The Church Needs the Hood

By Justin Horey

It took a gang member for Tommy Nixon to understand grace.

In 2002, Nixon cofounded Solidarity, a ministry designed to “help churches transform their cities,” but after a decade living and working in the low-income neighborhoods of Fullerton, California, he was frustrated.

Nixon’s work with Solidarity had introduced him to a number of local gang members, and he had been ministering to one in particular for 10 years—but the young man’s life wasn’t changing. Despite Nixon’s efforts to help him, the gang member wound up in jail, and even was deported.

Nixon recalls turning to God in confusion and frustration, because his work felt fruitless. Then, he says, the Lord gently revealed the truth: he needed grace from God at least as much as that young gang member needed grace from Nixon. As that reality began to sink in, Nixon sensed God telling him, “Tommy, you are that kid to me.”

Nixon was shocked to realize that, in his work with Solidarity, he had been trying to save people instead of showing them grace. And he began to comprehend just how much grace God had extended to him. Nixon said, “I didn’t understand grace until I actually had to give it.”

The Solidarity Story

Shortly after graduating from Hope International University, Nixon and a group of friends asked themselves how they could obey the second most important commandment—to love their neighbors as themselves—in the city of Fullerton (where HIU is located). That fall, they moved across town into a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood called the Garnet community, and created Solidarity.

The Garnet neighborhood is small—just two blocks by three blocks—but it is home to more than 2,000 people (most of them first- and second-generation Latino Americans). The area is plagued by regular drug trafficking and two rival gangs, but Solidarity describes it as a “culturally vibrant neighborhood full of hidden treasures.”

These children and adult leaders were part of the Maple Neighborhood SolFul (Summer of Love Fullerton). Solidarity helped bring together Fullerton churches to create three SolFul sites in 2009 after the city school district eliminated summer school. The program has continued each year since, and there are now four SolFul sites.
These children and adult leaders were part of the Maple Neighborhood SolFul (Summer of Love Fullerton). Solidarity helped bring together Fullerton churches to create three SolFul sites in 2009 after the city school district eliminated summer school. The program has continued each year since, and there are now four SolFul sites.

Upon arrival, Nixon and his team resisted the urge to implement programs or strategies designed to solve the problems they saw, and instead asked their neighbors: “What do you need?” The answer was clear: families in Garnet needed safe, reliable after-school care for their children, so Solidarity launched the Garnet After-School Program in 2002.

That program began with just eight children meeting in the community center. Today the Garnet After-School Program is reaching more than 100 students every day!

In 2009, Fullerton’s public schools eliminated summer school in response to state budget cuts. This time, Solidarity didn’t need to ask families in the area what they needed; local parents approached them and asked for help. Working families needed a place for their children to go during the summer months, and Solidarity enlisted 13 local churches to provide a citywide solution. They called it “SolFul”—Summer of Love Fullerton—and that first summer, the program served nearly 500 students in three locations. The program has continued every summer since then and now meets in four different neighborhoods.

As he described the services offered by Solidarity’s work with local churches, Nixon said, “There’s been a huge shift in Fullerton. The churches here are really serving tangible, immediate needs in the city.”

These programs have been a welcome addition to the lower-income families in Fullerton and have positively impacted hundreds of young people. But Nixon is quick to point out that those families are not the only ones benefiting. He said, “We moved into a low-income neighborhood, and as God changed the neighborhood, he changed us as well.”

Contexts for Relationships

The changes in Nixon and in Solidarity’s approach to ministry happened over time, through insights like the one Nixon described after becoming frustrated with a gang member’s lack of repentance. Today, Solidarity doesn’t measure success based on whether or not people respond to their efforts. Instead, Nixon said, “My measure of success is: How much do I need God? How much do I depend on him?”

It has been a radical shift, but one that has allowed Nixon and the team at Solidarity to focus on the most important commandment—loving the Lord—before they endeavor to fulfill the second most important commandment. In fact, Nixon adamantly states, “We need to stop trying to save people. It’s God who saves them.” He said, “I’m willing to serve or help these people, not so they will come to my church—or even get saved.”

But it’s not as though salvation and transformation don’t result from Solidarity’s work in the city of Fullerton. As Solidarity expanded outside of the Garnet neighborhood, it began working in the Maple community, home to a rival gang. Today, young people from both neighborhoods—including former gang members—worship together in a youth church called Merge that is led by Solidarity staff.

(For a detailed account of Merge and the story behind it, visit Solidarity’s blog at www.solidarityrising.org.)

Churches Transforming Other Cities

Today, the Solidarity team lives and works primarily in those two neighborhoods in Fullerton, concentrating its efforts on reaching those immediate neighbors. Nixon said, “We have authority and credibility in this city because we live and work in these neighborhoods.” But Solidarity is not just a local organization, and Nixon is committed not only to his own city, but to helping churches transform other cities as well. He said, “We exist to help churches transform their city by giving them unique opportunities to grow—numerically, spiritually, and in influence.”

Nixon’s favorite definition of compassion is to “suffer with” another, and his approach to compassionate ministry reflects it. He said, “We’re trying to help churches engage in contexts for suffering.” It’s a bold calling, but one Nixon believes is essential for any church—or any believer—seeking to make a difference in their city. In his opinion, urban neighborhoods don’t just need the church, but “the church needs the hood.”

Solidarity is not seeking to establish a nationwide organization to replicate the programs established in its hometown. Instead, Nixon said, “We’re the only community development organization that empowers church leaders to do it themselves, by creating accessible bridges for their people to learn and experience how to love their neighbors.”

In short, Nixon said, “We want to help the church do what it says it believes.” To do that, Solidarity leads churches in other cities through a four-step process designed to begin changing their cities. The steps—Experience, Education, Creation, and Integration—are all designed to help churches begin to sense the areas where God is already at work, develop a structure and a process for future ministry, and initiate a “holistic discipleship plan that complements existing church elements.” (For more information, visit www.solidarityrising.org/process.)

The goal is not only to transform cities, but churches as well. And while Solidarity’s aim is to create the structure for churches to minister more effectively in their cities, each congregation and each municipality requires its own unique approach. Nixon said, “We need enough of a structure for people to feel comfortable, but there isn’t one way.”

Learning to Abide

As the executive director of Solidarity, Nixon is committed to his work, but he is especially committed to “helping other Christians really experience God.” In urban ministry, he said, “if the goal is justice, then I might wind up angry. But if the goal is loving God, then I’ll wind up growing closer to him.”

As part of a recent internal project, Solidarity’s employees asked themselves this question: “What does an empowered believer look like?” As they searched the Scriptures, they concluded that the most important quality was “deeply abiding with God.”

The team began to embrace that truth, and it transformed the ministry. It kept people like Nixon’s troubled gang member from discouraging the staff, and it reduced burnout (which had become a growing problem). In July of this year, one Solidarity employee wrote anonymously, “This small switch, valuing BEING with Jesus, over doing things for Jesus, saved Solidarity. It is a constant battle to keep abiding with God as the main value, but that singular focus is what allows resilience in kingdom work.”

Abiding in Christ has allowed Solidarity to bear much fruit. Kevin Doi, founding pastor of Epic Church, an Asian-American congregation in Fullerton, summed it up this way: “What Solidarity offers the church is not a quick fix or another ‘project for impacting your city,’ but a wholly different way of life—one rooted in the humble posture and presence of Jesus among a particular people in a particular place.”

Justin Horey is a writer, musician, and the founder of Livingstone Marketing. He lives in Southern California. 

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