Growing up in Detroit in the 80s and 90s, I was introduced to the cruel, pervasive reality of poverty. Despite a strong family support system, my mother sometimes struggled to make ends meet while raising me and my brother. After coming to faith in Christ and entering ministry, I was immediately faced with reaching people who were underemployed, unemployed and in deep poverty.
By God’s grace, I planted Cornerstone Church (EFCA) in inner-city Detroit, and we celebrated seven years of ministry last October. Over these years, God's grace has been abundantly evident. From individuals finding Christ and being baptized, to the planting of new churches, to the transformative impact on schools, families and individuals in need; our journey testifies to God's light shining in a dark place.
Amid complex challenges—growing instability, financial hardship, the profound impact of COVID-19—our church remains steadfast in fulfilling Christ's Great Commission in Northwest Detroit.
Over these years, God's grace has been abundantly evident. From individuals finding Christ and being baptized, to the planting of new churches, to the transformative impact on schools, families and individuals in need; our journey testifies to God's light shining in a dark place.
That said, ministering in Detroit comes with its own set of unique challenges. According to recent data, 41 percent of Detroit residents live below the federal poverty threshold (nearly three-times higher than the national average), and Detroit's child poverty rate exceeds 43 percent.
Even so, I know my city and I are not alone: dozens of America’s cities have been ravaged and laid to ruin by poverty, and countless inner-city pastors, church planters, missionaries and parachurch leaders are navigating ministry among the poor.
Call me crazy, but I believe we must do more than “just preach the gospel,” as some have insisted. While the Lord Jesus declared poverty will be a constant reality this side of eternity (Mark 14:7), He also said it should not be ignored or maligned (Matthew 25:34-36, Luke 4:16-19).
One reason Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s voice pierced his generation, and generations after, was that he spoke directly to issues our country avoided, minimized, ignored and suppressed. While Dr. King fought for justice and equal rights in an era of segregation, he also spoke to matters of poverty and how believers should respond.
On November 4, 1956, at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, Dr. King preached a sermon entitled “Paul’s Letter to American Christians.” In this message, he imagined the apostle Paul penned a letter to America’s church.
In this message, King brilliantly speaks in the voice of Paul, citing his letters to Rome and Phillippi and calling American Christians to repent and more closely embody Christ’s gospel:
“You can use your powerful economic resources to wipe poverty from the face of the earth. God never intended for a group of people to live in superfluous, inordinate wealth while others live in abject, deadening poverty. God intends for all of His children to have the basic necessities of life, and He has left in this universe enough and to spare for that purpose. So I call upon you to bridge the gulf between abject poverty and superfluous wealth.”
Before you stop reading, I’m not advocating for wealth distribution or anything similar. Instead of getting lost in the economic weeds, debating forms of government or dissecting Dr. King’s stances on the economic system, I want to focus on the heart of Dr. King’s view on poverty and how believers should feel and respond to it.
In short, I believe Dr. King wants our hearts to mirror God’s heart for the poor. We can live out the glorious riches of His grace by living generously. The God who lavished love on us by giving us His Son now compels His people to look after those in need.
“Instruct those who are rich in the present age not to be arrogant or to set their hope on the uncertainty of wealth, but on God, who richly provides us with all things to enjoy. Instruct them to do what is good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and willing to share, storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of what is truly life (1 Timothy 6:17-19 CSB).
Hear me out. The Lord is not calling the Church (or your local church) to eradicate poverty. The New Testament writers clearly commissioned the body of Christ to evangelize and disciple until King Jesus’ return. But, when Yashua triumphantly returns, all that is wrong will be made right immediately and permanently, including the end of poverty. We as believers should view generosity as the currency of the kingdom. As Dr. King urged the believers, generosity should flow.
Recognize evident need
A few weeks ago, as volunteers cheerfully decorated our church building for Advent, a homeless woman boldly wheeled her shopping cart between our double doors and made herself at home. After I was hastened to the building—because this sister politely refused to leave—we found some clothes in our community closet, bought her some food from Wendy’s and personal items from the dollar store across the street, and gave her some gift cards to purchase food. After two hours, this sister agreed to leave.
You or your church may not sit this close to people in poverty on a daily basis; but if you open your eyes, there are practical ways you can bless others in need.
You or your church may not sit this close to people in poverty on a daily basis; but if you open your eyes, there are practical ways you can bless others in need. Again, we are not called to end poverty—Jesus will deliver the final death blow to poverty one glorious day—but we can be intentional, vigilant and generous when opportunities become apparent.
In his final days on earth, Dr. King saw an evident need and leveraged his voice to enforce change. On February 12, 1968, 1,300 black sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee went on a labor strike and formed a union, demanding better working conditions and higher pay. These men tirelessly toiled and struggled, often in brutal weather conditions, for a mere 65-cents/hour. The wages were so minuscule that these men were eligible for government assistance, despite working well over 40-hours a week.
After years of dissatisfaction, the Memphis workers, galvanized to strike in the weeks after the deaths of Echol Cole and Robert Walker, who were tragically killed while on the job. As the strike began and the city of Memphis remained unmoved, Rev. James Lawson sent Dr. King an appeal for help; King obliged.
At a speech on March 18, before 25,000 people in Memphis, Dr. King said, “Whenever you are engaged in work that serves humanity and is for the building of humanity, it has dignity and it has worth.”
Sadly, on April 4, King was slain in Memphis mere hours after delivering his chilling, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech.
In the wake of Dr. King’s assassination, the city of Memphis agreed to grant raises to the black sanitation workers and recognize their newly founded union. This monumental labor strike went on to cause ripple effects throughout the country.
As we recognize evident needs before us and redirect our financial resources, I believe the Lord will do amazing things in reaching those in poverty with the gospel of Jesus.
By God’s grace, I, alongside many others, have committed to live and minister under the cloud of poverty. Either here on American soil or far aboard on the mission field, countless believers have felt compelled to go and share Christ with underprivileged, under-resourced communities. I know this comes at a great cost, but I also know it is worth it because the Lord Jesus is worthy.
Years ago, I heard Pastor Ross Graveling refer to the money and resources the Lord blesses us with as “missions ammunition.” What if we viewed the financial surplus with which we’ve been blessed as fuel for gospel missions in poor communities? What if money and resources were redirected and used as “missions ammunition?” As we recognize evident needs before us and redirect our financial resources, I believe the Lord will do amazing things in reaching those in poverty with the gospel of Jesus.
Again, our ultimate goal is not necessarily to eradicate poverty, but rather, to give people the eternal riches of Christ. My heart’s desire is that we preach the Lord Jesus and make Him known, so that people living in poverty can be made new and be transformed by Him.
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