Part Three:

But what can i do?” many evangelicals are asking. They sense that while God uses government to help the poor, he especially wants to work for his glory through those who are motivated by a commitment to Christ.

The three routes the church has traveled successfully in the past are evangelism, social service, and social action (reform). Those who wish to get started find it best in today’s climate to begin with social service. Here are some guidelines and some models.

Getting Priorities Straight

Bill Leslie is pastor of an urban church that has found many ways to touch the poorer areas of Chicago. From over 20 years’ experience he says, “Seek a learning experience, not just a giving experience.” Specifically, “Aim at relationships, not just at providing dollars. Try to connect people with people.”

How can we do this? Leslie points out, “We have ‘Short Terms Abroad’; how about ‘Short Terms in the City’? A suburban family could locate a church in the low-income area that would cooperate, and start spending Sundays in their services, worshiping, learning, and getting acquainted. During the week it could continue at its suburban church. Its goal would be to worship and relate to people in the city church on Sunday, and then, during the week, to share with the suburban church what it was learning.”

Leslie says that 40 percent of the children in the public schools of Chicago come from families on welfare. They do not see either mother or father going to work each day. They need to become acquainted with families where that goes on, and a relationship between an urban and a suburban church could bring it about.

He thinks a suburban church might start a once-a-month discussion group, perhaps called “Conversations on the City.” It could invite resource people to speak to it, or visit various places in the city.

One service Leslie’s LaSalle Street Church supplies is called “Bridging,” a ministry to unwed mothers that could use the help of suburban people. About 45 percent of the children born in Chicago last year were born to unwed mothers, Leslie states.

A single woman had been raped, and was pregnant. Her family and friends, however, treated her as if she had chosen to have sex outside marriage. She couldn’t very well wear a sign saying, “I was raped!” so she experienced slow rejection. Her boss told her, “You get an abortion, or you get another job!” Though that is illegal, it is not uncommon.

Bridging provided her with clothes and furniture for the baby, and with leads to a new job.

Article continues below

Angela DiCenzo, the executive director of this organization less than two years old, says, “We go to court, too. A three-year-old was raped by her baby sitter, so we saw that her mother had legal counsel and medical help—and we joined her in her suffering too.”

DiCenzo has observed that if the unwed mother goes to a church, she may be cut off. Repentance does not count with many churches, that in effect insist that she continue to wear sackcloth and ashes, even when God has forgiven her. If she has a good voice, for instance, she may not be permitted to sing in the choir. Knowing of such a possibility, an unwed mother may keep her situation secret, compounding her problems.

DiCenzo tells of one woman, however, who found acceptance in a church she started attending, even before she believed. When illness forced her into a hospital, the members of the church brought her son to see her each night. They also found out that the boy had a sleeping disorder that had kept her from getting a good night’s sleep in two years, bringing her close to a breakdown. They put their heads together and, among other solutions, took her son one night each month so she could get some rest. With such a model in mind, Bridging tries to help churches learn the biblical response to the unwed mother.

“We try to mother the mother so she can mother the child.” DiCenzo says. “Many women in early pregnancy, unsure of whether to carry the child to term, are referred to us by professionals. These women don’t want to talk with another professional counselor. They prefer another woman who has been through what they are facing. They want to hear the truth of what it is like to be a single parent—the pain and the joy.”

Being a friend takes many forms. Often Bridging assists the new mother when she first returns from the hospital. Volunteer women from various churches clean her house, do her laundry, help her organize, and shop for her groceries. Often the best help is simply to listen as she sorts out the issues of single parenting. Women share and pray with her when she asks for spiritual nurturing.

A Bridging program about to start is called “Kids’ Night Out Club.” Members of various churches, suburban and urban, will put on an evening of art, music, and drama, plus loving care, to relieve single mothers so they can be free for one night each week. The workers, mostly men, have the goal of letting relationships develop. They give a sense of true fatherliness to children who, having no father, have a hard time understanding that God can be their heavenly Father. In return for this free three hours of child care, the mother will contribute one hour somewhere in Bridging’s ministry.

