The Untouchables — Socioeconomic Exclusion


Back in the late 1960’s and most of the ’70’s there was the development of a movement within evangelical protestantism (or at least the Southern Baptist circles that I ran in) the was promised to be the future of church evangelistic efforts. This movement led to the rise of such luminaries as Jerry Falwell (the pastor of the medium sized Thomas Road Baptist Church back then) and Elmer Townes. My family was closely connected to this movement as an uncle of mine was an itinerant evangelist who was a leader in this movement.

This phenomenon was the bus ministry.

If you are of a certain age you will know what I mean. Here in Nashville one of the great symbols of pride for many churches was a fleet of second hand school buses painted in a variety of colors parked in the front parking lot. Church success was measured both in how many persons attended the church, and how many buses the church owned. It led to the development of a new theological discipline . . . the church mechanic, who was the most revered and most loathed person in the church at the same time.

The bus ministry plan of evangelism was simple. The church will send the buses into primarily lower income communities of the city and provide transportation on Sunday morning so that folks could attend church. This would lead to many hearing the gospel and being converted to whatever brand of Christianity that the church was promoting.

In many ways, this plan was very forward thinking in that the bus ministries would involve lay “bus pastors” who would integrate themselves into these communities as they invited folks to church. As envisioned by several of the leaders in the movement (my uncle being one of them), this represented the church reaching out into the world rather than simply sitting in the pews and waiting for folks to attend. For my uncle Ray, who had grown up in poverty, there was an additional benefit of having church folks connecting directly with poor folks, making the reality of the poor real to middle class Christian folks.

There was a recognition that folks living in poverty were often struggling with issues of addiction and illness, so the plan focused on children. The thought was that if you invited the kids to church, taking them to church on the bus, it might eventually grab the parents. So the bus pastors and their helpers began a regular Saturday routine of heading out to the neighborhoods and walking the streets, often with a big box of penny bubble gum (who knows how much tooth decay resulted from the spread of the gospel) to invite the local children to come to church. As bus pastors met kids on the streets, they would go into the kids homes to ask the parents if they could go to church, and one never quite knew what to expect when that happened.

I first gained my first experiences of abject poverty at age 12 and 13 on Saturday mornings riding with Bobby Sadler (no relation to my uncle Ray) through the streets of the pre-gentrified East Nashville. In those days the large Victorian houses that are now so loved by the yuppies of our town were divided up into multiple apartments. Streets called Fatherland and Boscobel hearkened back to an earlier time of wealth and comfort among the German immigrants to town, but in the late ’70’s life on those streets was filled with despair. Bobby was a tall man who preferred cowboy boots and who was willing to take a kid in need of male companionship under his wing. So every Saturday he would drop by the house and we would head downtown to visit the kids and invite them to church. It was there that I first walked through the projects, that I was introduced to the reality of mental illness, that I saw folks that could barely get out of bed because of their on-going addiction issues. Bobby was a kind man, and he worked hard to welcome the children of that community into his midst as he invited them to church. Then, after giving up a Saturday morning to hang out with a bunch of dirty and stinky poor kids, he would get up early to run by Krispy Kreme before he got in a 12 year old school bus and filled it with children.

The bus ministry as envisioned had a noble purpose. “Let’s provide a way for kids to come to church,” the leaders said. “Let’s get out of our own comfort zone and out in the communities of need.” By many indicators this ministry was a positive addition to the programs of the church.

However, these high ideals soon became lost. For many pastors, the goal of the bus ministry quickly became inflating attendance figures rather than being involved in peoples lives. Getting involved in the lives of these needy families was too difficult. It demanded too much time, and after all, these families didn’t contribute anything to the budget of the church. Yes, one could build a career on seeing the numbers rise, but one had to be careful about how that was done. For when it came down to it, the pillars of the church, those upstanding citizens who often contributed great amounts to the coffers, weren’t really sure they wanted to see those unkempt and unruly kids in “their” worship services. Those kids disturbed the service, running to the bathroom, cutting up during the sermon, and there wasn’t a mom or dad to complain about. This then led (at least in my church) to the development of the “Children’s Church,” located in a separate area. Often it was justified that kids needed a developmentally appropriate service of their own, but the primary impetus for developing this service was getting “those kids” out of our service. I heard of churches who even had special bus ministry services, so that the adults that rode the buses weren’t in the regular services.

Quickly, the church mentality moved to talking about “us” and “them,” and the them were almost always the poor folks who rode the buses. The leading magazine of the movement (edited by my Uncle) reflected this unintentionally in its name: Bring Them In. There was little language that suggested that the “we” were connected to these poor folks, that “we” were interrelated to them, that most of “us” were only a couple of paychecks away from poverty ourselves. Very little effort was made to help “them” become “us” and after time, the movement imploded in the weight of its own success.

