There are times when I miss suburban church. There are times when I think how nice it would be to show up somewhere in my Sunday best, full make-up, kids all cute and clean, and blend in with everyone else on a cushy pew. There are times I want to be preached at, sung to, and entertained. There are times I want to attend a church function where I haven't labored over the whole thing. I just want to show up and enjoy. Sometimes, I miss suburban church.
Inner city ministry is not glamourous. Sometimes it hurts. Sometimes it seems pointless. To quote my friend Joe, who along with his wife, has dedicated his life to inner city ministry (he's now in NYC):
"It's hard work. Very hard work. ... But it's necessary work. Over a thousand times the Bible tells us of how we are supposed to work with and help out the poor. It's mentioned over a thousand times because we need reminding - actually, we need to be beat over the head - because we shy away from hard work."
When a kid you've loved and mentored and prayed over goes back to dealing drugs after three years of being clean, the heartache makes you want to throw up. When a young man who's been in your home a hundred times and is about to have his electricity turned off accepts your offer of money to pay the bill and then shows up at another church member's home asking for money to pay his light bill and you smell the pot wafting out of the car, the anger that wells up in you makes you want to squeeze his cheeks between your thumb and forefinger and yell, "WHAT ARE YOU THINKING???" When a young Mom who's been heartbroken by her baby's Daddy yet again - and whose own parents are too strung out to notice - says after Bible study, "I just don't know if I believe in God sometimes. Why would He let me hurt so much if He were real?"... well, that brings hot tears to my eyes just typing it.
But let me tell you. Those heartaches and hard times are FAR outnumbered by the blessings I receive in the inner city. This past Sunday, my dear friend Mico showed up at church. He's been scarce the past few months, 'cause he'd (in his own words) "busted out his lightbulb and chose to live in the darkness of the world". I was elated to see him, and ran to give him a hug. He resisted. I then playfully said, "Aw, Mico. I miss the old you. I'm fixin' to make you smile,"... and as I tried to turn his downcast mouth into a upright one, he swatted my hand away. Darren wisely encouraged me to leave Mico alone, which I did. But I ached for the Mico I once knew.
During worship, I watched him. He sat staring at the floor, his eyes hard and cold, his mouth frozen in that angry scowl. I wondered why he was there. And we kept singing. Eventually, he looked up. Still hunched over, he allowed his eyes to look upward, and I made eye contact with him, and smiled. He did not smile back. But soon, he was sitting straight up. Then he was mumbling words to the songs. Darren nudged me to alert me to the fact that Mico was singing, but he didn't need to do so. I knew. I was watching the transforming power of God's love work a miracle. Mico was changing before my very eyes. Darren started "Listen to Our Hearts", which has always been one of Mico's favorites. Mico not only sang the words, but I could see him FEELING the words. His rich tenor rang out:
How do you explain, how do you describe
A love that goes from the east to west
And runs as deep as it is ride
You know all our hopes
Lord, you know all our fears
And words cannot express the love we feel
But we long for You to hear
So listen to our hearts
Here our spirit sing
A song of praise that flows
From those you have redeemed
We will use the words we know
To tell you what an awesome God You are
But words are not enough
To tell you of our love
So listen to our hearts
If words could fall like rain
From these lips of mine
And if I had a thousand years
I would still run out of time
So if You'll listen to my heart
Every beat will say
Thank You for the life, Thank You for the truth,
Thank You for the way.
(words and music by Steven Curtis Chapman and Geoff Moore)
Afterward, Mico stood and spoke. He walked over to me and said, "First, I owe Stacy an apology". Then he bent down and hugged me tight. Then he confessed, repented, and asked for prayers. He said he'd stayed away because he was too ashamed to come, and frankly, he didn't want to change anyway. But heartache had left him profoundly empty that morning, and when he had nowhere else to turn, he remembered his Fortress family. He came home. We circled around him, thanked God for his return, thanked God for the healing power of music, and thanked God for Mico's heart.
And I remembered why I'm there. Had I been sitting in a cushy suburban church Sunday morning, I might have left feeling nice and clean and "churched". But let me tell you. I wouldn't have been blessed like I was Sunday morning. Yes, it's a dirty, ugly world in the Near Southeast neighborhood of Fort Worth. But it's full of people just like me and you: people who need God and often resist Him anyway.
It's full of Micos. I thank God that He led me to that place.
It may be poor and dirty, but Sunday morning, as I dripped tears of joy and relief onto Mico's shirt collar, I thought it looked radiant and hopeful. And I was so glad to be there.