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Cities are complex organisms. In an effort to truly seek the welfare of an entire city, it’s a daunting task to determine where to begin or where to focus. I’m no expert at cities. Others are far more qualified than I am to bring a level of coherence into the multifaceted discussion of what makes a city thrive.
But I have served in many cities for almost twenty years, and I know this: for a city to truly thrive, people with resources and influence must commit to seeking not only their own welfare, but also that of the poor and those who live in the distressed and impoverished neighborhoods within their city.
Simply put, people (and groups of people) are naturally inclined to take care of themselves, to seek their own welfare and self-preservation. Unfortunately, they almost always leave someone behind in the process.
Seeking the welfare of the city, from a Christian perspective, is largely about a commitment to love and serve the parts that are struggling. With a physical body, it would be silly to express a commitment to overall health and ignore a fever or broken ankle. Likewise, it makes sense to give proper attention to the parts of the city that are struggling or hurt.
I’m told the early Christians shocked the world not simply with their theology or piety, but also with the way they cared for and loved the poor and sick in their communities. The gospel in action sparked the birth and growth of Christianity.
After graduating from the University of Florida in 1996, I was drafted by Mike Ditka to play football for the New Orleans Saints. Though still a young man, I arrived in New Orleans not only looking to play football but also open to see how the Lord might use me in the city during my time there.
Like many Americans, I was unaware of the harsh realities of life facing those on the fringe, what many would call the bottom of society. I recall driving into New Orleans from the east one afternoon, crossing over the industrial canal, when I heard something on the radio about poverty. In my mind, I began to imagine a hungry child in Africa or a Third World country. All the while, I was driving over the Ninth Ward of New Orleans completely unaware of the Desire Housing Projects that lay beneath me. I envisioned poverty as something bad, but far away. I had no idea of the depths of the struggle for many who lived only a few miles away from where I played professional football.
I don’t think many of us are inherently against the well-being of the poor who live in our cities. I think we don’t have much of a clue. We’re busy, distracted, and just don’t often notice.
Shortly after I learned about Desire Street Ministries, I took my first visit, eager to learn about this group of people committed to living in the neighborhood and bringing true transformation to the community through spiritual and community development.
As I drove into the Desire neighborhood, the old apartment projects loomed large. They were built in the 1950s, and I couldn’t understand how they hadn’t been torn down. Then I saw a little girl walk out of a door. She was holding a little doll, and I realized that these apartments weren’t abandoned—she lived there.
I went to the Desire Street Ministries facility and began to meet the precious children from the neighborhood. Poverty was slowly changing in my mind from being an idea to being a person. Tevin, Greg, Levy—they had names, faces, hopes, and dreams. They also had considerably more obstacles in their way than I ever did.
When we bring an open heart toward hurting people, we change. Any effort to seek the welfare of the city must involve the effort to love, serve, and help those in need. But how do we know if our efforts to help are really helpful?
Unfortunately, they often aren’t. We often bring our arrogant attitudes along with us and can end up demeaning the inherent dignity of those we think we’re helping. Sometimes our efforts to help relieve people from their struggles leave them dependent on outside help rather than helping them develop the abilities to help themselves. Sometimes we forget that although we may have more financial resources, there are vast reservoirs of resources that the poor have that we don’t. I’m often reminded that many of the people I’m going to serve already know, love, and trust Jesus at a far deeper level than I do. They might just need a place to live.
My time at Desire Street has caused me to start paying attention to what the Bible has to say about poverty. As I’ve grown as a Christian and continue to study the Scriptures, I’ve realized it’s one of the major themes throughout the Bible. It’s everywhere—if only we would have the eyes to see.
James 1:27 says, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” We often put lots of energy into our Christian lives, seeking to grow in our sanctification and personal relationship with Christ. James teaches that for our efforts to be “true religion,” at least part of it will include an intentional effort to care for the “least of these.” Any attempt to truly seek the welfare of the city will involve thoughtful and loving ways to engage the more distressed neighborhoods and those who live there.