Redeeming a Needy Neighborhood
A consumer culture doesn't affect only those who have too much. It also affects those who don't have enough. One pastor who ministers in the middle of both plenty and scarcity is the Reverend Senator James Meeks.
Meeks bears that unusual dual title because he serves as pastor of Salem Baptist Church on Chicago's South Side, and as state senator in Illinois's 15th District.
In addition, he is executive vice president of the RainbowPUSH Coalition. He also is on the boards of directors of, among others, the Chicago Fire Department, Korean American Merchant Association, Roseland Community Hospital, and Olive Branch Mission.
Each summer, members of Salem Baptist take to the streets to pray on every corner of their neighborhood. They put shoe leather to their prayers by helping to transform the community in many ways, including countering violence, improving education, and removing corrupting influences.
As part of the Christian Vision Project, in which Leadership and sister publications Christianity Today and Books & Culture explore the question, "How can followers of Christ be a counterculture for the common good?" we asked the Rev. Sen. Meeks to speak to the issues of leading a church that makes an impact on a needy but still consumer culture.
When you moved into this neighborhood, what was it like?
In 1990 this was a poverty stricken community. When we moved to our building at 118th Street, we learned that 117th was ruled by one street gang, and 119th was ruled by another street gang. The war zone was 118thright where our church was.
Welcome to the front lines.
Yeah. We moved in July 1, 1990. On July 3, I called a meeting of the gang leaders. I was surprised, but they came! We met on the steps of the church, and I told them I knew our church was in this war zone. I told them that we were now moving in our women, our children, our Sunday school, our choirs, and we were not going to tolerate putting them in an unsafe environment.
I said we would offer whatever it would take to alleviate the ills that you guys are going through. If anybody needed a GED because he didn't finish high school, we'll help him get a GED. If anyone's in a gang who wants to get out, we will provide safe haven. But there are two things that we're not going to tolerate: any kind of physical altercations from you guys while we are here on our block, or graffiti on any of our buildings.
As a result, several gang members came to drop their flags (meaning, in gang terms, that they wanted out of the gang). They became part of our church. We ended up getting them jobs at the local grocery store.
We never had any graffiti, and only one Sunday did they have an altercation.
That Sunday we heard gunfire after our early service. And so, in the second service, we turned the worship over to the women, and I asked all the men to go with me into the neighborhood. We went door to door, several hundred guys, knocking on doors looking for the people who were shooting in front of our building. We told ...