Next-Door Urban Ministry
Next-Door Urban Ministry

By Lancelot Schaubert

“I understand that Haiti is hurting: It’s the whipping boy of the world.”

My friend winced, and I immediately knew I’d used a poor metaphor.

“It’s that,” he said, “but it’s all of these people”—he pointed to fellow Christians leaving a church—“going to Haiti on extravagant mission trips and doing nothing for the Haitian next-door.”

We were standing on a street in Manhattan while eating pastrami sandwiches and kettle chips.

He offered me the final piece of a puzzle that has slowly formed over the last few years of our bizarre ministry in New York City. It goes something like this:

1. Caribbean Americans are tired of getting called African-Americans, as are other black Americans.

2. They see us more interested in assuaging our consciences on overseas mission trips than truly helping the poor by tearing down evil systems.

How far away is urban ministry really?

When I moved to New York City to set up a radical hospitality ministry with my bride, I never imagined how much I would learn about the pain, isolation, and loneliness of our churches back home. For instance: few people in the Restoration Movement realize how much the phrase “inner-city ministry” sounds like a dog whistle to people of color. It sounds exactly like “let’s go take care of the poor, pitiful black folk in Haiti.” And yet most of the black guys I met in New York during our first year came from Caribbean and African countries that receive this kind of pitying, dignity-erasing relief from rich white churches.

More than 800,000 Haitians live in the United States, which is nearly 10 percent of the population of Haiti itself, and they often live in our local hubs of poverty.

How did we get here? How did we get to a place where we will travel over land and sea to make a single convert who ends up being twice a son of Hell as us? How did we get to be so open to the black man overseas and so closed to the black man next-door?


How We Got Here

In his recent book The Divide, economist Jason Hickle asserts that this situation came about largely as a result of hundreds of years of conquest and colonization, of plundering resources and dispossessing the poor. Some nations—Great Britain, France, Spain—built their empires on the backs of what eventually became third world countries.

Fast forward to the 1960s, when Lyndon B. Johnson said, “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”

This remains indicative of an overall divide-and-conquer strategy of the powers that be. Many churches, including some in the Restoration Movement, bought into the lies of class division and the aspirations for middle class and actively participated in redlining and white flight and gentrification. We still do.


Working for Change

My wife, Tara, and I didn’t want to keep thinking and acting like that because it’s a lie found nowhere in Scripture, one that pits weak against weak to benefit the strong. By opening our doors to those unlike us in Joplin, Missouri, Tara and I found ourselves well-prepared for radical hospitality in New York City—a ministry that has ended up teaching us more about the first-century church than anything Alexander Campbell ever said.

We now regularly serve meals at our dining room table for the homeless, poor and rich blacks, middle-class Jews, artists, high-class professionals, college students, and retired businesspeople. All of this made me curious, so I started demographic research on the towns of some of our home churches.

In my unwillingness to open my doors wide and love on neighbors from certain New York neighborhoods, I’ve accidentally exposed my former unwillingness to spend time in the “rough side” of Centralia, Illinois, while I lived in Salem. I’ve become painfully aware of my resistance to pack up my house and move into the poorer black side of Joplin, Missouri. I’ve also noticed many of my peers moved out to the country or to richer neighborhoods to stay away from what they considered “lower” classes.

In contrast, Jordan Rice of Renaissance Harlem is getting as many people in his church as possible to send their kids to the worst school in the neighborhood.

Gentrification and white flight is our apartheid, our modern colonizing. The problem starts the moment we refuse to participate in a specific locale, when we refuse to get involved. When we’re more worried about whether a specific kind of people we don’t like is our immediate neighbor. When we’re more concerned about whether we have bad neighbors instead of whether we’re moving into places to be good neighbors.


A Broken System

When we say we’ll give money to missions to fix the problem, we often exacerbate the problem because we’re assuaging our consciousness for the systemic evils we propagate.

Don’t believe me?

Hickle demonstrates the egregious inequality between the global north and south and how it came about. He argues that economic aid and charity as well as our predilection toward economic development will not solve the problem.

We annually give $128 billion to poverty relief. That’s a lot of money.

But then subtract $60 billion that developing countries must pay to first world countries to use their patents on things like insulin and solar panels, $138 billion that corporations extract from poor countries for tax holidays, and $211 billion poor countries pay on debt rich countries own.

