Where are your models for this kind of ministry?
My heroes for urban community development are Ezra, Esther, and Nehemiah. Esther moved inside the system, ran for Miss Persia, and won. She married the king, accessed power, and changed the law. Somebody has to move off the map of the godly into the godless structure and change the law. Esther teaches us that it's not enough just to repent for sin. It's systemic, and the law has to change. We're into housing because justice is not being done. If you want justice, you have to change the law.
Nehemiah, on the other hand, got the government grant and started the biblical model-cities plan. He got everybody in the neighborhood to build the wall. Urban ministry does not start with just the saved; it starts with everybody.
When Nehemiah got the wall built, he discovered that he had an urban jungle; only the priests lived there. So Nehemiah went to the suburbs and said, "Choose one out of ten to come and live in the city." Nehemiah 11:2 says, "And the people blessed all those who were willing to live in Jerusalem." Then Ezra came and rebuilt the temple with his friend Zerubbabel.
I tell pastors, "You have not preached tithing until you have preached the tithing of your people, of 10 percent going into urban neighborhoods where the church is." If you have more than that, you'll intimidate the natives and gentrify the neighborhood. Tithe your people, and use your assets to buy property next to every playground and grammar school in your community so you can stash your people there to create positive webs of influence in the community.
Is there a typical profile of people who do ministry well in the city?
People have to be secure in their identity. Another secret is the ability to see that you don't build on problems to be solved; you build on islands of strength that are already there—the ability to see the capacities of what you've got and not lament what you don't have. A support group and family affirmation are critical.
I recommend to new urban pastors what I did in my own ministry: visit every other church in the community, meet the pastors, and say, "I've been driving by but never stopped to thank you for serving the neighborhood. Tell me the most important lesson you've learned about being a minister in this community" or "How has this community changed in your lifetime?" I got wonderful openness because I wasn't threatening anybody.
What do you think of the current interest within evangelicalism in racial reconciliation?
Better late than never. Back in the 1960s, when my commitment to racial reconciliation was formed, they weren't there. Racial reconciliation has been part of our family for a long time. My wife once had a black roommate at Moody Bible Institute, which was very unusual at the time. We adopted a black kid-not that we wanted to, but my oldest kid kept bringing him home. We finally adopted him after feeding him for six months. And we've spent our life as a family incorporating his roots. And now we have a beautiful black grandchild. Our way of working at racial reconciliation has been quiet; I haven't marched in a lot of parades.
The reality is, you can't talk reconciliation and continue to live in all-white communities, spend your money in white shopping malls, and take your vacations in white locations. If you're serious, ultimately you broaden your commitments, including the church.
What are your thoughts on welfare reform?
We have to have welfare reform. The welfare system was designed almost punitively. In 1968 when I coordinated Chicago's Reach-Out program for 30,000 kids as part of President Johnson's Great Society program, I saw how the system worked. When we'd interview the kids, they would ask: "Will my check be deducted from my mother's check?" The answer was yes. The kids would say, "I can't afford to work, because my mother is just going to lose benefits." That's criminal. The kids couldn't afford to get a paper route, because every dollar they made was going to be deducted from their mom's check, because Americans are afraid that poor people are getting rich with their tax dollars.
I had a plan to get all my congregation off welfare. Nobody wants to be on welfare. They hate it. It's very demeaning to have some white social worker come to your house, if you're a public-aid mom, and tell you what you can and can't do. We'd train them and get jobs for them. But the first time a kid got sick, they would go back to welfare to be able to get the medical card. Clearly, if we're serious about welfare, the biggest single deal we could do is say to the poorest of the poor: We'll insure you so that if you or your children get sick you have medical coverage.
There's hypocrisy, too, in this movement to reform the welfare system. Most of my family are farmers out West on dairy price supports. They benefit from agricultural welfare. The $40 billion worth of that support is at least equal to the welfare given as direct service to the poorest of the poor. Also, the same people who want their middle-class mothers to stay home and be full-time parents are demanding these poor mothers go to work at minimum wage.
The Democratic solution to poverty is more money; the Republican solution is less money. Neither is responding to the problem, which is a disempowered community and a disempowering nation that says we don't care about the poor.
When my brother Dennis did my income taxes, he said there's something wrong with a country that taxes me more than him. I agree with William Julius Wilson on the declining significance of race. We're resegregating on a class basis. What's happening is a growing gap between the haves and have-nots.
What about the church's role in welfare reform?