This is the reality of socioeconomic exclusion in the church. On the one hand, church folks recognize that Jesus calls us to be in ministry with the poor and marginalized. Yet, that ministry is more often than not focused on offering charity rather than involving ourselves in the lives of those who go without. We like to throw money at the problem, to support those saints who are willing to immerse themselves in these communities of marginalization. This assuages our guilt pretty well. Yet, very rarely do we know poor folks, do we talk with them about their problems, do we invest time in facilitating their move from poverty. It is frankly too hard. It takes too much time. It is frustrating because these folks who so often seem to live in crisis don’t make good decisions, or follow our advice as to how to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. It’s much easier to write a check and let someone else worry about the issue.

American Christians, the tribe the I speak from, live in a world where the phrase “God helps those who help themselves” is taken as scripture. The Protestant Work Ethic still lives strong, and teaching on prosperity is still prevalent in some circles. Even in traditions like the one in currently inhabit which pay lip service to social justice find themselves struggling with what it means to be involved with the poor. For all of our compassion, we still find ourselves implying that poverty is a flaw in character rather than a situation in life.

There are many reasons that we avoid the poor, but the primary one (as is true of all forms of exclusion) is fear. We all have been raised with the warnings to avoid “that area of town.” We know that crime rates soar in poverty stricken neighborhoods, and hear the daily news reports of shootings among the folks who live there. Thus we’re scared, certain that our safety is at risk. And it may very well be. Reality does intrude after all. Safety is a concern. Yet, when we make safety our overriding concern, we tend to cast aside Christ’s command to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.

Socioeconomic exclusion is often related to racism, but is not limited to it. I grew up near a chronically poor area of Nashville called “The Nation.” My wife’s first church was in this community, and I spend several hours walking the streets to invited folks to a community meal that we hosted. Yet, in spite of the name, this area was pretty monolithic in its ethnic identity. The community was populated by poor white folks, many of whom had been in families of poverty. It was a community that appreciated a cold Pabst and a low slung Harley as folks breathed in the sawdust and smell of wet wood that emanated from the hardwood flooring plant nearby.

This church, Sixty First Ave. UMC, had struggled for many years. It was planted by a saint named Rock Hardaway, and local UMC pastor who took seriously Christ’s command that disciples need to be found among the poor. By the time my wife was the pastor, the attendance had dwindled to just five or ten adults, and about 40 children of all ages. To say that the atmosphere was loose is an understatement. Children would enter through the front doors on Sunday, walk past my wife as she was preaching, go to the water fountain for a drink, and then walk right back through without a thought that they might be interrupting something. It was a church that wasn’t big on money, but had a mission — to represent God’s love through the United Methodist Church in this poor community.

Unfortunately, the denominational hierarchy didn’t quite understand this mission. They, after all, were charged to build churches . . . successful churches . . . churches that could pay their own bills and take care of their own buildings. That was a struggle for little 61st Ave. It would never be a self sustaining congregation, but my wife and others believed that it was an important witness to maintain this church in this community, and went to the denominational folks to argue for salary support to continue the work there. Imagine her surprise (and I imagine Paul’s as well) when the leader of the committee stated, “We’re not in the mission business . . .” as they denied her request. You see, poor folks didn’t deserve a church. Instead, denominational resources were being dedicated to planting a new congregation in the affluent suburbs of southwest Nashville, a place where several other churches existed. Those whose backs were against the wall were almost excluded . . . until a Bishop stepped in who could see the big picture.

As is true in all forms of exclusion, the divisions between “us” and “them” are strong. Our colonial mindset (as Brian McLaren would say) has led us not to be in ministry with folks, but to conquer them as we “win them to Christ.” We may be concerned with their souls, or maybe even the circumstances of their lives, but we really don’t want to sit down and eat together, letting God be revealed to us in the breaking of the bread.

There was a woman at 61st Ave. named Marlee. Marlee was a relative newcomer to the community. She was large. She wasn’t especially pretty. She could be pretty obnoxious at times. But we loved her enthusiasm for the church, her willingness to serve unselfishly, and her faith in Christ.

Marlee was elected to be the delegate to Annual Conference for our church. We were a little worried. Was she going to understand the politics of the church? How was she going to fit in dressed in her sweat shirt and jeans among the expensive suits and dresses? Marlee had never had an unspoken opinion, so how would she be treated by both the delegates, but more importantly the Bishop of the church?

Imagine our joy then when the Bishop singled out Marlee. He talked to her just like he would talk to any other member of the conference. He gave her time. He respected her. He called on her when she indicated that she wanted to speak. This Bishop embraced Marlee for all she was worth, believing that she was a blessed child of God.

That is what we are called to be — the people of the embrace, welcoming all into our midst. We must recognize and remember that the messiah lives among the poor, that we are made much richer when we gather at the table together. Most importantly, we must cast aside the “us” and “them” mentality, recognizing that we are all interrelated.

This is the imperative of the gospel.

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