Subtract $480 billion for policies rich countries wrote to restructure the global south and the $700 billion rich countries got by avoiding export revenues poor countries could level.

Throw away the $486 billion that foreign investors take out of developing countries and territories like Puerto Rico each year through pension funds and 401(k) accounts invested in their continued oppression.

Subtract $1.75 trillion for trade misinvoicing and abusive transfer pricing, $973 billion for capital flight, and another $2.66 trillion for unequal currency exchanges that favor countries like the United States, Germany, and Japan.

Do you know where that leaves you if you’re in the third world?

About $7.9 trillion in the hole.

In other words, almost half the gross domestic product of the United States. It’s quite a con job.

And remember, that’s including the $128 billion we give every year to help the poor. Imagine if you didn’t give to these organizations.


Preserving an Evil Status Quo

Proverbs 19:4 implies that the poor lack friends not because they’re poor; they’re poor because they don’t have good systems of support in the form of friends, neighbors, and bosses. Had Christian businesspeople paid higher wages to their employees over the last 500 years—and offered health care and education more recently—it would have done far more to advance the cause of Christ’s justice in the world than simply making all the money they could and giving it to charity.

God offered this rebuke in Isaiah 58:3: “You do what you please and exploit all your workers.”

Modern charity isn’t sacrificial love. Or even alms.

Modern charity is a guilt and regret tax.

It’s the reason Dr. Martin Luther King in Letter to a Birmingham Jail said it’s not the Ku Klux Klan but the moderate that has to change, not white supremacy but white apathy. It’s because average people prop up broken systems and an evil status quo.

And it’s why the rich young ruler went to Jesus and listed off how he’d kept all of the commandments and Jesus told him to sell everything he had and give his money to the poor.

Because even though the rich young ruler kept the commands in his personal life, he’d broken them in his corporate life through the broken systems he willingly participated in, through the status quo he preserved.

He didn’t dishonor his parents, but perhaps the throne he served did.

He didn’t lie, but perhaps the lawyers on his side did.

He didn’t murder, but perhaps he benefitted from a police force that did kill innocent civilians—Roman legionaries weren’t kind to Jews, you know.

He didn’t commit adultery or steal, but perhaps the kind of covetous system he participated in forced people into sex slavery and prostitution and left them with no choice but to rob.

The systems we live with are not only broken, they’re evil.

I was at the Eastern Christian Convention in Hershey, Pennsylvania, a few years back staying at a hotel with some church planters. A fellow pastor named Watson needed to head out to the store to get some dish soap. He’s a pastor. I think a doctor of theology too.

Oh right—he’s black.

I didn’t know why he wanted me to go with him. Why he wanted me to drive. Why he wanted me to go in with him and stay close. We got back into the car with the goods and he had to stop and take some breaths.

“Watson, what gives?” I asked.

“Black guy in a rich white neighborhood in Hershey, Pennsylvania, at half past midnight. Wouldn’t end well without you.”

“You’re a doctor. A pastor. Surely it would be fine.”

He laughed. “You’re naïve, brother. If this is how I feel, imagine the poor 11-year-old in Philly with no neighbors and no resources.”

The next night he gave the keynote to a roomful of white folk at one of our movement’s Christian conferences.


Practical, Beautiful Urban Ministry

“Sell everything you have and give to the poor.”

It’s quite practical, really, this urban ministry that’s right next-door to you. Here are five steps each of us can take to make a difference:

1. Don’t think you need to move overseas or across the country or across the state.

2. Identify the poorest neighborhood in your city or county and make sure the people there don’t look like you.

3. Sell everything you and your family have.

4. Move into that neighborhood. Maybe into a trailer park, housing project, run-down apartment complex, or row of tumbledown shacks.

5. Help the locals reclaim their resources, educate them, and give them local control of things like water or abandoned buildings or parks or air so that it benefits the community in which they live.

That’s it. Go do that and watch how absolutely beautiful it makes your life. Don’t do it out of guilt. Do it because it’s a gorgeous way to live this life that you don’t deserve anyway, a handsome and fair way to live out the grace of God.

Lancelot Schaubert is a writer and producer living in New York City.

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