In 2008, Mindy and I followed God’s calling to Denver where we joined a team planting a church in Northeast Denver. The most crime filled, diverse, poverty stricken neighborhood in all of Denver. Being the risk takers we were, we raised support, packed up our U-Haul and left Philadelphia to assist this team to plant a racially, economically, and generationally diverse church. We went not knowing anything about urban ministry, but never knew it would change the course of our lives forever.
In 2009, our team met Craig in Sterling Correctional Facility. He had robbed several banks and was one of Colorado’s most wanted fugitive until a dozen cop cars, and a helicopter saved his life on a windy mountain road. It was clear in his over a decade of incarceration that God was working powerfully in his life and asked if our urban church would be interested in starting a prison ministry. Not the typical inside prison ministry, but exclusively for reentry. To assist men and women in their reentry back into society. Upon his release in early 2010, Craig had a cell phone and a $100 budget and turned it into a thriving ex-offender reentry program that was serving 100+ men each month. Through this ministry, God had transformed my view of who Jesus was, my view of myself, and my view of ministry.
1. Jesus loves the broken, the hurting, and those society looks to throw away and utterly dismiss. As one of the pastors of our church, I had many opportunities to sit down with men seeking assistance in their reentry to society. I remember very early on meeting Joe. Joe had just gotten out of prison, but had lost everything. Lost his immediate family, his wife and kids, and a good paying job. He shared how God had been working in his life and spoke of how his life choices got him to this place of mourning. Mourning over rejecting God’s grace, mourning the loss of his family, mourning over his addiction to drugs and alcohol, mourning over the idols of success he thought he could hold together, but then he committed a crime that was socially unacceptable. He was a sex offender.
While discussing this with him, I sat in utter disbelief. My whole life I had judged, condemned, and lambasted individuals who had committed the crime this man was confessing. I could feel my anger swelling up inside me as he admitted to what he had done, but then he shared how God’s love had consumed him, exposed his selfishness in the lifestyle he had chosen, saved him by the cross, and gave him peace. He shared what was different because of Christ in his life and how he was a redeemed child of God seeking to no longer cause the same hurt in this life, but to reconcile the life he had ruined. At first, I was skeptical. Sure, you got caught, now you want to make things right. But every day after sitting down with him, I saw the change. I saw him living in the power of the Spirit to defy the label of sex offender. I witnessed God provide him a job, reconcile his relationship with his family, a second marriage with the wife he had hurt all in the context of Christian community. Within the Church community.
This was drastically different than I knew the church to be. Instead of judgement and separation, I saw the love of Christ and Christian community reconcile, forgive, and help establish this man. At this moment, God’s love truly transcends the greatest mistakes we can make in this life. I then saw it in the story of the Women at the Well (John 4), healing of the leper (Matthew 8), Jesus dining with Zacchaeus (Luke 19). God’s love had transcended Joe’s brokenness, and that love seen in Joe’s life made me look at my story and ask, does Jesus’ love transcend my brokenness? The only conclusion I could make after seeing such pure love was…
2. I am no different than Joe, I am broken, hurting, one of the worst sinners, and should be cast away and dismissed. Even though I had embraced the calling to ministry in high school, sought out the right education and status for ministry, I had always looked at those around me as needing God’s love. I was going to bring to them this great love, but had not realized my own brokenness needed that same all satisfying and transforming love. The anger, the control issues, the broken relationships, the idols of money, materialism, and even the American dream. All of my sin needed to be healed and reconciled by a good loving Father who sent Jesus to redeem those broken areas. God had exposed me and my failures and I was ashamed. I thought I was ok, but I wasn’t. I needed Jesus just as much as Joe did. He had showed me something no pastor or church had. I needed the love of Christ to change me just as much as Joe needed it. This changed the way I viewed ministry…
3. For the rest of my life, I need to be with the poor, the broken hearted, the oppressed, the ex-offender, and walk out the reconciling power of Christ with them as family. God moved us away from Denver in 2014 to Indianapolis, but has not changed our context for ministry. God opened doors for us to be in the Brookside neighborhood on the near eastside of Indianapolis and has given us a diverse family of broken people. Black, white, ex-offenders, rich, poor, young, and old. All coming together to seek God’s love in Christ through our worship and ministry to the neighborhood. We intentionally live with and walk alongside of the poor. Not just economically, but those who know they are broken, the poor in spirit. Yes, much of our family experiences economic poverty, but all of us recognize our brokenness before God and are seeking Him to change us for the kingdom purposes God has for our church. In this context, God is changing people. Showing them their inability, and God’s ability to defy what the world says about them and bring them into their kingdom purpose for life.
We wouldn’t have it any other way because this is where we see God working powerfully to show Himself to a broken world. Every day we are grateful for the work God is doing in and through us. To Joe, thank you for the small jewel of the gospel you showed us through your life. It brought us to this broken place in our lives. Forever we will walk in the grace God provides through His Son Jesus and seek the continued transforming work of grace for ourselves and others as we seek to minister in our broken, crime filled, poverty stricken neighborhood for God’s glory.