The inner city burns out the unreality and self-delusion of Christians and churches

Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). We can count on that! “How things have changed!” (a burdened awareness shared by many evangelicals today). We can count on that, too! Eleven years of work in East Harlem, two with the East Harlem Protestant Parish and nine with the Elmendorf Reformed Church on East 121st Street, have helped me discover the excitement of living and working in the midst of these two realities. Christ’s changelessness makes possible a mood of celebration in this day of rapid social change.

I have strong convictions about an evangelical faith and its relation to social change. The fact of change is beyond argument. The question we face is, “How shall we be involved?” Although some with a kind of psychopathic fantasy would like to ask, “Should we be involved?,” there is no avoiding the fact that our lives will affect this challenging time, and that this effect will be either negatively or positively related to our Lord. The incident in which more than thirty persons watched a girl murdered without even calling the police because they “did not want to get involved” is a dramatic example of negative involvement. Every one of them was indeed involved! Many evangelical Christians in the city face the challenge with faith. In fact, I am convinced that the evangelical churchman is in the best position to work effectively in this situation. I have personally found this to be true. Because Christ is changeless, I have been free to respond to change with faith.

To begin with, change had to come to me personally. The city is a place that can both hurt and heal. It hurts to have one’s partial loyalties and premature opinions stripped away, but it is healing to find Christ faithful to his Word. In fact, when one finds those dependable structures of life straining and toppling, he finds also a grand opportunity to enjoy the Reality that “towers o’er the wrecks of time.” The transition from the cloistered denominational stronghold of the Midwest into the denominationally evacuated East Harlem was a time for me to know the hurting, but also the healing.

What are the credentials by which one relates to these blocks and blocks of humanity? “That kind of people” was the stereotype, and “culturally deprived, economically depressed” the euphemistic phraseology picked up in college. A “mission-minded” church background was suddenly an alienating force within me, and I was tempted to seek some security within this radical change. Dealing with these complex situations had previously come easy. “They really prefer to live like that” had been enough to cover a multitude of social ills. Pigeonholing was the quick response, immeasurably assisted by calcified concepts of life. I was in a great position to start hurting. “If pain persists, see your physician.” I had to see my Physician.

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You see, soon after my arrival in East Harlem in July, 1955, I discovered that my evangelical mission training had betrayed me. I had been taught that the object of my mission was deprived. The other guy needed me, and I could help him. Romantic notions of the Good Samaritan and self-indulging philanthropy became the basis of a crippling fiction. I had been commissioned as a “missionary” to work in East Harlem. Light meeting darkness, goodness meeting evil, the helpful meeting the helpless—this is how I was conditioned for meeting the deprived. But suddenly I discovered that I too was deprived! That is what I mean by feeling betrayed. Why had I not learned about this deficiency? The promotional materials were so anxious to fix me as the “good guy” that a spiritual superiority became a pious perversion.

Some time ago a friend with a background like my own visited Elmendorf. After the morning worship service an elder came up to him, shook his hand, welcomed him warmly, and assured him that our church was praying for his church back there in Michigan. Over the dinner table my friend confessed his shock at realizing that prayers were offered from East Harlem on behalf of Christians in Grand Rapids! Shocked indeed! He had the same deprivation I had had. A “home church,” “mission-minded church,” or “sending church” prays for, works for, sends to, pays toward the “mission church” or “receiving church.” But the betrayal comes when no one shares the truth that the home church is not the depository of all grace, goodness, and gratuity. The city and its “different” people have helped me recognize my own need. The credential, then, was a learned willingness to come in weakness, that the Lord might receive the glory rather than a “home church” or sending denomination.

Facing this weakness was the hurt. Suddenly the old ways of looking at things shattered in the force of this change. I had the ingredients of confidence—my college and seminary degrees, my ordination, my General Synod commissioning (“my, isn’t it wonderful that you are willing to serve there,” accompanied by countless handshakes). Yet suddenly I was driven to facing myself. Had I not come to be of help? Surely I had always been trained to answer Cain’s question, “Am I my brother’s keeper?,” with a resounding Yes. The betrayal was that no one helped me understand that this was the thing my brother did not like about me. I was looked upon as his “keeper.” Social “do-gooders” got no entree here on the basis of “I am here to help you.” Martin Luther answered Cain’s question by saying, “No, I am not my brother’s keeper, but I am my brother’s Christ.” That was the healing. That is my gratitude for the evangelical emphasis in my Christian experience and nurture. But for my discovery of this Reality, I am indebted to those who took my hand, as Ananias took the hand of a rather dubious man and said, “Brother Saul, receive your sight.” The blindness was lifted! I covet this experience for others. It is imperative that the evangelical be helped through the blind spots of his own deprivation, so that boasting is only, as the Psalmist says, “in the Lord.”

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In spite of our careful theology, we often rely on what we have acquired rather than on what God requires. When I realized that my brother in the inner city was looking through my education, race, ordination, culture, and attitude and that he was not willing to relate to me where I felt strong but rather probed into the areas of discomfort and insecurity, then my Lord became vital in my life. The temptation is to avoid the real by sticking to a role. But the city accepts only the real.

