One Sunday, after parking our car in the vacant lot across from the church where we worship, our family made our way around a make-shift memorial that had been set up the night before. 24 hours earlier, a vigil had been held for a young father of two who had been gunned down. 48 hours prior to that, this young father had arrived in Denver for a rare visit with his children; his desire to escape the cycle of gang violence had driven him out of town a few years earlier.
As I walked by this memorial of flowers, teddy bears and candles, I thought of the tagline for DOOR (Discovering Opportunities for Outreach and Reflection), the program for which I am the Executive Director: “See the face of God in the city.” DOOR hosts volunteers for anywhere from a day to a year in 6 cities across the US. The majority of our participants come from our two denominational partners – the Mennonite Church USA and the Presbyterian Church USA.
For those of us who live and work in urban contexts, makeshift memorials are a regular part of our experiences. Where was God’s face here?
On that particular Sunday, the questions weighing on my heart were challenging. Does DOOR just exist to bring volunteers into the city and shock them into being grateful for where they come from and what they have? I have heard this kind of statement many times in my 19 years at DOOR – “Dear God, I am so thankful for what I have and where I live. I will never take anything for granted again.”
I am not sure this type of response has much to do with seeing God’s face in the city.
Does DOOR exist as a conduit for bringing God to the city? We are responsible for bringing thousands of Christian youth and young adults to the city each year. Some, like the Young Adult Volunteers (YAVs), stay for a year. Is it possible that each of these participants brings a little bit of God’s light to an otherwise hopeless situation? Or is it, perhaps, the other way around? Could “See the face of God in the city” be a more subversive tagline than meets the eye?
Does DOOR exist as a conduit for bringing God to the city? Is it possible that each of these participants brings a little bit of God’s light to an otherwise hopeless situation? Or is it, perhaps, the other way around?
As our family walked around the memorial and into our church, a new wave of emotions washed over me—we were walking into the presence of God. Yes, God is here, alive and well, right here in the city. For the past seven years, we have worshiped at what might be described as an inner-city church. This congregation has taught me much about seeing the face of God in the city.
Three years ago, I saw the face of God in the city when I witnessed forgiveness in action. One of the members of our church went on a shooting rampage and killed four people before he was killed by a church security guard. Yet in the midst of this tragedy, something amazing happened. The parents of the shooter met with all the families of the victims and asked for forgiveness. Forgiveness was offered and new friendships were formed.
These urban folks have learned the hard lessons of harboring vengeance—it doesn’t work. If humanity is going to move forward, revenge must give way to forgiveness. When this happens, God’s face is revealed.
Every year at Christmas, our church provides presents to 500 families in our neighborhood. While many churches debate whether they should focus on reaching the lost for Christ or feeding the hungry, I am happy to report that many urban churches don’t find that conversation relevant. Why would anyone ignore another person’s need? Isn’t the church called to minister to whole people?
So why does DOOR invite YAVs to the city? There was a time when we felt that people of privilege (read: wealthy) needed opportunities to serve the poor (read: urban). Over time, this basic supposition was challenged.
Some participants came to feel “useful,” others sought opportunities to “share the love of Jesus.” By the late 1980s, a group of urban pastors and community leaders had started to challenge the motivation and usefulness of these short-term programs – defined as anything from a day to a year. I remember visiting with one of these leaders who was advocating for a complete moratorium on short-term programs.
DOOR has attempted to respond appropriately to these suggestions and insights – both from our supporters and from our detractors. Over the past decade and a half, we have moved from a service-to-the-city model to an educational model. We start by emphasizing the gifts rather than the needs of the city. This model has been helpful, but it is not perfect. This approach still has the potential to leave urban folks feeling used.
People come because they want to do good service in the city, but we host people because we know they need to taste and see the Kingdom of God. People need to come to the city because the city is one place where the Kingdom of God is becoming a reality.
Lately we have come to a new understanding of the place of urban short-term service programs. People need to come to the city because the city is one place where the Kingdom of God is becoming a reality.
Our cities have become gathering places for people from all tribes and nations. It is not unusual to hear many different first languages used by students in urban public school systems. It has also become commonplace for urban churches to start or host congregations that worship in languages other than English.
We are going through a paradigm shift in our programming at DOOR. When DOOR started in 1986, people came because they wanted to do good work in the city, and DOOR complied. In 2013, individuals still want to do good service in the city, but today, we host people because we know they need to taste and see the Kingdom of God. In many urban areas, people have come to understand that forgiveness is more powerful than revenge, non-violence makes more sense than violence, community is better than individualism, and plowshares are better than guns.
The urban church has helped to empower and develop a new generation of leaders for all of the church; YAVs one among many living examples! It is time for the urban church to recognize its call to transform potential disciples, many of whom are coming to the city in the name of service.AUTHOR BIO: Glenn Balzer is passionate about God’s presence in the city, especially as seen in multi-cultural relationships, economic diversity, and the power of God’s people serving together. Nineteen years as director of a national non-profit and its internal audits of racism, economic health and consensus leadership give Glenn a unique perspective. Glenn currently serves as the Executive Director of DOOR (Discovering Opportunities for Outreach and Reflection).
To read other articles from Week 3: God in the Midst of the City, click here.
Read more articles in this series.