See the Face of God in the City

Last Sunday, after parking our car in the vacant lot across from the church where our family worships, we made our way around a make-shift memorial that had been set up the night before. Late Saturday night a vigil was held for a young father of two who had been gunned down earlier that week. As I walked by this memorial of flowers, teddy bears and candles I couldn’t help but think about this article. I have been asked to write about DOOR and out tag line “See the face of God in the city.” Where was God’s face here? For any of us who live and work in an urban context make-shift memorials are a regular part of our experiences.

Does DOOR exist to bring folks into the city with the hopes of shocking them into being grateful for where they come from and what they have? I have heard this kind of statement many times over my 15 years at DOOR – “Dear God I am so thankful for what I have and where I live, I will never take anything for granted again.” This kind of response has very little to do with seeing God’s face in the city.

Maybe DOOR exits as a conduct for bringing God to the City. We are responsible for bringing thousands of Christian youth and young adults to the city each year. Is it possible that each of these participants bring a little bit of Gods light to an otherwise hopeless situation? Or is our tag line saying something more? Is the idea of “See the face of God in the city” subversive?

As our family walked around the memorial and into our church, a new set of emotions washed over me – we were walking into the presence of God. Yes, God was here, alive and well, right here in the city! For the past three years our family has been worshipping at what might be described as an “inner city” church. This congregation has taught me much about seeing the face of God in the city.

It was a year ago when I witnessed forgiveness in action. One of the members of our church went on a shooting rampage and ended up killing four people before he was killed. As you might imagine dealing with this was difficult. In the midst of this tragedy something amazing happened. The parents of the killer met with all the families of the victims and asked for forgiveness. Forgiveness was offered and new friendships were created. Urban folks have learned the hard lessons of harboring revenge – it doesn’t work. If humanity is going to move forward revenge must give way to forgiveness. When this happens God’s face is revealed.

Two weeks before Christmas our church held a “Christmas Store.” Over the course of four hours we provided presents to 500 families in our neighborhood. While many churches debate if they should focus on reaching the lost for Christ or feeding the hungry – most urban churches don’t even start the conversation. Why would anyone ignore another person’s need? Isn’t the church called to minister to whole people?

Why does DOOR bring people to the city? There was a time when we brought individuals and groups to the city because we felt that people of privilege (read – wealthy) needed opportunities to serve the poor (read – urban). Over time this basic supposition was challenged. Some participants wanted to feel “useful,” others wanted opportunities to “share the love of Jesus.” By the late 1980’s some urban leaders had started to challenge the motivation and usefulness of short-term programs. One letter to the Mennonite even suggested that short-term programs should cease to exist.

DOOR has attempted to respond appropriately to the suggestions and insights from both our supporters and detractors. Over the course of the past decade we have moved from a service to the city model to an educational model. This has been good, but not perfect. This model still has the potential to leave urban folks feeling used.

Now, in the second half of this decade, we are coming to a new understanding of the place of urban short-term service programs. People need to come to the city because it is in the city where the Kingdom of God is becoming a reality. Our cities have become gathering places for people from all tribes and nations. It is not unusual to hear about urban public school systems that deal students who arrive with many different first languages. It is not unusual to hear about urban churches have started or host congregations that worship in a language other than English.

We are going through a paradigm shift in our programming at DOOR. In 1986, DOOR’s first year, groups came because they wanted to do good work in the city and DOOR supported that idea. In 2009 groups still want to do good service in the city, but today we host these groups because they need to taste and see the kingdom of God. It is urban folks who have begun to understand that forgiveness is more powerful that revenge, non-violence makes more sense than violence; community is better than individualism and plowshares or better than guns.

It is time for the urban church to recognize its call to make disciples and many of those potential disciples are coming to the city in the name of service….