

The psycho-emotional condition of the Israelites in Egypt has profound relevance for the way we should approach urban ministry. Like Moses, those who develop and execute inner-cities ministries struggle to relieve the asthma of the everyday life of urban jungles. Principalities and powers and the rulers of the darkness of this world have created such malignant systems and malicious structures that we find ourselves dealing with urban communities that cannot breathe. 

Moreover, such conditions are not restricted to any one race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status. The effects of urban life take their toll on all peoples. The opening lines of Charles Dickens book A Tale of Two Cities summarizes the plight of urban life: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us . . .”

On the one hand, urban life offers sprawling condos and newly built town-houses, attracting the upwardly mobile. Higher wage jobs, the convenience of commute, revitalized communities, and the influx of industry and opportunity make urban living quite inviting. However, with those opportunities come unintended consequences, such as a workload that places unrealistic demands on personal and family time and leaves many disconnected from family and community. The high financial costs of urban living cause many to live beyond their means and become burdened with debt. Many attempt to numb the pain of the resulting dysfunctional relationships with alcohol, prescription drugs, and opioids, the latter producing an ever-growing opioid crisis.2

On the other hand, urban life presents massive gentrification that displaces entire communities, uproots families, and further cripples economic opportunities. Police fatalities are coupled with police brutalities. Urban camping laws criminalize homelessness. The defunding of mental health facilities has led to unnecessary incarceration of the mentally disabled. In addition, the daily indignities associated with poverty further worsen the problem.3

Addressing the symptoms

Anyone who suffers from asthma knows the terror of an asthma attack. The need to breathe becomes all-consuming. Regardless of an individual’s spiritual ability, educational level, or socioeconomic status, trying to have a rational discussion about politics, finances, or religion with someone suffering from an asthma attack is unrealistic at best and inhumane at worst. As with the Israelites in Egypt, urban centers increasingly produce souls who, crushed under the burden of life, cannot breathe.

In urban centers, evangelism often borders on the anemic as people can-not hear the gospel when they cannot breathe. Perhaps the church’s insensitivity to people’s asthmatic response to modern urban life is one of the causes of the secularization of America. Denver activist and attorney Elizabeth Epps noted that urban African Americans are leaving the traditional church, and for too many blacks, Christianity has become more of a cultural religion, reminisced with fond memories of the hand clapping and toe tapping of the old country church.

Pastor John D. Aaron Jr. of the Nazarene Missionary Baptist Church in Alexandria, Louisiana, told me during my first year of pastorate after the seminary, “Son, you do not just pastor a church, you pastor the entire city.” How do churches, pastors, and ministries address and relieve these symptoms so that urban dwellers can be in a psycho-emotional and spiritual place to hear the life-changing gospel of Jesus? The answer and the work are not quick, easy, or glamorous but may be achieved through the following strategies.

Peruse. Both Moses and Jesus assessed the circumstances, situations, and needs of their people before they launched into a strategy. “So Moses went and returned to Jethro his father-in-law, and said to him, ‘Please let me go and return to my brethren who are in Egypt, and see whether they are still alive’ ” (Exod. 4:18, NKJV). “When he [Jesus] saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matt. 9:36, ESV).

Scripture informs us that both Moses and Jesus heard the divine Voice communicating the plight of the people. Today’s divine Voice is heard when reading various local news­ papers, attending civic and community association meetings, visiting with elected officials and community leaders, riding city transportation, joining interfaith ministerial alliances, and interacting with neighbors surrounding our churches. Our objective is to become keenly aware of urban life, the life of our cities.

Because of the modern commuter church phenomenon (members traveling into the community where the church is located but not living there or being connected to its issues/concerns), many of our members are detached from the church’s immediate environment, so they can offer little meaningful assistance by way of urban ministry. Perusing the situation and realities of our communities helps inform our members of real needs and awakens a sense of urgency. 

