January - April 2023, Issue 102

A Street-based Model of Inner-city Ministry

Most of what I’ve learned in inner-city ministry among the materially poor over 30 years can be summarized as: Be Good News, Be uncomfortable, Be consistent.

Our field

Jesus came to earth “to proclaim good news to the poor…liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed.” (Luke 4:18 ESV). In my experience in Chattanooga, TN, subsidized housing authority apartments contain more problems than almost any other area for size, other than hospitals and homeless encampments.
Please bear with some Westside demographics. We work primarily in two low-rent apartment complexes—College Hill Courts (497 units completed in 1940—a Public Housing Authority property), and “Golden Gateway” (160 units), located on Grove St. According to statisticalatlas.com, Black household income averages $10,900 in this zip code--37402, which includes other ethnicities and areas than Grove St. In 2019 it was the sixth poorest zip code in America. Public housing rents start at $50 per month. Roughly a third of College Hill residents move each year, so building supportive or redemptive relationships is challenging. Fortunately, downtown is within walking distance, providing easy access to retail and some factory jobs. Other obvious generalizations are that Blacks comprise perhaps 95% of residents, and that College Hill probably has over 90% female-head-of-households. This year I met a joyful Black couple married for 25 years, who had moved in 6 months earlier. They had not met another married couple during that time. Fathers may or may not help their “baby momma”--one friend has at least five (and complains of child support).
Our Daily Bread seen on a resident coffee tableIt is essentially a fatherless community. There are fewer and fewer Christian elders to whom guys will listen. In fact, down to early teens, the younger the guy on the street, the more he is feared as being potentially out of control. A consistent, caring father figure is appreciated. Whether or not some of us are that, on rare occasions we experience hostility from race-based cults, such as Black Hebrew Israelites, and from a few claiming to be Muslim. So far local friends have quickly shut down any serious opposition.
Most are willing to talk about God and heaven. Not a few cling to God as their best hope. If we pray with someone on their front porch, often others walk up and join hands. Most want positivity and happily receive a Daily Bread or a New Testament ([NT] which includes a gospel presentation), or a tract. We try to saturate the area with scriptures, also offering complete Bibles, children’s Bibles and large print Bibles. A guy jokingly admonished us for trying for the eighth time to give him a NT. Many believe they must merit heaven, not understanding that salvation is by faith in Christ (John 3:16; Acts 16:30-31; Eph. 2:8-9; Titus 3:5). We try to engage those receiving materials, rather than just handing them out.
Probably the majority of residents does not attend church—particularly from teens to 40s. Some have had sour experiences. Others consider themselves “spiritual,” or are into pagan religion (e.g., Egyptian Kemetic spirituality), or cults (e.g., Black Hebrew Israelites). We sometimes bring folks with us to church or refer them to vetted churches providing transportation.
It’s not unusual to smell marijuana, nor surprising for a friend to admit to selling drugs. Recently a resident experienced the death of her sister, and two days later her son died from ingesting fentanyl. Not long ago a woman died of a drug overdose two days after moving in, leaving her pre-school daughter. Women and preteen boy sits cross-legged on porch reading book. Caption reads "Just got his own New Testament." children are vulnerable to exploitation and violence. Levels of gang violence, evidenced by revenge shootings and sometimes fights, ebb and flow with the jailing of leaders which leaves a contest for power.
The community safety net includes rent subsidies, at least in part through Housing and Urban Development, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance program (SNAP), and Social Security Income. An informal safety net consists of sharing food and other necessities with nearby neighbors. Some help to the point of depletion, exhaustion, and tears. Some look out for older people. A local church-based ministry distributes sandwich bags each week. Some ask for five or six bags. Our ministry provides $25 grocery store gift cards. The closest affordable large grocery store is 3 miles away. Sales of beer, smoking products, and lottery tickets are brisk at the local (Muslim-run) convenience store, draining income. Neighborhood collections are common to cover funeral costs, and friends gather to stay with the bereaved. Usually, an impromptu memorial is created at the site of a shooting.
How can such a community be accessed? Neighbors are often suspicious of neighbors, and particularly of outsiders. Gate keepers found and vetted us. Fletcher, a community elder and also a younger gang member, both professing Christians, examined us. We described “our” Gospel and reasons for being there and were accepted. Years later the elder, who became a close friend, told us that if they had disapproved, we could not have stayed. Because we have been at the Westside for so long, we are now gatekeepers. Those with us are accepted, but if one of our workers is eventually rejected, they cannot be on the team.

