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Urban Ministry: Breaking down walls

In order to push back the darkness in a rough urban environment you have to understand that you're going to have to deal with some walls. The reality is that if you work with people anywhere you will have to deal with some walls- but I'd like to make note of the walls that come from the "concrete jungle" of living in a city.

As a kid I remember having to learn how to watch my back at all times. Many times walking home from school I'd see guys get jumped or the police sirens scream past as I walked home. I got in my fair share of fights and was jumped a few times. Unfortunately for many people that is a part of life. You have to learn how to deal with it. You deal with it by building walls.

It's not only physical problems that make a person have to put up walls it is also emotional problems that take their toll. When you are working in an environment with high population density you are working in an area where space itself is a rare commodity. In terms of spacial relations, distance gives us a sense of comfort. We like wide hallways, wide streets, large yards with high wooden fences. We like our own space. How many amazing conversations have you had in an elevator? Most of the time a good conversation gets awkwardly silent in an elevator. Cramming people into a tight space tends to affect our psyche.

When placed in tight confines people often act in a way that seems strange to the educated suburbanite. Factor in the problems associated with poverty and you're asking for trouble. You have broken marriages, family disputes, neighborhood rivalries, racial tension, etc. When a person has what seems to be everything stripped away and they are living in an unstable environment they begin to take control of whatever they can. Psychologically (and Generationally) they feel that they can't make it out of the environment so "why should I even try?" becomes the question of the day. People succumb to it. When people succumb to the environment they begin to think in terms of "respect" and ownership.

When you have a mom or dad who is cracking under the pressures many urban working-class people face (such as extreme financial hardship, familial disputes, employment problems, family in prison, drug abuse, etc) there becomes an increase in likelihood that they take control wherever they can. So in the city you find people tend to have higher emotional walls as a protection mechanism against people who may want to 'invade' that last place over which they have control... their heart. When you're concerned with helping change a person's heart this realty presents a problem.

In the past we've handled this problem of 'walls' by quoting an ill-cited verse about hard ground. It makes us feel good and we can go back to the suburban latte drinkers where the ground is 'more fertile'. Fortunately for all of us there is a shift taking place. I believe a growing number of suburban Christians today genuinely want to help but they don't know how to overcome some of these barriers.

What We've Done Before:
What very kind and very untrained suburban Christians have done in the past was to sweep into town and try to "fix" people with the magic pill of Jesus. All the while trying to get out of the neighborhood before it gets dark so they can head back to the host church 20 miles west to have a pizza party and listen to a Jesus band.

When a person lives in a constant state of awareness as a means of self preservation their "walls" get built up (high and thick).

When a child doesn't have his mother or father around or sees their family members battle with the ugliness of drug use and abuse their are walls built up (high and thick).
My Point of View:
I realized this about myself when I was about 18 or 19 years old. I had HUGE issues with anger. I would either pull COMPLETELY away from people or I would lash out in rage. Both of these mechanisms were protection mechanisms. Both of these mechanisms were damaging to other people. Both of these extremes were unhealthy and wrong. Sometimes when our walls are built up and we want to fix it we tell ourselves that silence and ignoring our anger is the way to go. That couldn't be further from the truth. The only healthy step is to acknowledge and begin to process our anger. We can't blow up at people and we can't ignore people.

I grew up in an environment where to avoid being hurt you had to either stay completely away from a situation or you had to be the biggest and baddest dude on the block. There was no 'safe' in between.

Drop the tricks, pick up a broom: If we want to bring the message of Jesus to the people of a city we need to check our bag of tricks at the door. Urban people are some of the most discerning people I have ever met. They can spot a fake, a phony or a scared man a mile away. Remember, most of them are professionals at discernment. It's become part of survival.

So how do you help to bring down walls that separate people from Jesus? Take the posture of a servant. Show people that you aren't concerned for them to get a notch on your proverbial Christian belt. Show people that you genuinely care for them because Jesus cares for them. Slowly you will see that wall come down. You must be patient and you must be genuine. They won't believe you at first. Then -when they start to believe in you- they will look at their watch to see how long you stay. But if you earn their trust through loving them and you stick around through a few storms you become one of them. You can be adopted into the neighborhood.

One final thought about the city (at least Baltimore). Within a neighborhood we would fight each other from time to time but if one of our own got hurt outside of our neighborhood... everyone had his/her back. Urban people can become some of the most loyal and trustworthy friends you'll ever meet in your life IF you take the time to invest and show yourself sincere.

So if you're into urban ministry I encourage you. Take the position of Jesus... the position of servant. Come in and love. Tough it out. You will be rewarded by being allowed into the inner circle and you'll be surprised at how much love is found there... behind the walls.

posted by Tally Wilgis @ Tuesday, October 28, 2008


At 12:13 PM, Blogger INTELBLKMN said...

Awesome post.
I live in the suburban/urban area outside Chicago.
A few years ago, I visited one the local mega-churches, and was insulted when a lady sitting behind me let me know that her church was going to come to my city and help "you people".
Compassion and understanding is much needed.
May God bless your efforts.


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