Pastors and congregations that wish to be relevant and have a meaningful influence on their cities will take the time to become informed about the issues affecting their residents. While all cities have similar basic issues, we can develop specific approaches only from an informed perspective on and under-standing of the needs and situation of each community. Too often pastors attempt to transpose successes from other cities into their current context. Learning about an individual city and its citizens will lead to more relevant, long-term methods and strategies.

Participate. The needs and challenges of urban ministry are too vast for any one church to address individually. Pastors and congregations should seek to collaborate with other entities that can impact the city. Our collaboration partners should consist of the following four groups: ministerial alliances, community activist organizations, community organizers (e.g., the PICO4 [people improving communities] National Network), and community development organizations. At times the church needs to lead marches against unjust laws and policies. Other times it should help communities organize so that they can chart a  path of self-reliance and growth. Often a church must plan strategies and develop resources to bring about development (e.g., affordable housing, mental health services, addiction recovery programs). And sometimes our churches will have to provide financial and volunteer support for community organizations. Every city has individuals and organizations that seek to improve the community, and we should and can, without compromising our core biblical beliefs, partner with such entities. The purpose is altruistic motives, not ulterior ones.

Collaborating with organizations and churches on the front line of urban compassion keeps us from reinventing the wheel and appearing arrogant and aloof from the very people who need to help us further the gospel’s objective. Moreover, cooperating with such entities also provides an indispensable commodity—credibility. If trust is necessary to move a church forward—a church that shares our theological views—how much more is it vital when we interact with the unchurched and those with opposing theological understandings?

Practice. No church, no matter how large, has the ability to address all urban needs and challenges. Churches have to determine how they are going to affect their city. This is where perusing and participating become even more relevant. Too often churches tend to veer to one of two extremes: they either become rigid and provide no real ministry to their community or attempt to become all things to everyone and ultimately do not serve anyone. Pastors and congregations should be clear about their resources and abilities and should focus on those things they can do well. It is far better for a church to provide one ministry to their community successfully (e.g., an addiction support small group) than to attempt many ventures with half-hearted sloppiness.5

With a desire to be strategic and relevant, Pastor Dave Kennedy and the New Day Seventh-day Adventist Church in the Denver, Colorado, area partner with various organizations, helping raise funds and connecting church members with volunteer opportunities. This partnering has allowed them to maximize their congregation’s resources. They have launched a new ministry, offering young adults cross-cultural Christian experience.

Pastor Terrence Hughes of Alpha and Omega Ministries began by setting up a folding table in the section of Denver that has the most homeless people and offering water and snacks to the homeless, as well as clean needles.

Help them breath again

Because pastors have a limited amount of time each day, they have to make decisions regarding its use. How will the pastor balance his or her time with pastoral visitations, managing church projects, and administrative work related to finances and organization as well as the need to be relevant to the community?6 We cannot accomplish urban ministry in the pastoral study or the boardroom. It is successful only when we get out and just do it. We cannot ignore the labored breathing of communities crushed by the weight of urban living.

Like Moses, we are called to see the condition of the people in our communities, join hands with the workers, and share a strategy of freedom. Through the breath of God (rûaḥ ʾěah), we can help our cities breathe again.

1  Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsch, Commentary on the Old Testament, vol. 1 (Peabody, MA:Hendrickson, 1996), 304.

2  See Josh Katz and Abby Goodnough, “The Opioid Crisis Is Getting Worse, Particularly for Black Americans,” New York Times, December 22, 2017. nytimes.com/interactive/2017/12/22/upshot /opioid-deaths-are-spreading-rapidly-into-black -america.html

3  See Karen Weese, “Why It Costs So Much to Be Poor in America,” Washington Post, January 25, 2018. washingtonpost.com/news/posteverything /wp/2018/01/25/why-it-costs-so-much-to-be-poor -in-america/?utm_term=.20f57b65a141.

4  PICO National Network is a national network of progressive faith-based community organizations in the United States.

5  Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It)(New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2011).

6  See for example Greg McKeown, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less (New York, NY: CrownBusiness, 2014).

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Robert Davis, DMin, pastors the Denver Park Hill Seventh-day Adventist Church, Denver, Colorado, United States.

September 2018

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