Group of volunteers unload turkeys from pickup captioned: "50 Smoked turkeys were distributed for Thanksgiving"Goals

We go in teams of two or three. Teams are usually biracial, demonstrating God’s reconciling power. One team is an African America couple married for 40 years--a message in itself. We offer on-the-job training to those interested in joining us. Online training and ministry resources are available at https://rmni.org/files/handouts/  and at https://www.rmni.org/urban-ministries/inner-city-evangelism.html. We encourage team members to disciple those who are faithful, able, and teachable. 
We share the good news of Christ, but also try to be good news, offering friendship, prayer support, books for specific needs, and material help. We distribute a list of community resources, including job sites. Food gift cards, smoked turkeys, tools, emergency rent and utility assistance, clothes, furniture, and contributions for funerals, etc. may be offered, as available. Those “born from above” usually experience economic lift. New Christians begin to prosper as they follow the biblical work ethic and stop wasting money. In summary, we try to build long-term discipling relationships, leading disciples to solid churches.

Fletcher holding awards - gate-keeper, urban mentor, disciple, now with the LordStrategy

We are street-based. We have no onsite office, so we’re affected by heat, cold, and rain. We don’t go door-to-door but pray for “divine appointments.” We desire to be led by the Spirit, particularly to those the Father is drawing toward Christ (John 6:44).  We visit friends, and follow-up on needs. We converse with people on sidewalks, porches, and in cars. Since 2002 we have come on Thursday afternoons, except on rare occasions, or during year-end holidays. We can’t see everyone each week, so people remark when we don’t come. Ministry often comes down to presence--showing up.
This strategy would fail were it not for intercessors. Each week a Wednesday email describes the previous week’s work, with requests for the following day. Several ladies are prayer warriors and amazing encouragers, one of whom, now 90, walked with us as long as health permitted. This strategy, or elements of it, can easily be adopted by churches, especially by partnering Black and White churches. It does not require a fulltime leader or a building. Guidance for handling requests for material help is located at https://www.rmni.org/financial-ministry.html.

Bob and Lee helping to move a large bookcaseWhy do this work?

Each week we prepare for spiritual warfare. Who will be on the team this week, and who will we meet? Almost every week I return home thankful--it’s often the week’s highlight. I see enough progress to return. Another incentive is working with dedicated, unafraid, compassionate Christians. And the more we share the Great News, the better we understand its fullness (Philemon 1:6).
We recently met a woman and stepdaughter looking for a church, and transportation. I texted a pastor, and they went to church the next Sunday. We followed up with the woman who lost her sister and son within a week. We provided a Bible and the booklet, “Dear Muslim Friend” to Sudanese immigrants--one Christian, one Muslim--sitting in their car, as they did the previous week. I had a Bible study with a guy who returned to Chattanooga after serving time. We provided gift food cards to a woman making a meal of potatoes, onions, and cake to share with her mentally handicapped neighbor. We provided a NT to a teenager who was sitting on his bike. He attends church, but apparently didn’t have a NT. We arranged for a man with no insurance, to see a specialist in our church.

Carrie and Anthony with ConsuelaResults? 

Progress is measured in years and isn’t linear. One moved to another state to take up fathering of his two daughters, crediting our influence. One friend told me that we were a “reality check,” helping them see the need to get and keep a job. A few have been born from above, by God’s grace. One young woman was contemplating suicide when a worker visited several women in an apartment. An impromptu Bible study developed and in the course of the study the woman was apparently saved. She read the four Gospels, Acts and Revelation within a week. Several older Christian ladies discipled her, as well as three pastors. She was baptized and joined a strong church. She now has a steady job and studies books on spiritual warfare. Another woman became a strong church member and is our resident ministry partner, coaching us regarding needs, and helping to distribute resources.
Recruiting workers is difficult. Fear and lack of interest in our methods are the greatest barriers. Christians seem to prefer to work from a church or ministry building, where they have authority, a sense of protection, and obvious resources. I consented to teach a seminar on inner-city evangelism to an inner-city church over four evenings, with the understanding they would practice at the Westside, a few miles away, what they learned. No ongoing commitment was requested. None came, including the Black pastor. They showed no interest in even going nearby where men hung out around a 55-gallon drum. In my experience, Black and White churches may provide funds, but they do not often mobilize to send workers. Is it unwillingness to identify downward, economically?
Christians are to go into all the world, where two-thirds of people do not claim to follow Christ, not to stay in fortress-church. In my experience, the great majority of churches won’t physically go among the neediest and most alienated, where Christians may be uncomfortable. The church, the ecclesia, comprises “called out ones,” not called in ones. We go out, to bring the unsaved in—in turn to be trained to go out. No going, few unsaved coming. The Barna Group found in 2019 that 47% of their sample of Millennials felt that it is “at least somewhat wrong” to try to get someone of another religion to become a Christian—followed by 27% of GenX, and 19% of Boomers-- https://www.barna.com/research/millennials-oppose-evangelism/. The American church continues its long decline in attendance and influence, blithely following the now-skeletal church of the UK and Western Europe. Francis Schaeffer identified the idols of personal peace and prosperity. Areas of the materially very poor will become yet darker, more fatherless, and probably more violent. Many will not hear good news, without testimony to, and demonstration of the love of God in Christ.                                                         

