Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other. – 1 Corinthians 10:24 (NRSV)
In May, I participated in one of the Faith and Poverty Forums sponsored by the Wisconsin Council of Churches. The information was excellent, and I enjoyed the opportunity to talk with both church and community leaders about how we might respond in Milwaukee and greater Wisconsin.
I heard statistics that remain startling (but are all too familiar). 18% of Wisconsin children live in poverty (almost one out of five!). The federal poverty level for a family of three is $20,090 (a minimum wage job earns only $15,000 per year). Most of the jobs created during the economic recovery have been poverty-wage jobs, which means that the poverty rate has actually been increasing as jobs have been added in Wisconsin. Finally, 59% of Milwaukee-area African-American men are unemployed.
We also discussed the fact that people of color are more impacted by poverty than Caucasians. As a result, poverty is often perceived as a racial issue rather than a community economic reality. Since Milwaukee is the most segregated city in America, chances are that many people who live outside of Milwaukee (other than certain rural areas of Wisconsin) do not have a personal relationship with someone who lives in poverty.
Bear with me, this will go somewhere besides this forum.
As is usually done in these forums, we worked in small groups to discuss how the Church can respond. Our focus wasn’t on how to meet the needs of those in poverty but rather how to change the circumstances and systems that institutionalize poverty and segregation in Milwaukee.
I like to talk theory as much as the next person, but at some point we need to talk about specific actions. Coming up with ideas – like “we should focus on love” or “we need to stop isolation in our church buildings and get out” or writing a statement to political leaders stating that we need to work to alleviate the systems that put and maintain people in poverty – is great. But at some point, we need to come up with individual actions. How are we going to focus on love in a personal and relational way? How are we going to lead our church members out of the building and into new relationships? What steps are we going to take if political leaders don’t make poverty and segregation a priority? As the Church, I believe we need to work at both the one-on-one and systematic levels simultaneously. Systematic change takes time, but we can start working on relationships right now.
But how? – especially when coming into relationship with someone different from us is so uncomfortable.
We need to be willing to be uncomfortable.
Although our hearts mean well, at many white churches we say that we will welcome anyone. And we might do a great job of greeting someone of color on Sunday morning – IF they come to our church. But honestly, how many people of color (or other socio-economic backgrounds in our well-to-do suburbs) are going to walk into our church on Sunday? If we are serious about humanity’s equality in God’s eyes, of loving our neighbor, of welcoming others as Christ has welcomed us, we may actually have to leave our neighborhood, our church, or our community to do so. Of course it’s much more comfortable to welcome someone on our turf – we have the power. Are we willing to give up power and rely on the love and welcome of others to counter poverty and segregation?
This last Sunday, the boys and I worshipped at an African-American church in the midst of urban Milwaukee (near North and Lisbon). This church was outside our denomination. We were three of eight white people in the congregation. We were clearly visitors.
We were welcomed on the church steps and invited to come inside. We were greeted in the entrance and directed towards the sanctuary. The usher made sure we found a seat. Once we sat down, no one specifically greeted or spoke with us, but we did sit near the back and there weren’t really people by us until after the service started (huh, people who come early sit in the front?). Those around us actively greeted us after the service (including hugs).
Of course certain parts of the service were familiar: prayer, scripture, music, sermon, announcements. But there was plenty that was unfamiliar. The service was almost two hours long. I happened to know the first two songs (words provided) – but all the others everyone just knew and we didn’t have the words. All first-time visitors were asked to stand, and one of the Deacons brought a mic so we could share our names and a little about ourselves. I did expect to stand to be greeted but I forgot to give the boys a heads-up about a possibility of having to speak (they did great). Something else that was different, too – ask that boys about the “casual” Sunday memo.
Here are three things I loved:
- When the time came for the offering, you walked it up to the plate held by the Deacons (Elders in the PCUSA) at the front of the church. This was a lively celebration. Not everyone walked up but many entire families walked up together rather than just sending one person.
- The Deacons had an active part in leading the service: led a devotion and song early in the service and made the announcements in the middle of the service. Their leadership was active throughout the service in both verbal and physical ways.
- And the entire service was a conversation. Maybe no one verbally responded during the two scripture readings, but the congregation was actively involved throughout the service. Is the choir’s song speaking to you, well than stand up and maybe clap and sing along. Is the pastor speaking a word you need to hear or can testify to, well than stand up and say your amen or raise your hand. Even the organist responded at times to what was being said. And while the sermon was overall your normal sermon, people were responding and the pastor responded back throughout.
I’m probably not as uncomfortable as some to walk into a church where I know no one or nothing (I’ve done it two dozen times at least in the last two years), but this was the first time where I was the minority. As a white person of means, I’m rarely the minority and always have a certain level of inherent power. I plan to continue worshipping at churches of color and will also seek out churches where I will be more uncomfortable than I was last week.
No one is going to change poverty or segregation in Milwaukee (or any town) just by worshipping at a church outside their denominational and geographic comfort zones – but it’s a start. As a person of faith, do you want to see systems of poverty and stereotypes broken down? We can each start one worship service at a time. Commit yourself to worshipping at a church outside your comfort zone this summer. Be willing to be uncomfortable so that we can live the love we profess.
The Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, – Acts 9:11 (NRSV)