I’m a white, middle class man. I attend a church of mostly white, middle class people. My church is located in the middle of a very poor, almost exclusively Black neighborhood. The average family lives in the neighborhood for less than six months. The struggles and poverty there are palpable and unsettles me. The majority of the church’s outreach ministry is to that community, particularly its children and teens. A lot of kids come to the children’s/youth service on Wednesday nights, where they play basketball, eat a meal, and have a Bible study or short lesson. Some of those kids come on Sunday mornings. Even more of the people from the neighborhood come to our various outreach events, such as our Christmas, Halloween (er . . . Fall Festival), and Juneteenth parties.
When my family joined this church and started getting involved in its ministry, I thought that we were there to do good work in the community—to bring Jesus to impoverished African Americans who mostly didn’t attend church. We were there, I thought, to help them learn how to raise their children, achieve financial stability, prepare healthy meals, and the like. I thought that I had something to offer this community because I had “made it”: I am a Christian, financially stable, well educated, and I know how to cook.
Several months ago I resigned from my job as an assistant professor. That led to a lot of long discussions with my wife about what we want to do, where we want to live, and how we want to live. A major issue we kept coming back to was living locally, being fully engaged in a local community for the good of that community, and living in the same neighborhood where we worship on Sundays. And that made me start thinking about the outreach work we do at our church, and specifically about my assumptions regarding the people who live in that community and the “good I bring them.”
This is when I began to ask: what if it wasn’t the community who needed me and my church, but rather me and my church who needed that community? What if God had placed the community there to help me? I (and my family) have gifts to contribute, sure, but my arrogance didn’t let me see these people as people whom I need.
I need them.
The people in my church’s community are just that—people. They are not problems to solve, and it reeks of implicit bias and racism to think that I’m somehow there to “save” them because we live in different parts of town and deal with different types of issues.
Paul tells us that people are what make up the body of believers that we call the church. “Though many,” we “are one body.” As Paul develops his metaphor in 1 Corinthians, it’s clear that the body is intimately connected. If one part hurts, so does the rest of the body. In the same way, if part of the body is missing, the whole body suffers. So it’s not that this neighborhood needs my church; it’s that my church needs this neighborhood if our body is to be complete. They bring gifts we don’t have and perspectives we need, and we (that is, I) am in grave danger of missing out on the one-on-one, horizontal aspect of the gospel if I keep looking at people as projects rather than co-laborers for the gospel and co-lovers of our great God.
James confronts my pride and bias in a particularly poignant way:
“My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, ‘Here’s a good seat for you,’ but say to the poor man, ‘You stand there’ or ‘Sit on the floor by my feet,’ have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?
Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court? Are they not the ones who are blaspheming the noble name of him to whom you belong?
If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers.” (James 2:1–9)
Of course I didn’t see my actions as favoritism or mistreatment of the poor, but that’s exactly what I was doing. I’d elevated myself above a whole neighborhood on the basis of my education and bank account, not thinking in the slightest that perhaps God had placed me there because of my lack rather than because of my abundance. So, instead of seeing myself as the white knight come to save the impoverished POC community, God is teaching me that I, in fact, am the one impoverished. I need the love, relationships, gifts, and community of the people among whom God has placed my church building.