Good in the ‘Hood

by Kayla Castleberry

When Jesus called Nathanael to join his growing team of disciples, Nathanael was doubtful as soon as he heard where Jesus was from. “Nazareth!” he scoffed. “Can anything good come from there?” (John 1:46)

The answer was, of course, “Yes. Jesus.”

A lot of us make the same mistake about our cities’ poorest neighborhoods. “Can anything good come from there?” we ask, and we conclude that, no, we must take the goodness to the ghetto instead. That’s what I thought when I left a comfortable life in rural Oklahoma to do inner-city ministry. But I discovered that, like in Nazareth, Jesus was already there. The ghetto is his home turf, and all we need to do is partner with him when we get there.

My team had been assigned to walk through the neighborhood and talk to people about hope; we asked whether they felt their neighborhood was hopeless, temporarily stuck, or moving forward. I heard many different perspectives that day, from those who wouldn’t admit to any problems (despite shootings and drug deals going down on a daily basis) to those who said the situation was desperate and they could do nothing to change it. But talking to one man, who turned out to be a minister at one of our partner ministries, changed my perspective on the inner city forever.

When we stopped to interview this man, whom I’ll call Sam, on a frankly frightening corner of the city, I had no idea I was stepping into one of the best sermons I would ever hear. Sam started off by telling us a little bit of his story, that he had been addicted to drugs and caught up in the problems of inner-city life before coming to Christ and getting clean. He now runs a ministry for recovering drug addicts in the same neighborhood he grew up in.

Sam compared his story with that of the Gerasene demoniac in Mark 5.  Jesus exorcised a legion of demons from this man who had been living in the tombs, a tortured soul beyond human help. As Jesus turned to leave him, the now sane man “begged to go with him. Jesus did not let him, but said, ‘Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you and how he has had mercy on you’” (Mark 5:18b-19).

Like the man freed from demons, Sam tried to find a way to leave the ghetto behind and build a new life for himself elsewhere, but Jesus told him, “Naw, man. Go back to your crib, to your neighborhood. You got work to do there.” It is essential, said Sam, that the people living in the ’hood, in the brokenness, be healed and remain there in order to heal the community as a whole, from within. Even if many individuals are saved, brought out of drug addictions, prostitution, or doubt, if they don’t remain in the community, the community remains unchanged.

This was an eye-opener for me, since I have often been taught that our ultimate goal in ministering to the inner cities is to “rescue” or “release” the people we serve from their bondage there, allowing them to go off and find a better life elsewhere. But what if God’s will is not to give people an escape from the broken community but to change the community itself? That is a much bigger, more God-sized goal than anything I could have dreamed of on my own. It changed the way I looked at inner-city ministry, especially the local church, built and maintained by members of the community, not by outsiders like me.

To conclude his mini-sermon, Sam called one of his friends over, to ask him whether he saw hope for the inner city. The friend looked at me and said, “Did anything good ever come out of Nazareth? There is good in the ’hood.”

From the most unlikely community in Israel came the Son of God. From the ’hood comes a crop of ministers who have experienced all the problems in their community and yet are still able to stay and change lives there. There is hope in the inner city, because there are people who, like the Gerasene demoniac, like Sam, stay where they are and create a strong local church where we, as outsiders, could never be as effective.

There is overwhelming good in the ’hood. All we have to do is partner with it and marvel at what God is doing.

Kayla Castleberry studies nutrition and dietetics at Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, Okla. She has spent time in various inner cities each summer since the age of 12. She hopes to use her career as a dietitian to benefit food banks or low-income health clinics.

wealthWant to learn more about what’s good in the ‘hood? Check out The Wealth of the Poor: How Valuing Every Neighbor Restores Hope in Our Cities by Larry James (Abilene Christian University Press, 2013). James heads up a ministry in Dallas called CitySquare, where they approach economically poor neighborhoods by first identifying their critical assets—social capital, survival skills, indigenous knowledge, and capacity for change. Skillfully blending social entrepreneurism, an adroit acquaintance with urban planning policies, and a profound love for his neighbors, James and CitySquare are not only lifting individuals out of poverty, but economically revitalizing neighborhoods by incubating for-profit microenterprises, including landscaping, a used-car lot, and even solar power.

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