The headlines of Thursday's Fresno Bee screamed the difficult, but telling tale of life in the central San Joaquin Valley.
"Worse than Appalachia."
A survey of the 436 nationwide Congressional Districts found that District 20 (Fresno) ranked dead last. Number 436 of 436. In terms of poverty, poor health quality, and low graduation rates, no Congressional district in our nation fares worse than Fresno.
Another headline: "Valley Districts' Dropout Rates Climb Under New Calculation."
While the accuracy of the results are debatable, the raw data suggests that 35% of Fresno Unified students and 9% of Clovis Unified students dropout.
What impact does that information have on ministry in Fresno?
Well, let me preface my thoughts with this observation. My girls and I have never been happier than we are today to be living and ministering in Fresno! Sure, there are unique challenges to ministry in the agricultural capital of the world, but there is no where I would rather minister in this season of my life. Inside a city with a heavy immigrant population where language and cultural barriers are evident exist challenges unlike any I've ever experienced.
But with those challenges come incredible opportunities!
Opportunities akin to those Paul and his comrades experienced when they entered Europe in response to the Macedonian call. The church planted as a result of their ministry, the church at Philippi, grew to become one of the most dynamic, stable churches in the first century. Yet, its beginnings cannot be overlooked or diminished. Just think of the incredible diversity birthed in the church when its first converts were an aristocratic woman of society's elite (Lydia) and a rough, blue-collar jailer and his family (the one charged to guard Paul and Silas who, when the earthquake opened the cell doors, threatened to commit suicide before Paul halted his plan). It's hard to imagine a church with a more diverse beginning than the church at Philippi.
Diversity in terms of ethnicity, economics, and social standing can be a challenge but within that challenge springs amazing opportunity. Think of the opportunity for God to work among us, the called out at Woodward Park. Our membership reflects, to a large degree, the society in which we live. Sure our church building is located within the most affluent section of our city, but our calling must ever be to look beyond the boundaries of our neighborhood.
Who is most receptive to the good news of Jesus? Who is most aware of their own need because their lot in life isn't clouded by a wealth of material possessions?
As we approach two years of ministry together at Woodward Park, I've never been more committed to ministry in this city, in this culture, in this society. Our challenges are nothing compared to our opportunities...and the power of our God who, through the gospel, calls people to himself.
May we be faithful, in spite of the challenges, to the ever-increasing opportunity to seek, to share, and to be conduits for the salvation of those who are lost.
Speaking of opportunities in the face of challenging circumstances, let me remind you that tomorrow morning is our next Downtown Outreach among the homeless population of Fresno. We will meet at the building at 9:00 a.m. to prepare sack lunches for distribution. If you'd like, you can join us downtown at the corner of Ventura and G Streets at 10:00 a.m. where we will distribute the lunches and share our faith.