Rain drums these familiar pot-holed streets tonight, falling through the mild air onto warehouses, factories, dilapidated houses, and projects half-demolished, half-inhabited. Even the poorest roofs and windows in New Orleans's Desire Street projects glow through the downpour with colored lights and orange electric candles. The light from some displays can be seen a block away. Canned-snow lettering covers windowsills with Merry Christmas messages. "It snowed once, but that was when I was a little girl," 22-year old Chiquita says, holding her three-year old, "Doo," and watching the downpour.
Chiquita was converted through PCA pastor Mo Leverett's Bible studies at a local high school. Now, along with her husband, Myron, who came to Christ while serving a jail sentence, she works at the ministry as receptionist.
Mo, 36, began work in the Desire neighborhood about 12 years ago. He got his start by coaching football and holding after-practice Bible studies, to which his wife, Ellen, lured hungry players and their friends with her homemade cooking. They soon moved into the neighborhood; they still live, with their four children, in a small home in the impoverished Ninth Ward. They believe the healing gospel reaches, as the hymn says, far as the curse is found." So ministry to the physical, emotional, educational, and financial needs of the Desire community goes hand in hand with their commitment to bring the spiritual healing of the gospel of grace.
Christmas contains a kernel of the energy that propels Mo in his work among New Orleans's poor. "We are called to imitate Christ and his work, Mo says. "He left glory, eternal majesty, to enter humanity, become one of us - a major sacrifice of itself, especially when you know it was an eternal decision, that he lost something eternally for our eternal good: he will forever be both God and human. When I understood this, it was nothing to move into another neighborhood.
Adds Holt: "I hope to contribute to the training of the future spiritual leaders in urban Chattanooga; specifically, to supply current and future urban pastors with the kind of training I received at RTS. It is basically an issue of kingdom stewardship. I had access to training that some of the men I work with would never have access to if someone like me were not willing to make it available to them.
"I believe that those who are rich in any resource are commanded in Scripture to share their resources with those who lack. RTS enriched me, primarily by making me a better student of the Scriptures, and confirming me in the richness of the Reformed faith."
For some, the call is to battle in a suburban sprawl where alienation is so privately strong and disguised by money and materialism that only true believers will prayerfully reach out. Wherever the call, biblical Christians must heed with abandon.
Many socially orphaned children exist in the suburbs, the products of broken families. Spousal abuse and rampant materialism have left children feeling like they are part of the debris bargained for over attorneys' tables during divorce proceedings.
Redeemer Presbyterian Church of Austin, Texas, where RTS graduate Paul Hahn is senior pastor, implements all of its programs to fulfill this core mission statement: "Redeemer exists to bring the resources of the historic Christian faith to bear on Austin in the hope that visible changes will occur in the quality of its life - spiritually, socially, and materially."
For Redeemer, this means getting into the lives of Austin's rich and poor and outcasts, wherever they may be. The church's New Start ministry seeks to assist those poor who have long been hooked on government assistance by addressing, according to New Start's literature, "the root causes of poverty, individual and corporate sin, as well as the symptoms: homelessness, joblessness, illness, ignorance, and dependence on governmental assistance."
The incarnational element of Austin's ministries is seen in how church members volunteer as remedial tutors to children; as cooks to serve meals to needy, broken families; as job money-management trainers; and in a litany of other ways.
Whatever the case, such ministries are finding great success because they are located among those to whom they minister. In the case of Redeemer Presbyterian, the church is in the center of Austin, and the people who participate in its various ministries are encouraged to be among those for whom they care.
Said Piper: "My church is a downtown church. I live in the poorest neighborhood of Minneapolis - which, by the way; is a dream world compared to most inner cities. We're downtown. When you have a church downtown, you live downtown! You have a church somewhere, live there! Church In a suburb? Live in the suburb. Church downtown? Live downtown. Don't drive live miles to your church, for goodness' sake!"
"What I'm learning," Piper added, "as I talk around churches and conferences and so on about the glory of God and how we should so feel, and so think, and so live, is that we become displays, reflections of the glory of God. Let your light so shine that men may see your good deeds and [give] glory to your Father in heaven! That's what your life is all about."
The history of evangelicalism is adorned with those who have given up much to gain the joy of gospel ministry.
