One of the first appointments we made after arriving in Dallas was with Larry James at Central Dallas Ministries. We desired to get to know what was going on in the city in terms of community service and development, and CDM is making a significant impact in those areas. We asked Larry how we might come alongside CDM and partner with them in community development.
He said a couple things that got my attention. The first was that not many churches ask that question. Most are concerned with volunteer opportunities for their members and avenues for evangelism among the poor. The second thing: he encouraged us to build relationships with our poor neighbors. Personal relationship would benefit both us and our neighbors more than any token volunteer hours could.
We met Chad and Marjorie Matthews several weeks ago. Chad was a youth pastor in east Texas for a few years. He recently quit his job and, after receiving an unexpected monetary gift, relocated with his wife to downtown Dallas. What do they do now? They hang out with the homeless every day. They take them out to lunch. They have them over for dinner. They offer chauffer services when someone needs a car to get around. They call what they do “I Love Evelyn,” the name of the first homeless woman they met in Dallas. Chad says with a gleam in his eye, “We just want to see what love can do.”
Porche and I recently went to eat lunch with Chad, Marjorie and their friend Wesley. Wesley is intelligent. He is a man of values. He is a man of integrity. He is a man of gratitude and humility. He is 67 years old and looks 47.
When Wesley learned that I was a “preacher”, he cautioned me not to be like other preachers who were in it for money or renown. When I asked him what counsel he would give me as a preacher he said, “When you get behind that pulpit, you better not half-step it; you better bring it all. Tell the truth.”
Wesley, by the way, doesn’t have a home right now. He sells newspapers on a downtown corner so he can make ends meet and save up for a new place.
A couple weeks ago I volunteered with a non-profit organization in town called SoupMobile. It is directed by a man named David Timothy, affectionately referred to as the Soup Man. Every week day he prepares lunches for the homeless in downtown. Around 1 p.m. he loads it up in a van and drives to the Day Resource Center parking lot, where hundreds of people line up to receive a warm meal. His friends always know when he’s coming because he plays the Rocky theme song through speakers attached to the exterior of his van.
On the day I helped out, I gave away 600 hot dogs in 60 minutes.
Ryan and I came back from the National New Church Conference with some new resolve to listen for the needs of our local community by conducting some form of a community needs assessment. In short, it entails meeting with community leaders at every level—business owners, school counselors, social workers, non-profit organization directors, elected officials—and in one way or another, asking them what are the needs of the surrounding community.
The hope is that by doing so, we can develop relationships all across the city that will open doors for joint partnerships to do good things for the city and its inhabitants: to help the poor; to curb injustice; to be good neighbors to all our neighbors.
Why spend our time doing such things? Why not pour all our efforts in meeting people who are far from God and joining in their spiritual journeys? Why not hold off on “benevolence-oriented” ministry until the church gets off the ground?
Because to us, these things are expressions of one facet of God’s fully-orbed mission in the world: justice. Not justice in the American sense, but justice in the biblical sense. In the Scriptures, particularly in the OT prophets and teachings of Jesus, justice (or righteousness) means taking care of the needs of the poor, the downtrodden, the widows and orphans, the aliens.
We’re having justice conversations because justice is what God is already doing in the world and we want to join him. We want to begin to be the kind of church now that we want to be five years from now—and that means participating in some way in all the facets of God’s mission.
James puts it well: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (1:27).