The heart of inner-city ministry

I met Popeye a few months ago – not the spinach-loving cartoon character, but a real-life man. His eyes were small and clear, and his hands looked like weathered sand on the beach. He was an old mariner who had served in the U.S. navy. Now, he’s homeless.

I sat with Popeye in the middle of a crowded shopping area and got to know him a bit. He was obviously intoxicated, but his story was riveting. He talked about the sea and about his family. After a while, I got up to leave, but he pulled me back with his enormous hand. “Thank you,” he said. “Thanks for listening.”

When we talk about inner-city ministry, we often think about programs – soup kitchens, food banks, thrift stores, ESL classes. These are important and practical expressions of faith. And most Christians give generously to support these efforts.

But there’s more to inner-city ministry than simply giving money to programs. It’s about looking people in the eye and acknowledging their humanity. It’s about paying attention, hearing stories, shaking hands, and greeting people as fellow pilgrims on this earth. But it’s not always easy.

As Christians, we readily agree with the theological concept that each person is created in God’s image. We believe that each has intrinsic worth and value. But we don’t always follow through with loving action, especially when it comes to poor people who live in the core area of our cities. How often do we avoid eye contact with a homeless person begging for money? How often do we cross the street when we see an “unsavoury” person walking towards us on Main St.?

I’ll admit, it’s easy to become jaded, especially when we read newspaper headlines. A February Winnipeg Free Press article reported that 38 street people were chronic emergency callers, responsible for more than 1,000 calls in just over a year, costing the city millions. It’s easy to label these folks burdens on the system and then look the other way.

If we actually get involved in the inner city, most of us prefer to do so in impersonal ways. We donate money and pray for inner-city ministries. We debate the issues (such as drug addiction, AIDS, decent housing, mental illness), but overlook the faces behind those issues. We want to help, but hesitate to form relationships. We depersonalize the problem.

Peter Jon Mitchell, a research analyst for the Institute of Marriage and Family Canada, reminds us:

At times, the homeless are cited as a nuisance, alternatively, they become the temporary object of our seasonal charity. What might not be so readily apparent as we slosh through the slushy sidewalks downtown to grab a coffee or mail a letter is that people like the man huddled against the mailbox are members of a family. They are sons and daughters and sometimes – moms or dads.

Jesus must be our example when it comes to inner-city ministry. He was intimately involved in peoples’ lives. Despite cultural taboos, he talked to the Samaritan woman at the well and listened to her story. He physically touched a man with leprosy, changing the patient’s status from “outcast” to “beloved.” Jesus walked to the centre of town, called Zacchaeus by name, and ate a meal with him.

“We can serve many meals in rescue missions or preach sermons to people in parks, but both can too easily become mere tasks to complete. To be incarnational is to follow Jesus in his compassion and love. This involves the being of the person involved in ministry, not just the doing of missional tasks,” writes Jude Tiersma, who works and lives in a Hispanic immigrant neighbourhood in central Los Angeles.

Jesus’ compassion touched human lives, skin-on-skin. He looked people in the eye and called them by name. He learned their stories.

In our impersonal, task-oriented society, perhaps God is calling us to do the same – to remember that individual human beings are the heart of inner-city ministry. Maybe it’s time to sit down over a cup of coffee and listen to their stories.

We trust this issue of the Herald will be a step in that direction.

— Laura Kalmar

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