Why should the mainline church care?

Is inner city trauma a niche concern, of interest only to those who work or live in core urban areas? Why should the mainline church care?

Violence and trauma in our urban neighborhoods are a critical problem in our country today. One recent study showed that the incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder is higher among inner city youth than among combat veterans. The crises unfolding in Ferguson, Baltimore, Cleveland, Charleston and other urban areas are fueled by the trauma and violence that are woven into the fabric of daily life for the impoverished residents of urban communities. The terrible truths of life for the poor in these cities are representative of the trauma and suffering in urban neighborhoods throughout our country.

Inner city trauma afflicts God’s people.

Inner city trauma is not a problem happening ‘out there’ to ‘other people.’ It is happening to God’s people, our people. The oppression, violence and poverty suffered by the urban poor issue a harrowing and heart-wrenching cry to which the mainline church is called to respond.

A healing and liberating response to such suffering was the mission that drove Jesus’ ministry. At the very outset of his work, he announced,

“The Spirit of the Lord has sent me . . . to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free.” [Luke 4:18]

This is the work of healing, of bringing and being the good news of the borning of the community of God in our broken world that Jesus dedicated himself to. It is the work that he sent his disciples and the seventy out to accomplish. And it is the work that Jesus calls the church today to embrace, if we are indeed to call ourselves and to live as the body of Christ – the heart, hands and feet of Jesus – in our world.

Not to respond is to turn our backs to the call of God.

And it is work that the church – not the church of committee meetings and covered dishes, but the church that truly aspires to follow in Christ’s footsteps – is uniquely graced to undertake. The church, in-formed and inflamed by the Spirit of Christ, possesses extraordinary resources of safety and caring, of connection and trust, of courage and hope, of grounding in ultimate value and meaning. These are the resources that are the church’s alone to give, resources that that no protest march, political movement, or service provider can supply. Not to respond in faith and in care to the crisis in our inner cities would be to squander these gifts and to turn our backs to the call of God. If the mainline church fails to respond, it will consign itself to irrelevance for millions of our brothers and sisters in this country.

The mainline church cannot, must not harden its heart and turn away. It must learn, as Pope Francis has said, how to weep: how to weep for and with the poor, the homeless, the oppressed. For only when our hearts are open to and broken by the suffering of our brothers and sisters can we begin to move forward together; only then can we call ourselves Christians.

We are one body in the one Lord.

The mainline church, and its primarily white, middle-class members, must also awake to the reality that the suffering of the underclass is not ‘their’ problem which does not concern ‘us.’ There is no ‘them’ and ‘us’ in God: there is only ‘us.’ “One bread, one body,” we sing, “we are one body in this one Lord.” The trauma inflicted on the poor is our trauma as well; our one body, God’s body, is shattered with their affliction.

Finally, the mainline church cannot turn away from urban trauma because the larger church has much to learn from its inner city neighbors about experiences and resources of resilience and hope in difficult times. Our country and our world are challenged by increasingly intractable problems, problems for which there is no quick fix and no clear solution: severe income inequality, climate change, spreading violence. Wrestling with these problems will require long engagements, with uncertain results, and many defeats along the way. Those in power who are used to quick and clear victories and a prompt return to ‘normalcy’ do not have the experience to guide us through these times; mainstream theologies which posit crucifixion as a temporary setback on the way to the complete and final triumph of resurrection provide little help or comfort amid a darkness that will not go away. Communities of color and communities of limited material resources are rich in traditions of wisdom and faith that acknowledge “la vida es la lucha,” yet offer depths of courage and sustenance, love and hope to preserve and nourish community members through the ongoing struggle.

In oneness lies the church’s life and hope.

The mainline church should care about inner city trauma because it is called to care. In affirming and embracing its oneness with its inner city neighbors lies the church’s life and hope.


5 thoughts on “Why should the mainline church care?

    • Great question, Heidi! There’s lots that churches and individuals can do to get involved and make a difference.

