Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Ministry in Fresno, California

I am grateful to be the Preaching Minister of the Woodward Park Church of Christ in Fresno, California. The Woodward Park family has blessed my family by taking us in and loving us as if we were their very own. It is humbling, rewarding, and eternally gratifying.

My family has now lived in California for half-a-year. The acclimation to California culture hasn't been too difficult; grasping the challenges of ministry in this city and culture, on the other hand, continues to stretch and challenge me in ways ministry in the south never did.

Consider, for example, the Fresno metropolitan area is home to over 1,000,000 people and is one of the fastest growing metro areas in California. According to a CSU-Fresno website, over 100 different languages have been identified within Fresno, making it one of, if not the most ethnically diverse cities in the United States (at Woodward Park alone, we have assemblies for English, Laotian, Cambodian and Hmong while supporting an inner-city church where the services are held in Spanish). According to an October, 2005 Brookings Institute study, Fresno was ranked as the city with the highest percentage of those living below the federal poverty threshold in concentrated areas (neighborhood clusters). In city-wide poverty rankings, Fresno ranks 16th among the nation's largest 50 cities.

To help grasp the sociological ramifications of life in Fresno as a window to ministry need, I have immersed myself in readings on California demography in general and Fresno county demography in particular. I'm learning more than I ever dreamed so as to better understand how to serve as an equipped minister in this multiracial, multicultural city.
Last Friday at Borders, I picked up Mexifornia: A State of Becoming and devoured the insights in the book. Mexifornia is written by current Stanford classicist professor Victor Davis Hanson, a resident of Selma (17 miles south of Fresno on CA-99), and addresses the immigration issue and its impact on life in Calfornia. Using his hometown of Selma as his laboratory, Hanson explores how life has changed in one small, central valley town in the course of his lifetime:

"I write here from the perspective of a farmer whose social world has changed so radically, so quickly that it no longer exists. Three decades ago my hometown of Selma was still a sleepy little town in central California, halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, between the coast and the high Sierra. It was a close-knit community of seven thousand or so mostly hardscrabble agrarians whose parents or grandparents had once migrated from Denmark, Sweden, Armenia, Japan, India, Mexico and almost every other country in the world, to farm some of the richest soil in the world. Selma's economy used to be sustained by agriculture -- in the glory years before the advent of low prices caused by globalization, vertically integrated corporations and highly productive high-tech agribusiness -- and supplemented by commuters who worked in nearby Fresno. The air was clear enough that you could see the lower Sierra Nevada, forty miles away, about half the year on average, not a mere four or five days following a big storm, as is now the case.

Sociologists call a small, cohesive town like the old Selma a 'face-to-face community.' As a small boy I used to dread being stopped and greeted by ten or so noisy Selmans every time I entered town. Now I wish I actually knew someone among the many I see.

The offspring of Selma's immigrant famers learned English, they intermarried, and within a generation they knew nothing of the old country and little of the old language. Now Selma is an edge city on the freeway of somewhere near twenty thousand anonymous souls, and is expanding at an unchecked pace...

Time passes; things must change. And so I accept transformations that are inevitable: a price-cutting Wal-Mart would drive out our third-generation Japenese-owned nursery, and multinational agribusiness would overwhelm the once prosperous Sikh family farm down the road. While I saw all this happening as if by time lapse, I hoped that the new Selma would at lease retain the language, customs, laws and multiracial but unicultural flavor of the old. But it has not" (1-2).
Hanson captures well the sentiment of many long-time Fresnans who've lived through the changing demographic of their home city. To walk through the mall or browse the aisles of Target reveals a city unlike any I've ever experienced: a veritable melting pot of cultures, languages and peoples who've descended on central Calfornia.
As a minister and disciple of Jesus, my heavenly citizenship must frame the way I see every person. I cannot look upon others as an impediment to my lifestyle; no, I give thanks to God that he is bringing the nations to our doorstep.
Our challenges are great. The needs of our city, immense. But I have faith that the God who enabled a band of twelve men to change the world in their lifetime can enable a strong, healthy congregation like Woodward Park to reach their city with the gospel by living out the mission of Jesus everyday.