Ames Memorial United Methodist Church is located in the Sandtown section of Baltimore Maryland. It reminds me of the neighborhood I grew up in in North Philadelphia, the streets I walked in Gary Indiana, and the community I pastored in Clearwater Florida. At first glance the community around Ames UMC is painful and depressing. There are entire blocks where the abandoned homes outnumber the occupied ones. Drug and alcohol paraphernalia litters the streets. This is one of the neighborhoods featured in the TV series called, “The Wire”. On the day we visited, the bitter cold helped to make the community look particularly bleak and disserted. It brings to mind the words of Nathanael when he was told that Jesus was from Nazareth, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46) at first glance many people would ask the same question of the community around Ames. “Can anything good come out of Sandtown?”
Despite the appearances however, there is powerful ministry going on in Sandtown! It is ministry based on relationships. In a sense it can be said that all ministry is based on relationship and this is true. What is especially important in the ministry of the community surrounding Ames Memorial UMC is the kind of relationship on which ministry is based.
In “Jesus and the Disinherited”, Howard Thurman points out that even in the Jim Crow South [and I might add the segregated North] there were many people who did good work. Whites in the South and the North performed wonderful acts of charity and magnanimity. What Thurman noted was that these acts were devoid of any sense of equality, or value for the worth of other human beings on the most basic of levels. He referred to it as “contact without fellowship”. Thurman understood that despite the outward acts of charity and mercy there was a fundamental failure to see the “other” as completely equal on the most basic level of common humanity. There was interaction and relationship but the relationship was not a relationship of fellows. One group operated from a position of power, and a false sense of superiority. The other from a position of relatively less power, and often an equally false sense of inferiority.
Unfortunately it is in the same relationship/power dynamic that much ministry goes on today. This is particularly true very often when ministry happens in places like Sandtown, in Baltimore; or North Nashville; or North Philadelphia, or Greenwood in Clearwater. Well-meaning Christians develop “programs” and “ministry” that essentially operate on a client provider relationship that establishes the very same power dynamics that Thurman wrote about over 50 years ago.
In the community that surrounds Ames UMC, there is a different relationship that pervades. In this community there is relationship that starts at the level of the common humanity of all persons and builds from there. Generally speaking the ministries are no different than ministries in other churches. Ministry with children, both in the church and in the community. Ministry with the homeless, the drug addicted, the hungry, and more. What is important, what brings hope is the spirit from which the ministries spring. It is a spirit that says these are not just “poor children”, they are “our children”. These are not just “the homeless”, they are “our neighbors”; Joe, and Sally, and Doris, and William. These are not just “crack heads”, they are our sisters, and brothers, our sons, and our daughters, our cousins, and our mothers, and our fathers. This ministry springs from the Spirit that honors that which is truly inalienable, the God-given humanity and full personality of every individual. The ministry of Ames UMC is grounded in the fundamental belief in the right to a full, abundant, rich life [not to be confused with a life of riches].
Ministry thus grounded is truly both salvific, and eschatological. It follows the pattern of Jesus’ coming out statement in Luke 4:18-19. Ministry thus grounded is salvific in that it does the work binding, or healing, that which is broken. Jesus did say, “The poor will always be with you”. Despite all of our efforts this does seem in fact to be the case. No matter how many soup kitchens, homeless shelters, financial assistance ministries we operate the brokenness of poverty never seems to be healed. The brokenness of the human spirit however, is healed by ministry that is grounded in this fundamental belief in the humanity of every person. It is eschatological, in that it demonstrates the time of God’s reign which is both present and future. The Apostle Paul is credited with saying, “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.” (1Co 13:1-4) This love that Paul speaks of is a key characteristic of the Reign of God. Dr. James Lawson, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. refer to this reign as the Beloved Community. This same love that Paul refers to is a core value of the Beloved Community. Ministry grounded in the core belief that every life has worth and value, and should be affirmed, supported, and unconditionally loved makes the “reign of God’, this “beloved community” not just some, as yet unrealized, hoped for future but a present reality; a demonstration of the reign of God.
What we do specifically in ministry is not as important as the Spirit from which we do it. If our ministries are rooted in the God-given humanity and full personality of every individual, people will respond, healing (salvation) will happen, and our prayers will be answered – “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth”.
MAKE A DIFFERENCE . . . . . . . . . . FOR LIFE ! ! ! ! ! ! ! !