Eight years ago, when I became a full-time pastor, I could never have imagined how many tears I would shed over people—or how God would use those tears.
A good friend who has pastored for almost three decades in one of the most violent neighborhoods in our country introduced me to what he calls "Jesus' ministry of tears." "Coach," as everyone knows him, is one of the most vulnerable pastors I know. "A week does not go by in which I do not weep aloud with people at their brokenness," he told me.
Our church is in Little Village on Chicago's west side. It is the largest Mexican community in the Midwest. We also have the youngest demographic in the city. Unfortunately, many of our young neighbors end up involved in gangs and victims of the violence that comes with it.
One afternoon I was invited to lead a prayer vigil for a young man who had been gunned down by the rival gang. As I made my way to the house where I would join the family who had lost their son, I noticed a large group of young people—many apparently gang members—were walking that way as well. Feelings of fear and doubt started creeping up my spine. "Where are they going?" I wondered. "Was something dangerous happening around the corner?" Turning the corner I realized they too were headed to the vigil. They were joining with me to honor and mourn their fallen friend.
Matthew tells us that when Jesus sent the 12 on their preaching assignment, he told them, "As you go, preach this message: 'The kingdom of heaven has come near'" (10:7). In the very next sentence, he prescribes the actions that should accompany their preaching: "heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons." It's difficult to cleanse lepers without touching them. For healing, proximity is required. Preaching alone does not fully demonstrate the kingdom—it must be accompanied by immersion in people's lives, by touching them, like Jesus did.
No one in our neighborhood fits the "leper" profile better than gang-involved youth. People literally cross the street to avoid any contact with these young people. It takes a deep change of heart for most people to realize that these kids are not only loved by God, but that they are also our kids.
A large crowd of young people had already gathered around the sidewalk where I would be praying. I made a beeline to one of the few people I recognized. Matt was one of the organizers of the prayer vigil. "What should I do? What should I say?" I asked him.
I felt fearful and inadequate. What could I say to these young people whose lives were so radically different from anything I had ever experienced? What if they rejected me? "You don't know what it's like to be in our shoes," they might say. "Just say your prayer and shut up."
Yet they had gathered for this prayer vigil. I had to believe that somehow, in this moment, heaven would meet earth.
Amid my fears, I prayed silently, "Jesus, what do you want me to do here?"
As I looked out over the crowd, I realized most of these scary-looking gang members were just kids, mostly in their mid or late teens, with some in their twenties. I was old enough to be their father. They had surely been told repeatedly by authority figures how wrong their actions were and how foolish gang activity was. But as I looked at these hurting teenagers, I wondered, What would the king say to these young people? I felt a burning deep within my soul to give them grace.