In June 2013, fresh out of seminary and a successful three year run in rural Breckinridge County, I came to Grace
United Methodist in Louisville, Kentucky with little more than a mandate to build a missional community in South Louisville. Upon arriving in South Louisville, we were first greeted with this stop sign, which sits on the corner where Grace sits. Was it talking about the corner? The neighborhood? Or even perhaps the church? Frankly, in the beginning, there was probably truth in each in each question. Grace was a forgotten church, in a forgotten neighborhood, in a forgotten side of town. While the sign certainly got my attention; if you know me, you also know that it ignited that place deep within that loves a challenge and a little bit of danger. Yes, I’m wired just a little bit differently.
Our first order of business was to immediately get into the neighborhood, to get to know them and to allow them to get to know us. One thing that we knew from the beginning was that we would not be so arrogant as to come into this neighborhood and attempt to dictate to them what we thought they needed. It was far more important to me to find out first hand how we could best serve them. Those first several weeks were spent almost entirely in the streets talking to anyone and everyone. I didn’t care what you looked like, how badly you scowled at me, or how much you really didn’t look like you wanted to talk to this crazy stranger. In short, this led to three conclusions and two now legendary conversations. The three conclusions?
We’ve heard it all before! Show us, don’t tell us.
You’ll never last here; no one does.
Help our kids.
The two conversations? The first was right beside that infamous stop sign with a woman I had stopped as she left the neighborhood grocery across the street. We were having a good conversation about the neighborhood and I finally said, “Why don’t you join us for church on Sunday?”
“Where’s your church?”
With wide eyed shock, followed by laughter, I responded “This big brick building behind me.”
“That’s a church?”
Nothing like a little perspective on the challenge ahead. Later that same week I was out walking in the neighborhood. I saw a young man in the distance walking towards me. As we got closer, I was getting seriously “mean mugged”. As I got closer I immediately noticed the telltale signs of meth or heroine abuse.
“Hey man, how’s it going?” I offered.
“I know who you are,” he scowled. “You’re that preacher.” Great introduction!
“Depends on which preacher you’re talking about, but yeah, I probably I am.”
“I don’t like preachers.”
“Yeah? Me neither.” I had made a friend.
Everyone no doubt has theories on urban ministry. Me? I’ve found it refreshingly simple. Throw yourself out there, integrate yourself, and be prepared at all times to meet people where they’re at. Another valuable lesson? I’ve learned that the previous thought becomes far easier and more powerful when you learn to trust the Holy Spirit to do His job. Understanding that God wants the people before you far worse than you could ever imagine and that He was actually willing to shatter sin and death for an opportunity to reconcile with them. In light of that, all I really have to do is to arrange the meeting and then be prepared to start walking alongside people.
I tell people all of the time that urban ministry really is easy. I never have to wonder what to do next. I don’t have to go to committees and meetings to discuss why this or that isn’t working. I just simply have to go for a walk; ministry will find you. I often tell people ministry and life in the “South End” is probably as close as I’ll ever get to the burning bush in this life; God walks all over this place.
In thirty months’ time, we have made deep inroads into our community and have accomplished what conventional wisdom says should have taken many years. In that time? The forgotten church, in the forgotten neighborhood, in the forgotten part of the city has served over 20,000 people. Did I mention that we started with ten elderly people? On a given week we feed nearly 160 underprivileged children in our church. We have developed two firsts for Louisville and maybe anywhere; a mobile clothes closet and a mobile food pantry. My team and I have done ministry in the darkest places this city has to offer, taking Jesus to the places few dare to tread.
In May of 2014, we launched a cutting edge service called, “Heathen Church”. Our intent was to strip the pretense away from church and to offer a place for those who don’t like church, have been hurt by the church, or who have never stepped foot in church. We’ve had gangbangers, drug dealers, addicts, drunks, pagans, atheists, and the homeless call us home. They come to find to find the life altering, sin shattering, and “life can never be the same again” transformative power of Jesus Christ. Freeing the captives? Once again, simple. Love the unlovable and watch what happens. Isn’t that what Jesus did…and does?
“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” I feel that my team and I have stumbled onto the most amazingly beautiful place ever. We are a loaves and fish kind of ministry; we don’t have much to offer. We survive in large part due to amazing partnerships and the hearts of friends who have fallen in love with our crazy exploits. However, in that, I do believe we have stumbled upon one of the greatest truths in any ministry; when all that you truly have to offer is Jesus, you are rich beyond your wildest dreams. We have learned that we are abundantly wealthy in our poverty.