Back to work in the Hood

As I walked through the low-income housing complex around the corner and down the street from our Church I couldn’t help but think about how much it reminded me of Newark.  Despite the hot muggy Florida air, many residents sat on their front porch, usually in groups, talking laughing, enjoying each others’ company and whatever they were smoking. Kids played and laughed as they ran freely about, being kids and looking for anything fun to do to keep them occupied during the long hot summer of no school. It looked just like the projects we lived next to in Newark, old brick buildings on their last leg, some boarded up and abandoned, other units in full operation offering affordable housing to the less fortunate of the community.  Litter covered the ground, and very little green (for Florida) was growing anywhere… a little brick city in Orlando. I felt at home.
After recruiting a group of kids to hand out fliers for our summer camp, I walked up to a group of young men with some pretty cool dreads chilling by the play ground in the center of the complex where dozens of kids played. I immediately recognized some familiar tattoos and other gang signs, and knew I had found some of the community leaders.  They stared at me as I got closer, probably wondering what this white boy was all about, probably questioning whether I was a cop or a customer… no smiles, just blank stares… We started talking, and after a few jokes and questions they loosened up a bit and I told them I was the new pastor at the small church down the street and was just trying to get to know the people in the community and invite kids to our summer camp. The nearest young man who had just lit up a joint cursed under his breathe as he put it out, while his buddies laughed at the irony that in his zeal to hide his weed from “the pastor” he was all “cursing and stuff.” The very awkwardness of the moment turned into the icebreaker I needed as I laughed too and told him I was cool with him smoking around me since I was used to it.  The young man put it away none the less, but started smiling… Everyone laughed some more. I told them how I had come from Newark to Orlando to study and was now pastoring a small multi-cultural church that wanted to get involved in helping the community in any way it could. I could tell they seemed skeptical of “the church”, and I really couldn’t blame them. Right across the street loomed the 200 plus acre gated campus of Faith World Church, Benny Hinn’s original ministry since 1983, before he moved to California (to focus more on his TV show) and sold it to Rev. Clint Brown. The church has its own security gate at the entrance to the lush campus and “worship center” for the 6,000 plus congregation that worships behind its walls. No doubt my new friends weren’t allowed in, not sure if they really even wanted to go in… I know I didn’t.
I am challenged in my thinking and faith as I wrestle with the fact that such a massive and extravagant church exists right across the street from some of the worse poverty and living conditions I have seen since I have lived in Orlando. Not to mention the blatant and unmasked rebellion and immorality against the Creator and the desperate need for redemption and salvation that is so apparent. There is a ripe harvest of souls in need of Jesus right across the street where 6,000 people who claim to follow and worship Jesus gather each week to sing, dance and talk about the King of heaven who came to our hood to rescue us and invite us into His Kingdom.  I know I am not supposed to judge other people, and other churches for that matter, but I can’t shake the question that always drove and shaped the ministry in Newark and is beginning to take shape in our ministry at Open Kingdom. “Would they weep?”  If the Church, the people of God, disappeared from the community, would the people of the community be sad? Would they care? Did the church have such an impact on people’s lives that it would be missed if it disappeared or moved to a new location? I am challenged as I think of the small little flock of 40 or so people I have the opportunity to shepherd and lead toward Jesus and into the mission our Savior has called us to. Can we make a difference in our community? If a church of 6,000 members whose pastor has his own jet couldn’t seem to make a tangible impact here, how could Open Kingdom? Should we even try? How can we not?
As I handed out fliers and spoke with parents about our summer camp many kids got excited. One little 9 year old girl named Ruthie started translating in Spanish for a lady with two kids who was interested. Many other kids were running around passing out fliers to others, spreading the excitement of the possibility of something that looked fun to do. I had bought a few boxes of popsicles and soon a crowd of kids surrounded me as a few of the moms passed them out. I asked everyone to gather around and said a prayer for the community and encouraged them to come to our summer camp, though inwardly doubtful any of them could afford it. I am not taking any classes this summer so Kimberly and I decided to spearhead the yearly camp our church puts on.  We are doing Tommy’s Time Machine, a fun curriculum we developed and used for our ministry in Newark where we build a Time Machine and take kids back in time to the various stories of the Bible. Open Kingdom does a two week 9am-3pm day-camp every year, but it is usually only Korean kids from the church who come. It costs $190 per kid, which goes to cover the food, supplies, day-trips and all the other expenses involved. I am praying that God will provide at least $1000 so I can scholarship as many of these kids as possible from our community to come to our camp and hear about Jesus.  I know it is a small start, and our Church can’t do much, but we have to start somewhere and this is where I am choosing to start.   Even if we can only add 5-10 kids from the community it is 5-10 more than we had yesterday.  Every person matters, and I am believing God is going to do big things in this community for His Glory through our little Church and the community ministry beginning to be developed here.

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