This past Thursday afternoon I was privileged to be invited to come to the United Way offices in Des Moines for an extraordinary meeting. Pastor Al Perez and a group working with former Des Moines mayor Tom Urban assembled a group of pastors, ministry leaders and representatives of various community non-profits to talk about the challenges facing our city as we seek to minister to those who live in our city’s urban core. The urban core, our city’s inner core, is really a crossroads where you can literally meet people from every tongue, tribe and nation.
Tom Urban shared about how that core is composed of the following demographics:
25% African American
x% African (No one is really sure yet what the percentage of those coming directly from Africa will be but all agree they are a different demographic from African Americans).
30 % Anglo
Mr. Urban continued his presentation by saying that because of years of study and research, we already know how to do everything that needs to be done, and, that there are no more new problems in the urban core. They’ve all been identified. We’ve studied them, analyzed them, even come up with solutions for most of them.
So why do we still see people in such dramatic need in the urban core of our city? Why haven’t the solutions been put into place to solve all the problems we’ve identified over the last four decades?
His honor concludes that the problems haven’t yet been solved because of limited funds. There just isn’t enough money in the world to solve all the issues that need to be solved. He believes that we must achieve both scalability and persistency in our efforts. I’m not sure what scalability and persistency are but I believe him. New efforts to solve problems are launched but only have funding for a few years. Then they fold and we’re back to square one.
I’ll stop here and interject my own comments. Mr. Urban has devoted much of his life to solving problems in the city of Des Moines. We all owe him a debt of gratitude because of those of us who approach these issues today stand on his, and others, shoulders. He comes from a solid Quaker upbringing and loves people very, very much. But I think our problem is bigger than money. I think every pastor at the meeting would say that ultimately the urban core is dysfunctional because of human sin and the very real fact that we live in a fallen creation. In that way, the problem is bigger than the urban core itself. It extends to the suburbs and even to the countryside. It’s everywhere.
I’m sure it’s a controversial opinion to hold, but I’d say that the failure of non-profit groups like the United Way is that they simply can’t call the problem what it is: sin. But we’re preachers, calling out sin is our stock and trade. Now I completely understand why they can’t call sin, sin. It’s for purposes of funding and to a create a broader unity in finding solutions. They believe they must embrace a more secular approach in which Jesus is seen as someone who divides instead of unites. The irony is that if the problem is sin, Jesus is the only solution. He’s the only one who takes away the sin of the world. He’s the only one who can make all things new.
During our meeting there was a real demonstration of this which proves my point entirely. Tom Urban shared with us that if a third grade student can’t read at grade level, there is an extremely high probability that they will go to prison. In fact, the State of Texas plans it’s future prison cell needs based upon third grade reading statistics. I guess they plan on building a future cell for every kid who can’t read. One pastor was sharing how he and his church were working to address this problem with a new curriculum to teach students to read at grade level. Another pastor got up and said, basically, “You forgot one thing - God.” And then that pastor went on to share how he and his family have taken in 19 young men who were bound (according to the statistics) to prison and how these young men are on target to graduate from either high school or college. This pastor reminded all of us that God is the one who transforms the sinner to a saint, through the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And that Jesus still changes the lives of even hardened criminals and young people on the wrong track. Even atheists come to know Jesus and are changed.
So, I guess you could say that the result of the meeting will be an attempt by a whole bunch of pastors and churches and ministries to work together with more secular non-profits in order to teach kids to read, meet the needs of our community, and by so doing, show our city Jesus so that he might transform all of us.
Pastor Perez says we’ll have some more meetings shortly in smaller groups so we can identify what needs to be done in our area and figure out how to do it. And, for the more cynical among my readers: don’t worry. There isn’t any money in this.
I have to tell you that I’m really, really excited about this. One of the things we’ve been dreaming about at Zion is how people could come together from every center of influence in our community and work together to solve our city’s problems. Here it comes. Watch out, Devil, here we come. We’re coming together across racial lines, denominational lines, cultural lines, and we’ve even got those who aren’t supposed to say the name of Jesus on board. We are united. We have a common goal. This is what Paul talked about in Ephesians. This is uniting all things in Christ to put all things under his feet.
Here are a few random observations from the two hour meeting:
- I was overjoyed to see so many of my friends were also invited to be there. These are amazing men and women of God who have such a fire in the belly to make disciples and bring about the redemption of the world through the work of Christ. It’s always amazing to me who God brings into my life and the significant role they play not only in developing me and my faith, but the faith of others as well.
- One of the things that was universally recognized by the group of at least 75 was that in the past there has been such a veil of darkness over our city. I was amazed to hear even more stories about how Des Moines has been known as “The Pastor’s Graveyard.” People come here with great passion for the kingdom and for some reason, most seem to fail. There has been such a spirit of divisiveness in our city, a spirit of competition and territorialism between churches and groups and even within churches. (I follow Paul, I follow Apollos...).
- I was so blessed to hear from so many wonderful ministries in our city truly doing the Lord’s work with very few resources: Asian Open Bible Church, Trinity/Las Americas (where Zion serves supper 3 times a year); the ministry of Pastor Andre Brooks, just to name a few.
- Tom Urban urged us to overcome our biases in order that we might work together. Amen. For the greater glory of God and for the redemption of all things.
One of the reasons I was asked to be there was because of the work Zion Church is already doing. With several other ministries, I was asked to share the story of what God is doing in us and through us in Lower Beaver. Al Perez held up Zion as an example for others. He introduced me by saying that when you walk into our lobby, the first thing you see is mattresses and furniture, ready for giving away to those in need. He said that’s one way you know that Zion is really serious about serving people. As pastor, I’m really, really honored that our ministry together might be seen as being where it needs to be: on the front lines of what God is doing in our city. To God be all the glory, forever and ever. Amen. Thanks for reading. God bless you. PJ