Article continues below
People Touching People

Suburban Western Springs Baptist Church has found many ways to relate to churches in poor urban areas. Pastor Arthur Brown is quick to point out, however, that members of his church do not see themselves at level 100, paternally ministering to city churches beneath them at level 30. “We work together to meet each other’s needs,” he says.

How can a white suburban church help a church in a poor area? “That’s not the question to ask,” he says. “Don’t say, ‘We want to help.’ That calls up the ways of the Western missionary blessing the natives with his supposedly superior skills. We are not to offer ourselves as generals willing to lead the poor into successful living.”

Summarizing their relationships with various churches Brown says, “They help us, we help them. They teach us, we teach them. We are often blind to their needs, and to our needs. The goal is not to give, but both to give and receive. Christ ministers to each through the other.”

Tough Questions Answered

A suburban middle-class white with genuine interest in relating to people in the poorer areas of a city might ask some serious questions. Scott Reed gives his answers.

Is it dangerous to come into the inner city?

At some places, sometimes, yes, but not invariably or inevitably. I was held up twice 20 years ago, but I have never been hurt, even going in and out of Cabrini-Green and the Robert Taylor Homes at night. (These are high-rise housing developments in Chicago.)

How does one relate to the poor or afflicted or handicapped?

Just be genuine. There must be more to your ministry than a sense of duty; there must be compassion for people that is real enough to be felt by others. Perhaps most important, listen sincerely. Finally, do not assume that pat answers built on assumptions common to the suburbs will meet all the complex needs you find. Sometimes you cannot solve anything at all; you can only determine that the person has money for shelter and food. (Read “The Making of a Minister,” CT, Sept. 17, 1982.) Then just be a friend who cares. Often that alone gives life meaning to otherwise outcast people. You may find you have helped others get a new start.

Can a person minister spiritually in the inner city?

One can only learn by experience how to broach the subject of spiritual things. Do not impose advice appropriate only to the suburbs. Don’t preach; do share the gospel. Do pray whenever you are permitted. Don’t ask, “May / pray for you?” Do ask, “Will you accept prayer?” The poor will often suspect your motives, thinking, “Why on earth is he [she] here talking to me?” for they have seen so many cons, and suspect something “phony” about everyone. When they are convinced that you are for real, and that your Christianity is too, they will be more interested in listening to expressions of your faith.

Article continues below

Will you be despised for your presence in a poor community or for your race?

By some, probably. Consider it a small thing. People can easily forget their anti-middle class or racial suspicions when they are receiving real service and help. But if a resentful attitude comes from many, consider this a message. Do you think you are better than they? If you do, it will come through.

What if you don’t feel superior, but they think you do?

It’s a discomfort to be endured when it happens, and it should become a matter of prayer that you might find favor in their sight. In simplest terms, you may deal effectively with the poor if your love is genuine, if you don’t come on like the great white savior, and if you have just a few skills that do some good or bring happiness to someone’s life.

How To Get Started

“First, get related to the leaders of a church in a minority area,” Brown suggests. “Take them to dinner. Talk. Listen. Say, ‘I’d like to receive from you, if you’d be kind enough to give to me.’ Make it clear that this is a complementary relationship, where the suburban Christians know they need the help of the urban Christians.”

Out of this may come interaction, but only if there are two ingredients: time and compassion. Pity, a poor substitute for compassion, can kill the relationship. Pity stands outside the wall and tosses help over the top. “Pity,” Brown says, “answers to something in me, when I see needs. But compassion answers to something in the needy person. Perhaps what he needs is not money so much as an arm around his shoulder that says, ‘You are important to me.’ ”

If we admit our own needs. Brown thinks, a relationship of trust can develop. We can become friends in Christ. In time we can discover ways we can work together. “Something beautiful can come of that,” he exclaims.

“For instance, we have learned much about worship from urban churches,” Brown says. “Our styles are different. And we call on them for prayer and help when we are in trouble.”

