On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.
― “Martin Luther King Jr., A Time to Break Silence,” at Riverside Church
Not too long ago, a group of homeless people gathered around a table at a local Presbyterian Church in Clearwater, Florida. As they ate together and talked, they began to form a community and started to dream about opening a thrift store together: Homeless Solutions of Clearwater, Inc. The profits from their co-op business model could provide enough income for them to be able to move off the street and into apartments they could call their own. The church heard them, and in addition to a grant from the Self-Development of People (SDOP) Committee, a lawyer donated his time and experience to help start their business. In addition, 12+ churches in the Presbytery of Tampa Bay donated goods to provide a beginning inventory, and another volunteer helped them price for sale. Sound too good to be true? Perhaps, but this is what the Kingdom of God can look like on our earth.
The voice of the prophet Isaiah leaps off the pages of the Bible and into our lives through the ministry of SDOP.
The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s SDOP Committee has been working for 45 years to restructure a world where, as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., observed, too many are beggared and/or discarded by an indifferent economic system. The church, through this ministry, has sought to be in relationship with economically poor, disadvantaged, and oppressed people in this country and around the world who are seeking to change the structures that perpetuate injustice. But what does that look like in real life? Well, in my experience, it can translate to a group of teenaged theater activists charging canned food as the entrance fee to a performance so that they can make a donation to their local food bank in the poorest section of their city – a place where 40+ languages are spoken.
SDOP seeks to follow Jesus’ example by recognizing that people who live in urban communities know best what their needs are and are best prepared to create the projects that will lift them out of poverty or overcome oppression. In the words of Rev. Joseph Johnson of Evergreen Presbyterian Church, “The ministry of SDOP is driven not so much by who the recipients are but by who we all are: faithful and generous followers of Jesus.”
The voice of the prophet Isaiah leaps off the pages of the Bible and into our lives through the ministry of SDOP. In Isaiah 61, the prophet proclaims, “They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations.” (61:4). This is the Biblical foundation of SDOP’s urban strategy: repairing devastation and lifting up God’s children in need. To help further this vision, the committee is working with young adults volunteering in Detroit, New Orleans, Baltimore, and Los Angeles to better connect with our brothers and sisters in these cities and help nurture groups with whom the church can partner.
The Women’s All Points Bulletin started as a small group of women of color in Chicago who were tired of being traumatized by police violence and false testimony against them. The group has grown as they have engaged with authorities and developed their own voices. Members of this group recently returned from advocating on the international stage at the UN Conference on Human Rights in Geneva, Switzerland.
In New Orleans, the ‘A Community Voice’ project is a centrally-located community center adjoining the 7th, 8th, and 9th Wards. The center offers computer and job skills training, mentoring services among peers, and job searching capacity. More than 100 members of these communities have come together to elect an 11-person board to oversee the center and its operations. The members of this project are working on moving from being grant-dependent to being self-sustaining by charging membership dues.
In Los Angeles, Pan Teqio began to coalesce in a group of Latino/a residents who recognized a common need for income to supplement their jobs, a common desire to maintain their cultural identities, and a realization that the people in their community needed to learn how to eat healthier. A baker from the Oaxaca region of Mexico began to teach the group how to bake bread (pan, in Spanish) and how to source organically grown grains. When hotel workers on the west side of downtown LA went on strike, the members of Pan Teqio brought food out to the strike lines to feed their sisters and brothers in Christ. The grant from SDOP helped this group purchase equipment rent a store-front for their operations.
When the church is walking with the poor, this is truly an act of worship.
People have organized together in day laborer associations, mobile home councils, tenants associations, community gardens, fishing cooperatives, advocacy groups, excellence in schools programs, ex-offender job training programs, home childcare networks, immigrant rights coalitions… the list goes on! Wherever ten or more people are gathered, seeking to own and control a project to benefit themselves and their community, Self-Development of People and the Presbyterian Church would like to support them. SDOP recognizes that the nature of this ministry means this will be a long walk with our partners. However, the prophets of the Old and New Testaments, along with the voices of modern-day leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and others call us to continue to engage in this work. When the church is walking with the poor, this is truly an act of worship.
“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
AUTHOR BIO: I simply enjoy telling people’s stories. My journey has taken me to the Navajo Nation, Malawi, India, Afghanistan, Scotland, Canada, the Dominican Republic, Belize and Guatemala. Currently my work is focused on helping businesses and non-profits inform their clients, volunteers, and the community about the work they are doing. This may include still photography, video, web projects, social media or a combination of media. I currently serve on the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s Self-Development of People Committee, focusing on mission interpretation. A paraphrased quote from Hugh Brody speaks to me about the photographer’s mind as one of, “Humanity’s most sophisticated combination of detailed knowledge and intuition. It is where direct experience and metaphor unite in a joint concern to know and use the truth.”
To read other articles from Week 3: God in the Midst of the City, click here.
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