The vulnerable of society are the church's primary responsibility. Now, the reality is, as a tax-paying citizen I believe the church does not have this responsibility alone. This is not what I want mission dollars to go for. I want to spend mission dollars on evangelism. I don't want to have to do what I think the government is responsible to do when Bill Gates and all these people get their taxes reduced. There's something wrong with the richest country in the world expecting charity dollars, which are primarily our mission dollars, to pick up the task alone.
What should be done about guns and violence in homes and on the streets?
I grew up in a hunting culture. I got my first gun, my only gun, as a 12-year-old. It's a privilege to own a gun, not a right. Like automobiles, if you can train and license people to drive a car, you can do the same with a gun.
The community is armed, which means nobody is safe. Guns are killing kids and family members and not making it any safer for us as a people. It's ironic: I feel so much safer outside the U.S. I wish Americans had the privilege of traveling abroad where everybody's not armed and you can walk the streets at night.
What's your perspective on teen pregnancies, single-parent families, and the breakdown of the family?
You can't be a pastor and not be wounded by what's happening. In my church I had 12-year-old kids who had had sexual practice either way. There were blended families sharing one bedroom, kids abused by stepparents, visiting men, or older half-brothers. The kids didn't really know who they were sexually. So we had to teach the sanctity of body, sex, and creation, because so many families didn't have that as a norm.
In my experience, though, abortion is a middle-class, suburban issue. It's a lifestyle issue for them; kids are an inconvenience. Urban mothers want their children, especially black families.
The disintegrating family and absentee fathers is a sad thing. It's rooted in bad policies and sin, obviously. But if we wanted to get families back together, we could do it by not punishing a mother whose spouse is incapable of employment. Now it's so much more convenient to get the men out of the house so the wife can get on aid.
What is the mission of International Urban Associates?
IUA is a network which links associates in cities with each other. We walk alongside them, encouraging and mentoring them, and, if possible, providing them with grants we secure. We also try to find the next generation of visionary urban leaders.
What are you working on now?
We have four urban agendas. First, we run a think tank on Pacific Rim cities. From a missionary perspective, God is bringing the world from the Southern Hemisphere to the Northern, and the Eastern world to the Western. The United States is being turned around. We're no longer a nation facing Europe, but a nation facing Asia. The West Coast, where I grew up, is the front door of Asia.
The twin facts of the urbanization of Asia and the migration of Asians to the West tells me that God is preparing the world for an Asian Pentecost. Asians are the twentieth-century Jews in dispersion, and we should be interpreting those texts for them and saying, "God is scattering you." I'm thinking evangelization by way of diaspora: migrant streams—just like Alexandria and Babylon for the Jews—are reappearing. And we need to nurture them and link them. This is my missiology.
Chinese Americans are linked to 20 percent of the world's population back in the mainland. I've argued that ethnic churches shouldn't blend into the Chicago church picture. We should be building bridges to them, but we should be encouraging them to keep the bridges back home. Foreign mission in an ethnic parish means leveraging their influence for the liberation of the gospel in the home country.
Second, the Middle East has been a major agenda—empowering the Arab church in the Islamic context. I feel tied to it in a filial sense: it's the fatherland, if not a holy land, for me.
The third area is the Francophone world: 440 million people in 46 French-speaking countries, 26 of them African. We discovered more missionaries in Kenya than in 46 French countries combined, a bias toward Anglophile countries and an anti-Catholic bias on the part of many.
My colleague Glenn Smith and I started networking in French cities, and we now have three training centers: Paris, Abidjan [Côte D'Ivoire], and Montreal. And we put together a network of mission agencies. If Europe is going to be evangelized, it may come through the French-African scene, especially places like Paris, which is Africanizing rather rapidly. So much of the 10/40 Window [an imaginary rectangular box on the globe stretching from North Africa through Southeast Asia] is the bilingual French- and Arabic-speaking slice of North Africa. The gospel comes easier to these people through the French than the Arabic; conversion is less threatening. The problem is we have no French constituency in the United States.
The fourth area is the Latin partnership, 25 Spanish and seven Portuguese countries. Again, they are mostly Catholic countries struggling to be pluralistic. Within those countries is an indigenous struggle for autonomy and identity. I think we can help those folks.
If you could write your own epitaph, what would you say?
Isaiah 58:12: "Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in" (NRSV). I haven't been an urban builder, but I have been building coalitions of people with a vision for rebuilding their own cities.
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