It was hot in Camden. Our church’s evangelism team had stopped on a street known colloquially as the “Heroin Highway” because of its reputation for attracting drug addicts, prostitutes, and violent crime. Hoping to keep our neighbors cool on a recent humid afternoon, we had packed coolers with Italian ice and chilled water to distribute to passers-by. Eager to start conversations with residents about faith, we set up our refreshment table just a few blocks away from our church. Within minutes, residents began flocking to our makeshift refreshment stand.
One older gentleman was particularly friendly. After reaching into the cooler for a beverage, he walked towards me and we shook hands.
“What brought y’all out here today?” he asked me.
Sensing the prompting of the Holy Spirit, I began to share about the faith which had inspired our church’s visit. But as I continued, his friendly demeanor became contentious.
“This is why I can’t stand you stupid n***as,” he stepped forward, and gave me a poke in the chest. “You don’t know anything about your history. Don’t you know that Christianity is a white man’s religion? You’re just regurgitating his racist rhetoric!”
I listened to his frustrations for several minutes before I pushed his hand away.
“You’re wrong,” I said. (I’d heard these claims before and had grown accustomed to hostile exchanges.) “Christianity started in the Middle East, and the gospel traveled to Egypt and Ethiopia the same year that Jesus rose from the dead. Frankly, many of the earliest theologians were from Africa.”
Unsatisfied with my answers, he pelted me with questions for the next 30 minutes about the Nation of Islam, Egyptology, and the Ausar Auset Society. “Didn’t you know that Moses used the Babylonian creation account Enûma Elish to write the Torah? Science has already proven that Adam didn’t exist so what’s the need for a second Adam? Jesus was just a plagiarism of the Egyptian god Horus, so why would I worship him?”
Despite my seminary training, the conversation was challenging. None of my courses had addressed any of the religious sects the man named. And few had offered training on how to articulate my faith in an inner-city context—much less in one of the most dangerous cities in the nation.
What I needed—likely along with many other inner-city pastors—was a course on urban apologetics. That is, a branch of apologetics that addresses matters of faith within the larger context of race, inequality, economics, justice, and religious pluralism. Many urban cults thrive because they provide a sense of communal identity by addressing the pressing issues of the urban dweller. But the Christianity that many of us learned in our churches and seminaries rarely speaks to this—and most apologetics fall under the influence of the academy or the suburbs.
To address these gaps, intellectuals and urban ministry practitioners will need to collaborate to develop new frameworks and curriculum. Key to the efficacy of these resources will be their grasp of how America’s past, especially with regards to race, informs inner-city sects. Knowing the history of our country helps explain the source of the questions these sects claim to answer—and indicates what arguments our own apologetics will have to respond to in the present day.