      First and foremost: Get to know our inner city neighbors. As Shane Claiborne writes, “The great tragedy of the church is not that rich Christians do not care about the poor but that rich Christians do not know the poor.” Go out and have conversations, form caring relationships with our inner city neighbors. And how to do that? One easy way is to volunteer with organizations that work with inner city residents — and participate in a way that allows you to converse with and really get to know them as people. At Denver Inner City Parish, you can worship and break bread with our community members at our Wednesday night Community Worship and Dinner, or share meals, games and conversations with our Seniors at lunch; you can also form lasting friendships with students at our school La Academia through tutoring or mentoring. Many other organizations offer similar opportunities. Here’s the point: once you really get to know our inner city neighbors as people, know their joys and griefs, their beauty, humor, strengths and foibles, the heart-breakingly challenging circumstances of their lives, you will care — care about them, care for them, and feel impelled to do more.

      Get informed. Learn from the poor themselves what the struggle life in the inner city is like: jobs that are non-existent, or demeaning and so low-paying that they do not financially sustain life; housing that is non-existent, or overcrowded, unhealthy and far more than costly than they can afford; education that is inadequate and uncaring, because the public does not want to pay to educate the underclass; health care that is non-existent, or inaccessible, or superficial and heartless, so that people are forced to experience their loved ones or themselves suffering and dying from curable afflictions; government institutions that seem to think their mission is to demean and oppress those whom they should be serving; and violence that presses at every corner of life. Or learn from the reports of those who have studied these injustices on a larger scale: learn the terrible realities and devastating effects of mass incarceration, failing educational systems, the lack of affordable housing, the evaporation of jobs that allow advancement into the middle class, and the vast numbers of children who go to bed hungry or homeless in Colorado every night.

      Get involved.Find the area of need that moves you and dedicate yourself to it. The need is vast and the opportunities are many. At Denver Inner City Parish, for example, we provide personal services at all levels of need: basis sustenance (food, clothing and housing); community enhancement (building community through worship, our seniors program, and shared meals); and empowering self-sufficiency (through education, employment and addiction recovery). You can also get involved at the level of systemic change, joining and supporting organizations that work for justice in housing, education, employment, criminal justice or immigration. And “involvement” means dedication of both time and dollars — and here is where churches can make a significant impact by recognizing and living into their collective resources and power. Rather than refurbishing Fellowship Hall, take that money and donate it to an organization that serves the inner city poor: $20,000 will fund the salary of a part-time GED teacher or employment coach or housing advisor for a year, and make a huge positive impact on the lives of many of our inner city neighbors. Or organize a group of dedicated volunteers to provide needed services: stock and man a food pantry one day a week, or provide volunteers to run an employment lab on a regular basis. [For anyone interested in getting involved at Denver Inner City Parish, check out our volunteer website at http://dicp.org/supportus/volunteer/ or contact me at anne@dicp.org.]

      Get ready to have your life changed.Get ready to cry, laugh, hug, mourn, rage, struggle, and love. Once you get involved with your inner city neighbors, your life will never be the same — and you will be blessed for it. And so will they.


    • A comment sent in by Andrea Anastos via email: “The mainline church should care because when any part of the body is traumatized, the whole body is traumatized. To think anything else is the equivalent of saying that if only the sexual organs were abused, the rest of the person is fine. We know with every fiber of our beings that this is not so. Neither is it true for those who live outside the ‘area’ of the specific trauma, but who are still part of the body (Body).

      The mainline church should care because trauma is not limited to the inner city. It affects women and children and men sitting in the pews of the must posh suburban congregation. It affects young women and men returning from military deployments.

      It is a human experience of brokenness that ties the whole body together and we can learn from each other, and lean into each other, for healing.

      I think we are seeing the effects of trauma not only in the areas you mention, but in the return to religious fundamentalism with its judgment and violence against minds, souls, and bodies. Fundamentalism, by its nature, denies the wholeness and the worth of the whole being when it says, “Only this is acceptable; that will send you to hell.” And, by its nature, fundamentalism also denies the power of imagination, creativity, hope, joy, and love — because all of those require a certain spaciousness and non-judgmentalism to flourish.

      We may come to this from many different perspectives…thank you for opening the conversation because the spark of creativity in one area can be a seed of transformation in another.”


      • Great points. And I think that sometimes religious fundamentalism can be a response to perceived trauma from the larger world, producing – in religious fundamentalist forms – the same fight, flight, and freeze responses we see elsewhere in trauma.


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