Jim Sutherland

2022 Ministry Overview

Missiology CoverMobilization of the African American church for global mission:

We completed and extensively edited, with two co-authors, an article for Missiology: An International Review summarizing 10+ years of research into AFAM overseas missionaries, to be published this coming April.

Ministry in South Sudan:

RMNI sponsored 2 trips to S. Sudan resulting in four uptrained S. Sudanese dental extractors and a curriculum to teach youth and women’s ministry for Grace Theological College (GTC). A 5-hour missions seminar was presented to 50 Christian leaders and a Kenyan consultant brought in to assist in sending missionaries from Juba.
Eleven boxes of theological books were sent to GTC’s library. Groundwork was laid for a Christian FM radio station in Juba, S. Sudan. 880 Bibles and 13 audio Bibles were purchased for distribution. One thousand pair of reading glasses were taken to Juba, and distributed. Negotiations began for a new campus for GTC, for which we provided $20,000.  Amount spent: $68,545.00
Grace Theological Graduates December 2022

Urban Ministry to very-low-income apartment complexes in Chattanooga:

We continued ministry begun in 2002 to low-income public and private apartment complexes, known as the “Westside.” Ministry included food and rent assistance, provision of Bibles and other Christian literature. Additionally, free clothing, furniture and other apartment items were distributed. Five-six volunteers served each week during approximately 50 ministry oA Westside Teamccasions. Amount spent: $6,398.00

RMNI.org ministry resources

Over 26,000 different persons used our site, making 67,000 visits (1.3 million hits), and downloading 983 GB of information and free resources. Thanks to Walt Robertson, our webmaster! 

Prayer Power

  1. I am thrilled that research into overseas African American missions, particularly in the last 8 years, will get into academic databases in April. Please pray that it will raise awareness of problems, and assist in fielding AFAM missionaries.
  2. We plan to enhance RMNI.org through updating, added resources and a system upgrade.
  3. We need the optimal time to travel to S. Sudan. Please pray that all who the Lord wants on the team will travel, and that sickness won’t hinder. We’re contacting ophthalmologists and others. Wisdom is needed regarding a possible second trip.
  4. We’re working to get needed permits for the FM station in Juba, to construct office space, to install equipment, and to get on the air this year.
  5. Grace Theological College needs space and a campus for accreditation. The first floor of their school and office building is estimated to cost another $90K. Please pray for continued growth of the school, including its student body.
  6. Pray for missionaries to be sent from Juba.
  7. Wisdom and the Spirit’s leading is needed for the Westside ministry. Pray that more churches will send workers throughout the country who are not afraid to reach hardcore inner-city areas. We need more workers. Please pray for conversions and for wisdom in discipleship. At least 6 longtime friends are still unsaved.
  8. We’re grateful for Walt Robertson, our webmaster/creator, who volunteers his skills, for Keri, our bookkeeper, and for our Board of Directors.
  9. Pray for energy, the best use of time and funds, for adequate times of refreshment, and for the health to continue our work. Thank you so much!

RMNI is a 501c-3 ministry  (# 62-1781061), founded in 1999, and is a member of Missio Nexus and Technical Exchange for Christian Healthcare. Thank you for your partnership in ministry!

The Reconciliation Report is a publication of

Reconciliation Ministries Network, Inc.
PO Box 2537 Chattanooga, TN 37409-0537

Phone: 423-822-1091

Jim Sutherland PhD., Director