The members of our mission trip team were not shocked or threatened by the poverty we found in the Northern city communities where we worked for a week this summer. We live in the Black Belt. Some of us qualify as poor persons by the federal guidelines. Most of us would be considered poor by the standards of Atlanta, or even Tuscaloosa.
Those who attended the three-day camps which the team conducted would also be considered poor. Interestingly, our team and the children connected instantly. Perhaps, much of this connecting was initiated by our clown troop, which included children of the age of those to whom we sought to minister. But the glue that continued the connection for the rest of the week must have been the acceptance that bonded the poor from different regions of the country.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
Each morning the team traveled to a “ghettoized” apartment complex. The 70-plus units were rented to “families” which were often matriarchal, with the children in each having obviously a variety of fathers.
We were impressed that the 30 to 40 children who participated in the day camp activities gave evidence of caring for and looking after one another. There was no bullying. The boys took turns helping P.J., a large child confined to a wheelchair, navigate around the community. A 10-year-old red headed girl, Mindy, became our primary recruiter of participants.
Several of the mothers came to watch over their children and those of their neighbors. They gave evidence of having bonded with one another. We talked with them about their lives, their goals and their relation with Jesus Christ. We were pleased that three of them were attending college and had definite career plans in sight. We rejoiced when one, who had been raised a Jehovah Witness, accepted a New Testament from us and that evening read the Gospel of John. She returned the next day and prayed to receive Jesus as her Savior.
As a sociologist I was very impressed by how the residents of this complex have been able to form a sense of community. Perhaps, it is a matter of their common poverty and wish to escape that condition. Certainly, living on the “margin” encourages one to seek and to build a support system.
When we become affluent and self-sufficient, we are tempted to become independent, independent, and elitist. Our host church is following up on these contacts and is seeking to build upon this to infuse the community with a witness of the Christian gospel and discipleship activities.
The afternoons were devoted to a second day camp, this one located on the grounds of the host church. Most of the 20 to 25 children and youth who participated there were connected with the church in some way. Many of these children are “developmentally challenged.” They loved the clowns. They loved the attention from the team. And they loved upon the team members.
I talked with the pastor about the possibility that God has called this church to adopt as its “signature” ministry one that addresses the needs of these children and their parents. Interestingly, one of the mothers we talked with at the apartment complex is attending college to be trained to work with developmentally challenged children. Could God be working here?
One of the members of the team brought along 50 inexpensive harmonicas to distribute to children interested in learning to play one. A sheet with “Jesus Loves Me” and other hymns keyed with a numbering system was distributed along with the harmonicas. We ran out of the harps, unfortunately. However, several of the children mastered one or more of the hymn tunes. (See www.volcano.net/~jackmearl for hundreds of songs keyed for playing on the harmonica.)
A wonderful testimony came from one of the teenagers. He said that his mother used to play the harmonica, but she had suffered a stroke a little over a year ago and no longer could do so. When he took the harp home and played “Jesus Loves Me” for her, she was so very happy. He will surely continue to play the songs of God, and others, for his mother and remember the church and the people who got him started ministering to his mother in this way.
In the evenings some of the team went to a poor inner-city community and conducted a backyard Bible club. Others surveyed the community around the host church and invited families to come to a block party on Friday evenings. Well over 200 came. This was the largest group even to attend anything at this small church.
Shortly after returning home to Alabama some of the team members received a letter from the church in Vermont where a similar mission was conducted the summer before. It detailed many of the victories and positive developments in the church and community which were attributable to what the team had done there. We rejoiced and are praying for similar results from our trip to Illinois this summer.
I am glad that many Baptists can still connect with poor folk. I am glad that many Baptists are still concerned about the spiritual condition of poor folk. Elitism in all of its forms is “unchristian”.
Gary Farley is partner in the Center for Rural Church Leadership in Carrollton, Ala.