There is another area of betrayal: the totally ugly and negative drawings of Harlem. The problems are undeniably there; but it is a tragedy to ignore the quiet, godly lives of some who never make the headlines. Certainly, there are switchblades (and some in your town also, I presume); but there are also brothers who can enrich and provide a ministry of healing. The evangelical is often too quick to assume that any contact with different groups will be an occasion of “power going out of me.” How sad! And how arrogant to assume a type of wholeness that allows no gaining from the experience of another! Inter-racial fellowship is too easily seen as something by which the Negro seeks gain and the white man risks loss. Discovering a people of God in East Harlem, discovering the foregoing of the Lord everywhere I went, I came to see through the mistaken “jungle life” conception that pervades so much promotional fund-raising. Many of us like to be flattered about what we are doing for others, but we are rather slow to let other persons extend their gift and ministry to us. A remnant of God’s people are here. They helped me change my attitude about myself and about the community. The sovereignty of Christ became an experience. Dr. Martin Luther King talks of a twofold victory, freedom not only for the Negro but also for the white man. I agree.

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What happened in my own life was a movement from self-saving to self-surrender, from fear (and we do worry about ourselves in evangelical churches) to faith (the willingness to trust the Lord not only with eternity but also with affairs in time). My wife and our four children have demonstrated not only the willingness to live and work here but also the joys of doing so. The discovery is fascinating. We rather pity the people who in any way choose to feel sorry for us. Again, this is not to deny the problems; it is rather to affirm that the challenge of being part of God’s purpose of “drawing all men unto myself” is exhilarating (especially after one attends a meeting in which someone argues the “each after its kind” segregated pattern of church life).

Change is also the prime reality in this church in which we work. In 1660 the Dutch moved to the northern part of New Amsterdam. The incentives were protection from Indians, land grants, and the promise of a minister when twenty-five families settled. In the past 306 years the changes have been phenomenal. First, however, let us remember the change from the old world to the new world. Somehow, for this church, the new world keeps on coming! Having long ago struggled into the English worship service, we now conduct another foreign-language service, this time in Spanish. The congregation has changed greatly, but only from a human point of view. The “same Lord” “yesterday, today and for ever” maintains the Reality of his presence and purpose. At every service an invitation to accept him is given, and he is calling out of the world a people unto himself. Living with a changeless Lord in a changing world is a celebration.

WAR ON POVERTY—REVIVAL MEETINGS—CATECHISM CLASSES—JOB CORPS CENTER—SUNDAY SCHOOL—REMEDIAL READING ROMAN CATHOLIC AND PROTESTANT ECUMENICAL PRAYER MEETING—SCHOOL BOYCOTT—WORD AND SACRAMENT—CIVIL RIGHTS—WEDNESDAY PRAYER MEETING. These items are placed on the church calendar, not to confuse but to clarify. Christ has made us free, and we are ready for change under his sovereign grace. It distresses me how rather logical (humanly speaking) and predictable we can become. One can easily foretell the charges that will be made in some groups when the name of Martin Luther King comes up. In other groups, the comments on Billy Graham are equally predictable. The arguments on both sides really bore me. I love both men and what they stand for. Our fellowship knows that a man must be born again to enter the Kingdom. We also know that the twice-born man will have a real commitment to the well-being of his brother, even if he has to shake up the Establishment to carry out this commitment! I shudder when I hear Christians talk about meeting the “real needs” of men and then go on to list everything short of spiritual regeneration. I shudder also when Christians want to roar through the slum area with tracts promising a “better hereafter.”

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The evangelical and his church stand in a position to embrace the full spectrum of life. In my own experience, I feel that I am more conservative and more liberal than many other evangelicals. At the pavement level one knows that he cannot work with a brother without getting to that rebellious old fleshly nature. Yet one doesn’t earn the right to communicate to a man without being involved in his “felt needs.” The context of our work is always social, the content Gospel. For instance, we have teen-agers in the church on Friday nights for recreation, but we also have a Bible study. The church cannot serve with integrity unless it is sharing the real Treasure. We know that we cannot give a community only glass beads when we have the Pearl of great price to share.

Much more can be said about the evangelical witness in the city. However, let me conclude by saying that the change that came to me personally—the change in outlook on the community, the liberation of my faith and obedience to Christ—is the change I covet for the Church corporately. What I mean is that churches like ours, partially dependent on outside support, catalogued as “mission churches,” are too often stereotyped as “second-class churches.” There is the subtle feeling that the financially independent church or denomination can get along without the “mission church,” but that the converse is not true.

I feel that the ministry of the inner-city church must be considered to be in full equality and power and love with that of its sister suburban and exurban churches. It is amazing how little we understand each other.

The inner city has been spotlighted so much as a mission field that the well-meaning sister church makes the Christians in the city the object of her mission! By all practical definitions, the mission church becomes a mission church because it fails as a “real church.” Yes, but that begs the question of what is real. Does the Holy Spirit create second-class churches? Some traditional notions must be swept away. There is a love for Christ, a joy in his service, a great mission to perform in the city. But before the white evangelical can participate, he must give full respect to his brother of different race or language in the inner city. Great drama is created when “our kind” go into the inner city to work, but the real mission and work is being supported and carried on by God’s covenant community, the remnant of his people.

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“Open my eyes that I might see glimpses of truth thou hast for me. Place in my hands the wonderful key that shall unclasp and set me free.” There is an Ananias in your future because countless Christians toward whom you may feel alienated and fearful are willing to take your hand and say, “Brother.” In that same hour you will receive your sight. There is change, thank God. He changeth not, thank God.

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