Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Ministry between the Extremes

Last Sunday marked a record at Woodward Park. 53 persons attending our morning assembly and Bible classes were fed lunch. This every week luncheon has been necessitated by the presence of guests who do not make it back to the Rescue Mission/Poverello House in time for lunch. Thankfully, some of these are now members, but most are guests invited through personal contact as a result of our Downtown homeless outreach.

As I think about our place in Fresno, I struggle with the contradiction. Years ago, some forward-thinking disciples of Jesus invested in property in the sprawling northeast part of the city. It is an ideal place for a suburban church facility on a spacious corner lot along a highly trafficked boulevard. By all visible standards, Woodward Park is ideally situated. Shoot, even the Cricket cell tower, posing as a giant cross, is visible for several blocks in every direction.

And yet, the immediate neighbors to our church building aren't as receptive as the population left behind in the move toward suburbia. The most receptive audience in Fresno, California is downtown, among the marginalized, among the overlooked, among the impoverished. Among those who recognize their needy, as opposed to my own neighbors who by all visible standards, have it all.

Right now, I'm struggling with the challenge God has placed before us. Struggling with offering a viable ministry to those separated not only by miles but by socio-economic class and background. Struggling on how to assimilate those who literally enter a church building for the first time. They don't know our rules. Our customs. Our lingo. Our culture.

The easiest course? To draw on the economic forecast and declare the task too great. Too expensive. To dismiss the endeavor as a good cause, when economic times were more favorable. To walk away from the opportunity because, in counting the cost, the price tag was too great.

But walk away I can't. I can't because no social dictate of Scripture is so loudly declared as the call of justice -- of releasing those oppressed; of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and ministering to the despised.

"More than 35.5 million Americans -- 12% of the U.S. population and 17% of our children -- don't have enough food, according to the Department of Agriculture. At America's Second Harvest, one of the nation's largest hunger relief organizations, 36% of the 25 million people served live in a household where someone works. 'The working poor increasingly have to choose between rent, electricity, medicine and groceries,' said Ross Fraser of America's Second Harvest. When new hunger figures are released, the numbers will be much worse: a loaf of bread costs 15% more now than at this time last year, and the price of milk has risen 13%" (Parade Magazine, 5/25/2008, p. 8).

Frankly, the real challenge of ministry today is how to engage a middle-class church in suburbia with an impoverished class of receptive people downtown.

How do we assimilate? How do we navigate the divide?