Article continues below

But the key to all this is to listen, to learn, to seek a reciprocal relationship, to be responsive to teaching. In time, fellowship may emerge.


One Ministries, in Washington, D.C., is exploring another way to link Christian churches in the suburbs and the ghetto. As John Staggers, director of the work, describes it, the church is society’s best source of help. In his area there are 3,500 churches; his goal is to link a minority city church with a suburban one to serve one block near the inner-city church. At the start, two white ministers, Richard Halverson, then of Fourth Presbyterian Church, and Louis Evans, Jr., of National Presbyterian Church, were brought into fellowship with two blacks, Henry Gregory of Shiloh Baptist Church and Samuel Hines of Third Street Church of God.

In “Stage 1,” an urban and a suburban church are chosen, and the two ministers meet to talk and pray. Then lay coordinators from the two churches get together. This then expands to include interested members of both churches.

Next they set up a work day in the ghetto near the city church, and people from both churches—say, National Presbyterian and Third Street Church of God—gather in their grubbies. They spend the first hour in devotions, studying the biblical mandate to serve one another. Then comes a half-hour orientation to the community. Finally they split into teams. If a home is to be painted or a roof repaired, enough teams are assigned to complete the job in four hours. After this all teams assemble for an hour of debriefing on what they have learned. Then those of the community they served plus the teams from the two churches sit down to a fellowship meal.

The devotional time at the beginning of the day is designed to refine motives. “You aren’t coming into the city to paint houses and kill cockroaches for the nobodies,” Staggers tells them. “You must do what you do as a form of worship to Jesus Christ.” Isaiah 58:6–9 speaks of such social service as clothing the naked, and adds, “Then your light will break forth like the dawn, … and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the Lord will answer” (NIV). Likewise in Matthew 25 Christ says that if believers serve “the least of these,” they do it “unto me.”

“You get liberated!” Staggers exclaims. “And this is one way we can care for one another. People come from the suburbs with all sorts of fears about the ghetto, and find that Christ is alive in the ghetto people, too. Myths and stereotypes fade away as the people of the two churches worship, eat, and work together.”

Article continues below

In “Stage 2,” as the workdays progress, the two churches form task forces to find the needs in the block served, and to discover what agencies and other groups address these needs. Then two families, one from each church, join forces to adopt a family on the block for a long-term relationship. As that family has problems, the two Christian families go to an appropriate task force for help. A teen-ager might be arrested, and the families would visit him in jail and see that he received sensible legal aid.

Staggers says with a grin, “The church represents the largest unemployment agency in the country. The question is, How can churches take their gifts and on a couple of nights a week use them in serving the Lord?”

The federal government is retreating somewhat, and many in the religious sector would help if they knew how. The adopt-a-block program spells out a way to help through building relationships between people as a form of worship to Christ.


Part One of this article ended with the dejected Willa slumped over a kitchen table, worried about bills, the future of her children, and the pressure of her friends to abort her now-dead husband’s child.

Part Two showed how poverty and rejection create a destructive atmosphere in which children can grow up hating themselves and others. We also saw that especially government (but also the church) can provide medical, educational, and financial help to young mothers and their children in the ghetto.

In Part Three we saw ways churches can tap their God-given resources, especially relational ones, to join the poor in their sorrow—and joy—and both receive from them and give to them. We suggest that to start, a suburban Christian or church should contact a wise evangelical pastor who ministers among the urban poor, and follow his advice.

Compassion need not lead us on a guilt trip. It is God who loves the poor. He seeks to work through his people in the ghetto, and outside, to nurture men, women, and children in need.

So as we feel drawn to identify with people, we are carried along by God’s purposes, and stimulated by his pure motives. Not all are called to a direct ministry involving the poor. Scripture directs us only to receive the will of God joyfully, and do it to please him.

But as Isaiah says, “If you … satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday. And the Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your desire with good things, … and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters fail not” (58:10–11).

And perhaps Willa will hear a knock at her door, and open it to people God has sent to stand with her.

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.