12/16/16 Don, Harvey, Red all 60 and over
Churches look different in blighted and dysfunctional neighborhoods from the perspective of the people on the streets around them. On Chicago's south side, there are some large churches in very impoverished areas, with fancy buildings and fenced in parking lots, most with gates and parking attendants. Many of their members grew up near the church, but moved away to safer communities. They drive in on Sunday mornings, dressed in their Sunday best, walking past security personnel and disappearing inside the doors, safely insulated from the streets. The message often focuses on health and wealth and "getting my blessing". They become easy targets of criticism for those who have been left behind, like Harvey and Red, two older street wise African American men who agreed to a conversation with David and I at the McDonald's across the street from one such church.
Harvey was loud spoken and opinionated, has done jail time, and has struggled with substance abuse. He's been around the block on the streets but with church people too, having grown up in a family separated by different paths that led to church or the streets. His buddy Red was quiet and patient, not wanting to disagree, giving Harvey someone to vent his complaints on. After I asked about their beliefs, the complaints began, beginning with the pastor's $100,000 Bentley, sitting safely over there in the church's parking lot. Harvey talked of street people being stopped by security at the church door, of various rumors and bad impressions that have built up over the years, blaming the church people as hypocrites for his own lack of interest in God. I sympathized with his feelings but also defended the church, trying to explain their perspective. "I imagine it would be hard to tell people to believe God for material blessings if you don't have them yourself, so they probably use this to justify extravagant material possessions for their leaders, but I really do think this contradicts Jesus’ teachings” I told them.
I was starting to feel hypocritical myself, so I left Dave to continue talking with them while I went up to the counter to buy us all some Chicken McNuggets. As I waited for my order, a friendly, older, well-dressed African American man also waiting for his order recognized me from a conversation we'd had there a few years ago. He was Don, longtime elder at the church we had been talking about. I told him about the conversation I was having with Harvey and Red, and relayed some of their complaints about his church. He wasn't surprised, saying these guys have been hanging around the neighborhood as long as he can remember, and have never shown any interest in learning more about the Bible or the things of God. The Bentley, he said, was a gift from the church to their pastor after over 50 years of service. The security guards were necessary to keep church members from being taken advantage of or the church service disrupted. He told me to invite Harvey and Red to a Christmas dinner the church was offering the community the next week.
Back at the table, we continued to talk through Harvey’s complaints. Many were learning opportunities. "Not everyone that attends church is a Christian, just like sitting here in this McDonald's doesn't make us a Big Mac. People go to church for a lot of different reasons, so we shouldn’t be surprised that not all church attenders act Christian.” And “What do you think would happen if they just gave out free food at every church service?" Harvey agreed there would be chaos as dozens of street people would be at church for all the wrong reasons. “Jesus fed thousands of people. But how many were willing to stay around when He told them to pick up their cross and follow Him?" Harvey asked why church people didn't want to hang around street people. "Imagine sin as being like a big swimming pool. People are jumping in it, having fun. Then they become Christians and no longer have the desire to jump in. However, they do fall in by accident from time to time. They realize that avoiding falling in the pool means they shouldn't walk so close to the edge. A lot of church people can't hang around the old crowd because they don't want to fall back into the same sins they escaped from."
Barring a huge miracle, my words were falling on deaf ears. A lifetime of sinful choices, not entirely their own, have led Harvey and Red to callousness toward God, addictions, dysfunction and bitterness. I am reminded that the godly choices of churchgoers very often lead to clean living, a positive work ethic, strong families, and a certain level of prosperity, though people breaking out of a cycle of poverty may take this too far in their emphasis on material blessings. I come from a middle class background and the privileges that have come with it. I am trying to be discerning, but less judgmental, of the churches of people who come from backgrounds and cultures different than my own.