“With such affection for you, we were determined to share with you not only the gospel of God, but our very selves as well” (1 Thes 2:8). I don’t remember when I first came across this Scripture verse, but I do remember multiple instances during my time serving in a suburban parish that I’d internally wrestle with its application. After a few years working for a church, I had a good system that seemed to keep pastors and church leaders satisfied: Plan an event or program, advertise the opportunity to the parish and parents, host the event. Rinse and repeat. Passing on the faith through programs and events was the expectation, and for the most part, it worked. However, my perspective changed when I was unexpectedly called from the cozy, opulent suburbs into the gritty, and often unchurched, setting of urban ministry.
Before I go on, this is probably a good place to acknowledge that I didn’t grow up in the inner city. My iTunes library has far more folk and alternative music selections than anything that could be considered rap or hip-hop. My wardrobe has more khaki and plaid than I’d like to admit. Ultimately, I look like I was born and raised in a Panera Bread. But for the past five years, I have been privileged to dive headfirst into a ministry where I have seen profound grace and conversion in life circumstances far different from my own. It is within this mission that Paul’s words from Scripture have come alive for me.
There is no doubt that there are differences in the way one must minister in an urban setting when compared to a suburban setting, but many of the basic principles of catechesis still apply despite external circumstances. Just as you’d expect to see in a rural church ministry, relational opportunities, small group conversations, and proclamation of the Gospel are still necessary tools in transmitting the faith in the inner city. However, the way in which the principles are applied and utilized must be crafted to the specific idiosyncrasies found in urban settings. For example, we could look at the importance of personal witness. Many catechists can recall Pope Paul VI’s famous line from Evangelii Nuntiandi about modern man’s willingness to listen to witnesses over teachers, but earning the right to be heard, seen, and respected can be difficult when viewed as an outsider to inner-city communities. Perhaps for another example we can highlight Pope Francis’s call for the art of accompaniment within the Church. Accompaniment is a beautiful means to evangelization and catechesis, and it is necessary when stepping into the lives of young people, but the way in which two people journey together can be difficult when they come from such different places. It was far easier for me to forge an authentic bond based on similarities and aptitudes in the suburbs. However, though more difficult, accompaniment is no less valuable in urban settings; in fact, it may be even more important.
Sadly, there is no “magic bullet” when it comes to serving within the city. Ministry and methodology can be as complex and unique as the people and communities catechists serve. With that said, I believe that there are three essential elements required for good ministry in an inner-city environment: trust, patience, and hope. Of course, these cannot supersede the precedence of prayer, the sacraments, theology, or fellowship; but in my experience, they are uniquely valuable within the inner city. Their application may vary based on circumstances, but these three basic principles can give anyone the sturdy foundation needed to serve in the often-fragile environment of urban culture.
There is little that matters more in urban settings than trust. The problem is that trust can be extremely hard to come by when starting out in the inner city. Even if you have the best of intentions, the reality is that most people from broken or rundown communities find themselves in those communities because people they were supposed to be able to trust let them down. As catechists, we must be sensitive to these realities. Many material needs are painfully obvious when serving within urban areas, but we can’t overlook interpersonal needs. It can be far too easy to offer a resource when what someone really needs is a relationship. Many of us are where we are today because we had someone (most likely many people) who believed in us and encouraged us along the way. Sadly, that isn’t a given for everyone. As a catechist in an urban community, there is a weight that your presence brings, a promise of consistency and steadiness. You will have to prove yourself worthy of trust and cultivate it once you possess it. But once you have access to trust, you’ll also have access to the heart.
Next, while serving in the inner city, you must lean into patience. Most seasoned catechists or ministers have experienced the heartache of watching someone take a step toward holiness only to slip and fall back into old patterns. This certainly happens within the inner city, and so we also must recognize how countercultural the Gospel is considering some of the realities of urban life. Even when teens in the suburbs come from broken homes, they most likely can be pointed to other families that shine as an example of a holy and happy marriage. In the inner city, such role models are much scarcer. Even trying to apply the golden rule to treat others as you’d like to be treated can be difficult to wrap one’s mind around if most relationships are harsh and inconsistent. When engaging unchurched teens from rougher backgrounds, we must set realistic expectations for growth. By God’s grace one can become a saint overnight, but more times than not, the journey toward holiness is taken one step at a time. Sometimes those steps can be small: curse less, don’t physically hurt anyone, pray for a few minutes. But small steps can lead to bigger steps, and, if we are patient, we may be fortunate enough to see a life change.
Lastly, it is vital to cling to and to share hope when serving in the inner city. Though we’d be remiss to pretend tragedy doesn’t strike even affluent communities, we must acknowledge the specific hardships found within urban areas. Many teens growing up in lower income communities face scenarios of abuse, abandonment, and even violence on a regular basis. I have seen teens scoff at the assurance of an eternal paradise of heaven considering their current earthly perils; their thought process seems to be, “What good is a promise that life will get better later if things are unbearable now?” Even in my own personal experience, I have found myself battling against despair as I have seen the constant struggle of the youth that I serve. Yet, hope in Christ remains as an anchor for all, and amid despair and the most tragic circumstances, catechists in the inner city must proclaim that Christ is present and is always doing the work of transformation, even when their teens can’t see it.
If you would have told me ten years ago that I’d be ministering in the inner city, I would have highly doubted your ability to prophesy. Yet, today it is difficult to imagine serving in any other setting. Have I made a big impact in the communities where I serve? Only God knows how to properly answer that. But I do know that it has been an absolute blessing not only to bring the Gospel into urban settings but also, as St. Paul said, to bring my whole self. If you’ve ever been inclined to serve an urban community or in a setting that seems foreign to your typical surroundings, let my experience give you permission. Inner-city ministry isn’t as scary as you may fear, nor as romantic and heroic as it may seem. The Gospel will always transcend all demographics, differences, and barriers to speak into the human heart.
Kris Frank serves as the Vice President of Vagabond Missions. You can learn more about this inner-city ministry by visiting www.vagabondmissions.com.
This article originally appeared on pages 34-35 in the print edition.
Art Credit: Public domain image from Pixabay.com by Joshua Woroniecki.