Back in New Orleans, Mo Leverett experiences similar emotions. He says, "I could never have dreamed up the wonder of these people I love so much now, waiting for me behind barriers of hardship. They are God's joyful gift to me, and worth far more than I have given up in comfort or security. To share in the sufferings of Christ, to resemble him in any way, is my joy. One of the clearer marks of Jesus is suffering for others. Paul recognized that knowing Christ meant being included in his sufferings, when he said, I want to know Christ, the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings, being conformed to his death' (Phil. 3:10).
"To suffer at all in the name of Christ is a distinct privilege and honor," Mo continues. "To be where God is at work is my joy, to see the transformed lives, the redemption that God has brought about through my entrance into their suffering."
Mo spends his time pastoring his small church, Desire Street Fellowship - made up mostly of people under age twenty-five - and managing the developing ministries of his organization, Desire Street Ministries. These include a summer urban-ministry internship for college students that involves cross-cultural training, Bible studies about poverty, justice, race, and redemptive suffering, and hands-on assistance with ministry projects.
Ministries also include after-school programs to help kids with reading, homework, art, and life skills; various summer camps and field trips for different age groups; Bible studies and dinner for the high-school kids twice a week; tutoring programs; a nascent school; a growing Urban Theological Institute; and Mo's steady music ministry. He considers his primary goal to be the development of indigenous Ninth Ward leaders who know their own culture profoundly and yet have been profoundly met in it by Christ.
"Just the presence of these guys who have been converted through the ministry and who come back to help the neighborhood really moves these kids, says Heather Holdsworth, DSM's education coordinator. "They give up what they could have done to stay here and be an example. We love them and are there for them, too, when no one else is; so 90 percent of those who get off to college want to come back and work at the ministry. We're like their family, so for them, it's like coming home."
One such indigenous leader is Kedrick Levy, a large black man with corn-rowed hair and cool-daddy clothes, who came to faith through Mo's early outreach. He has broken the cycle of despair in his family by going to college, staying off the streets, getting married, and taking responsibility for nurturing his children. He sees himself as the bearer of hope to his huge extended family, including many small children. He is the person who can show them another way of life.
Levy remains submerged in the heartbreaking inner-city culture of death. Two of his brothers have committed suicide, overcome by the pressures of ghetto life. The song "Randy" on Mo's latest CD is about the second brother. A third brother, 24-year-old Julian, the transportation coordinator at the ministry, was killed in a drive-by shooting in September, leaving behind a wife, who was wounded, and three small children. Yes, to know Levy is to enter profound suffering.
Levy is part of the new Urban Theological Institute, where RTS professors seek to help Mo train these young men in the Scripture: "One day in class," Mo recounts, "I was teaching through the Westminster Confession of Faith, and Levy interrupts me by saying, 'This is not right!' I thought he was about to debate me on some minute theological point, but he said, 'Coach, there're probably a million people around the world who would die to be receiving what we're getting. I just feel indebted to the world now.'
"When Christ came, he chose the lowly things of the world, the despised things, and told them they were the salt and the light, that this unlikely group would build an international movement. Through them Christ instigated his worldwide church-planting, kingdom-building cause. Through guys like Levy, Christ is continuing this effort. Many people might naturally think that the Desire neighborhood is not a strategic target for ministry. But no one would have picked out those twelve disciples as strategic leader material. We believe that God is not only transforming our neighborhood but will use even these men and women as the beachhead for an international movement to reach the streets of the world's large cities.
"We are already beginning
to connect our work and model to future missions in Latin America, America,
and beyond. A number of our summer interns now work in Latin America among
the poor. We envision training hundreds to do the same thing we're doing
here, throughout the South and in the rest of the world."
But Doo also heralds the newness the kingdom of God brings. He is one of the only children in his neighborhood to have two married parents, to live in a stable home with love, caring boundaries, and a nurturing covenant community. The small dark head with its radiating plaits, and his big, alert eyes - they testify to the riches that wait on the other side of sacrificial living.
Mo's song "Martyr of Mercy" echoes this vision: "Mercy is the beggar's call, / it's a new beginning, makes the shamed stand tall / ... it's the favorite story of the turned-aside." The song continues with this prayer: "I'm listening, waiting, willing, to hear the quiet call, / to let my spirit say, to sacrifice it all, / to give it all away." May we this Christmas experience the deep, deep love of Jesus, and become people who enter the sufferings of others, as did our Savior.
For you know the grace
of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He
became poor so that you through His poverty might become rich.
Reformed Quarterly, Volume 20, Number 4