Monday, October 10, 2016

Change Your Mind

Urban Ministry 4

Change-Your-MindTo every task we bring our preconceptions. When I came to Chicago thirteen years ago I brought mine with me. Some were woven through me tightly, an essential part of who I was. Some were carried about me loosely, carelessly picked up here and there with little thought. Chicago challenged them all. Immediately. Ceaselessly. Remorselessly.

All men are ignorant about something. Most men are secure in that ignorance, denying that it is ignorance, and angry with you when you try to make them think. Every preacher, teacher, parent, and teenager reading this post understands this full well. Sometimes, however, it is not an individual that brings you cause to stop and actually think about something; sometimes it is an event, a circumstance, or a change in environment. I fall under the category of the latter.

What presses most in upon me in this context is the idea of ethnicity. I view it differently than I used to. And, believe it or not, this is not easy for me to communicate. Five times in the last two weeks I have sat down at this screen to write this post only to write, delete, re-write, and delete again. I do not want to be misunderstood, nor do I want to hurt my friends with carelessly formed thoughts. Bear with me, please, as I share my heart and my mind on this sensitive subject.

When I arrived on this corner at the age of 30 I was not a racist. I firmly believed that the Gospel should go to all men. God had created all of us in His image and so every human being is of equal value. Jesus had died on the cross for the entire world. No, I was not racist, but I was basically separatist and rather comfortist.

What do I mean by that? Let us take separatist first. My home church was mostly one ethnicity, but my training ground for the ministry took place in a big church. That church modeled a separated system for reaching various people groups. There was a Spanish church for Latino people. There were entire Sunday Schools devoted solely to black children from the projects. My specific bus route was not allowed to bring in more than 5% African Americans.

I have written in more detail about how this separatist concept arrived in fundamentalism in my book Schizophrenic and I am not going to re-hash it here. Suffice it to say that the result – a set of services for one class of people here and a different set of services for a different class of people there – was elitist at best and borderline racist. And it completely violates Paul's instructions to the church about race relations in Ephesians.

I did not understand that when I arrived here, and one of my first decisions was to move our (basically) all black bus route to a different arrival time on Sunday morning and give it its own Sunday School department. My intentions were good. I felt that they had different needs than the regular Sunday School, and that I could address those better on their own. At the same time I also feared that if I reached middle class people they would not want to put their children into a Sunday School crammed full of kids from the projects.

What I failed to understand is how that would make these people feel. I was sincerely trying to help them, but that sincerity on some level came across as patronizing. I had segregated them from the rest of the church as if they were not good enough for us. It was, in their view, nothing more than a well-intentioned insult.

Chicago's ethnic diversity is deep and wide. I read somewhere a statistic that if you choose two people at random off of any Chicago street there is a 68% chance they will not be the same ethnicity. The denizens of the inner city were used to living their lives around all kinds of ethnicities. I was not. And it was my approach that needed to change, not theirs.

This is where my badly coined term comfortist comes in. I was culturally comfortable when surrounded by white people. It is how I grew up. The people on my street, in the stores, in our church, in our school, and in my life were mostly white. I knew how they worked, and what our Midwestern white bread culture was supposed to be, for good and for ill.

my son's entire class; Jack is top left, back row
When I came here I was immediately uncomfortable for one very noticeable reason: for the first time in my life I was in the minority. I remember taking a walk around my neighborhood (I live right next door to the church I pastor) the first summer I was here. I had my then two year old son with me. One lady sitting on her stoop looked at my son and said, "Hey, little white man." Which is exactly what he was. He stuck out like a sore thumb. He was the white baby on our street. That same son now has a black belt in taekwondo and at his dojoang (which is three blocks from our house) he is still the only white kid that is not a first generation émigré from Poland or the Ukraine. The stores I shop in routinely post signs in Spanish, English, and Polish. To be greeted by a clerk or waiter who does not speak much English is a regular occurrence in the mom and pop places in this neighborhood. The super majority of children in this zip code do not speak English as a first language in the home. In other words, my daily life is immersed in a culture that is most definitely not the same as the Midwestern white American culture in which I grew up.

I do not mean to be conflating ethnicity and culture, but there are certainly strong links between the two. And over time my constant immersion in this ethnically diverse, immigrant flavored, big city culture has changed my mind about how I view both ethnicity and culture.

This is a blog series on urban ministry. I do not want to lecture but I believe strongly that if I am going to effectively minister in this urban environment I must leave behind my preference for and comfort level in the mostly white and highly Americanized culture in which I grew up. In a very real sense, I have to become exactly like the missionaries we support. I must embrace (within reason) the world I now live in. I must become comfortable being in the minority. I must learn to value and enjoy the differences that surround me. I must drop the baggage of my mental insistence that my church and my ministry must be comfortable for me. I must bloom where I am planted, nurtured by the grace of God and the power of Holy Spirit, but rooted in this environment.

This changes so much, and is almost certainly beyond the scope of one blog post. It changes how I view America. It changes how I view immigration. It changes how I view the exclusively white independent Baptist churches I visit while I am on vacation. It even changes how I view Christianity itself.

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A random shot on my bus ride four days ago
If you are reading this in red-state America and muttering at how silly I am, or how I have been corrupted by my environment I understand. I am not calling you racist because you disagree with me, nor am I saying that God cannot and is not using you where you are. I am saying that if you come from there, and you want to be effective in urban ministry you are going to have to change your mind. Mental flexibility, including over a range of unconsciously (or consciously) and deeply held prejudices, will have to become part and parcel of who you are.

I suspect, if you last for the long term in urban ministry, it will.

Change your mind. It is the only way people will allow you into their lives to change them.


  1. Absolutely right on target. I pastored in the same city as Pastor Brennan for almost eleven years of his thirteen. His explanation of ministry in an urban area is 100% correct.

  2. Interesting that the Greek word for "nations" in the great commission found in Matthew 28:19 is ἔθνος (ethnos). It literally means ethnicities. In today's American culture, that should be easier than ever before as most areas have pockets of diverse ethnicities, but due to cultural comfort, we often miss opportunities.