The Ghetto and the Church

You live in the midst of concrete and asphalt. Your apartment is small, cold and loud with the sounds of your neighbor’s radio and the constant whir of the street below. The dimly lit hallway to your flat is littered with broken pieces of glass, and the subtle smell of urine fills your nose as you leave your apartment to the street below.

Life is hard for you. Money is tight, and the last five days of the month are always filled with hunger and thirst. Violence and organized crime are common.

What the rap media tries to pass off as “ghetto” isn’t even a reality for you, as you or your friends don’t own any substantial “bling-bling” and Mercedes SUVs don’t roll out through your neighborhood with any regularity.

However, you are not alone in your struggle with poverty—your entire neighborhood is filled with people who only know of a life of wanting and lacking. These people are as desperate as you, and this community-wide anxiety creates a tension as palpable as can be.

A significant number of people are living in dilapidated housing complexes, ghettos and projects in the inner cities of America. The problem of urban poverty is perplexing and overwhelming, as entire communities all across the country are trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty.

In 1998, the U.S. government published a figure of about 38 million Americans living under the poverty line, while poverty advocates claim that the actual figure was closer to 65 million. Yet, this staggering mass of poor and hungry people is not spread out evenly within the country. Rather, much of the poor are contained in urban, ghetto settlements. Former New York Governor Mario Cuomo was once quoted as saying, “In the borough of Queens, children growing up will hear the sound of gunfire before that of an orchestra.” In July 1996, The Economist reported that Washington, D.C., which has a higher infant mortality rate than Havana, Cuba, “is the American nightmare—unemployed blacks sit on grimy front-steps of crumbling houses that were once grand; old sedans skirt the potholes.” Miami’s glittery Coconut Grove district is literally minutes away from some of the city’s poorest slums where conditions mirror third-world conditions. Two-thirds of urban public school students have less access to funding, qualified teachers and resources than other American students. Clearly, the deplorable condition of America’s inner cities continues to be bleak, despite the extensive documentation of the problem.

At the same time, Christians are given a clear mandate in the Bible regarding their attitudes toward the poor. Scriptures such as Psalm 113:7, “He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap,” as well as Deuteronomy 15:11 and Psalm 35:10 vividly portray the Lord’s heart and passion for the poor. Based on their Lord’s concern for the poor, Christians need little persuasion to take a prominent role in ministering to the downtrodden in American society.

Keeping in mind the Lord’s warm heart for the poor, the question that faces the Christian community is: “Is there anything we can do to help the situation of the urban poor?” Some Christians, like Rick Brenny, are doing just that. Through his ministry to homeless people as the executive director of Jefferson Street Baptist Center in Louisville, Ky., Brenny has worked since 1995 as an advocate for the local poor. His experience as a front-line worker in the midst of an impoverished area of Louisville gives him a unique perspective on the Christian response to urban ghetto squalor.

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Regarding the causes of the “ghettoization” of America, Brenny tersely mentions “lack of education, lack of living wage jobs and lack of quality housing.” Brenny also realizes the role of learned dysfunctional values that living in the ghetto often breeds: “The Bible talks about a kid paying for the sins of his father. I’ve come to learn it’s not so much that God is holding the kid responsible for his father’s sins, as much as it’s the kid is learning the same habits and the same routines. You’ll see generation after generation on the streets, living in public housing projects. It’s a cycle that needs to stop.”

When asked about the Church’s role in combating these societal ills, Brenny sighs: “If the Church was doing what it’s supposed to do, we wouldn’t need public welfare given by the government. The Church, assistance centers and denominations have the resources to make a difference, but somewhere we went wrong.”

According to Brenny, the Church still has the opportunity to make a difference. Brenny notes that, “for starters, [churches] can stop leaving the poor communities,” mentioning a recent trend that finds inner-city churches moving to the suburbs in search of more space for their ministries. But, more fundamental to this is the local church’s culture in terms of its attitude toward the poor in its midst. Brenny feels that churches need to mimic the New Testament church, in which “everybody had everything in common—everybody taking care of everybody, and selling property if need be.” Citing the “huge gap between the richest and the poorest in so many churches,” Brenny hints that if local church members would display the love of Christ to members in their midst, many of the deficiencies facing the poor in their midst would be alleviated.

While Brenny’s remarks about the help that churches can provide in fighting urban decay are passionate, the individual Christian may be wondering what they can do in their own personal context to fight poverty. Possibilities include volunteering in local ministries and programs that aid the poor, advocating for the rights of the poor, encouraging other local Christians to be mindful of the poor and giving of resources (money, food, etc.). Perhaps, as Brenny envisages, if enough local Christians take seriously the Lord’s call to serve the poor, the terrible statistics presented above can be reversed, and lifestyles like the one portrayed above will not be as commonplace in America as they currently are.

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