By Jennifer Taylor
Residents of inner-city Cincinnati need money. They need educational opportunities. They need clothes, medical care, and healthy food. But Hope Inner City provides none of that.
Instead, the young couples working in this economically distressed, sometimes dangerous neighborhood offer the gospel through consistent loving relationships. It’s a new approach for many church leaders, but for these missionaries it’s the best way to build the kingdom.
Programs vs. Presence
Hope Inner City does organize some program-oriented outreach activities; a ministry for children ages 4 to 9 includes songs, stories, games, snacks, and more, while a preteen ministry focuses on kids 10 and older. Volunteers from local churches and Cincinnati Christian University provide additional help, and dozens of kids pack out the storefront meeting spot each week.
JP Glenn works with adults and coaches basketball at a public school nearby. Jonathan Wier mentors a small group of teen boys, often taking them to a BMX track across town. Chloe Glenn teaches piano lessons and plays softball. Team leader Jade Kendall also disciples a group of young athletes who throw footballs and explore Scripture together.
However, even these activities center around long-term relationships.
“Initially we felt a lot of pressure to create a dynamic, exciting, entertainment-based youth ministry,” Jade says. “But we weren’t actually reaching the kids. So we got rid of weekly events and created four or five small groups, each with different needs and a different structure. Instead of worrying about numbers at a gathering, we’re focusing on depth of relationship with a smaller group.”
This focus extends to the teams of short-term missionaries who volunteer with Hope Inner City each year. Although Chloe, who has led the work groups program, finds opportunities for visiting teams to make tangible differences, even short-term workers are expected to invest in relationships.
“The teams paint, repair plumbing, clean, and pull weeds,” she says. “And while it’s nice to get these things done and improve our neighborhood, it’s not our agenda. We want to educate people about urban ministry, show them the realities of life here, and perhaps inspire them to consider ongoing ministry in an inner city.”
To this end, Chloe ensures short-term teams visit with kids on the neighborhood playground, play basketball, and just “hang out” with local residents. She even asks the teams to ride the bus downtown so they learn how the necessity of public transportation affects daily life in the city.
“The main goal is breaking some stereotypes,” she says. “During debriefing sessions the visiting teams express awareness that not everyone in the city is African-American, that not everyone is on drugs or dangerous, that many are hardworking people in tough situations.”
“They say, ‘These kids are just like us,’” adds Jade. “That’s substantial, I think.”
The Hope Inner City team insists on building connections over maintaining programs because they believe the city’s intense problems can only be solved through intense relationship. “If children need tutoring we don’t start a tutoring program,” Jade says. “We’ll take them to an existing program on a consistent basis and support them while they learn.”
But the temptation is always there.
“It’s so hard to get away from the idea of formal ministry programs, especially those that do provide some short-term positive benefit,” he says. “I’m learning to say no to good things to allow room for the best, because I can have relationships with a few people that really do make significant changes in their lives. But the tendency is always to encompass more people and do more and consequently be less effective.”
Jamie Carmichael began ministering in the neighborhood in 1975 and continues to serve with adult ministries and preaching at State Avenue Church of Christ, the “home base” for Hope Inner City’s Cincinnati work.
“Jamie and his wife have been the stability here for more than 30 years, and he inspired much of our relational emphasis,” Jade says. “Because of his example, Hope Inner City plans to start multiple relational churches instead of a megachurch with extensive programming.”
“The Carmichaels model an approach of dealing with each situation and person individually to reach their spiritual needs, not just surface needs,” agrees Jade’s wife, Kim. “The surface needs are real, but we will never be able to solve all those problems. We focus on loving the people and helping them find their real solutions in the Lord who heals hearts.”
This type of ministry is foreign to many middle-class, suburban supporters, who often look for numbers and results to justify support dollars.
“It happens in every Christian context,” Jade says. “People want to know how many are coming to programs and accepting Christ, and they’re disappointed by low numbers. It’s hard not to be cynical, but many suburban churches do understand and want to help.”
“We have to define success for ourselves instead of looking to others’ definitions,” Chloe adds. “For us, success is obeying God as best we can and doing his work. We can’t focus on the numbers or we’ll be disappointed, too—sometimes we lead people to Christ who later go back to the street and ignore us. You have to keep going.”
These experiences cause another major shift in thinking.
“Even though we live in the U.S. and speak English, we live on a mission field and experience culture shock when we leave,” Kim says.
One of the major differences between middle-class America and inner-city culture is the approach to time. While most affluent churches, businesses, and families are goal-focused, scheduled, and busy, inner-city residents are more driven by a focus on people.
“Again, it’s relationships, and it can be good and bad,” Kim says. “If you’re on the way to church or work and someone stops you to talk, you slow down and chat for 20 or 30 minutes. The schedule moves to the back burner. While this communicates a huge value for individuals, it obviously causes problems with teachers and employers who expect punctuality! And it causes difficult transitions when we visit our hometowns, where people don’t stop and talk because they have an appointment. We have to relearn those cultural values and not feel hurt.”
Despite these challenges, the Kendalls and Glenns enjoy their work—and the opportunity for future growth. Another young couple, Jonathan and Hannah Wier, have joined the team, and Hope Inner City plans to plant another church by 2011.
Jade also challenges students to consider urban ministry as a possibility.
“The American Dream pulls all of us, and in many ways that’s fine,” he says. “Everyone wants safety, education, and good things for their family. But why do we produce 100 ministers for suburban churches and only a few for inner-city work? It comes back to our definition of success, and we see cities full of people who also need love and concern and friendship.”
“There are more important things than having my dream house or the perfect preschool experience for my kids,” says Kim. “Church is about teaching our children to live in a world that’s not perfect. It’s not a bad thing to wrestle with tough questions or seek the Scriptures for insight! We’re learning you can minister to just a small group of people and show another way to live, a life of hope.”
Jennifer Taylor, one of CHRISTIAN STANDARD’s contributing editors, lives in Antioch, Tennessee. For more information, go to www.HopeInnerCity.org.