Category Archives: assumptions

23 years of being pushed, challenged, and prodded

November is an important month for me. It is my New Year. In August of 1994 I joined the ranks of the unemployed. Three months earlier I had submitted a resignation letter to the church where I was working. As I look back on that time it seems clear now I wasn’t being very strategic. My wife was pregnant with our first child, due in September. She was employed, so we would find a way to figure things out. Finances would be tight but we would make it. That plan made sense until September when Rita received notice that she was going to be laid off.

By October we were new parents of a baby boy and unemployed. It was a stressful time. On November 1, 1994 the local DOOR board hired me as the new DOOR Denver director. I never imagined staying at DOOR for more than 5-7 years. Here I am 23 years later, still at DOOR. Both our boys have only known me as a dad who works for DOOR.

For me November is a month of reflection and evaluation. When I look back over the two plus decades I have been at DOOR there are a number of reasons why I have stuck around.

I get to work with a group of people who are always challenging me to reexamine my stereotypes and religious prejudices. DOOR’s staff and board leadership come from all kinds of backgrounds. We have the “decent and in order” Presbyterians, the peaceful Mennonites, a Quaker or two, a few Pentecostals, some inspired Lutherans, and more than a few folks just trying to figure out where or if they fit into the denominational landscape. That is only one way to describe DOOR. We are women and men; Americans and immigrants; theologians and artists; gay and straight. We also hold many racial identities- African American, White, Hispanic, Puerto Rican, Chicano, Caribbean, and Asian.

One of the major benefits of working in a diverse environment is the inherent permission to examine, reevaluate, and question my faith perspective. Prior to DOOR, I was a pastor. As a pastor one of the unwritten requirements is to have a solid unshakable faith. While other people could question God, it was my job to be the steady reassuring voice. Over time this began to destroy me. My primary reason for resigning in 1994 was a complete loss of faith in God.

I came to DOOR because I needed a job and the bills needed to be paid. What I have received has been so much more than a source of income for my bills. DOOR became a place where God became real. There is a freedom in pursuing a faith and a God who has no respect for my stereotypes. Working alongside people who do church differently (read: anyone who is not Mennonite) has been enlightening. Praying, laughing, and crying with people of different sexual orientations, cultural backgrounds, and theological perspectives is a contestant reminder that at best I see through a glass dimly.

For too long people of faith have confused “one way” with “everyone better go the same way.” What I have begun to uncover after 23 years is that each of us is a unique individual made in the very image and likeness of God. And God, in God’s grace and mercy, has helped me to walk my path, my one way.

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A more complete God

More often than not when it comes to testimony time at church, the stories are about what God has done for “me.” It usually goes something like this, “I needed a job and God provided me with one,” or “there was no money for rent and a check showed up with just enough to cover the payment.” These are important stories and powerful reminders of how God is at work in our lives.

What I have been longing for lately are the stories about how God is working outside of individuals. I know that God cares about my issues and problems. Limiting God to my world seems a bit petty and myopic. We need to hear stories about how God is working in Ferguson, the public school system, and the fight for equality of all peoples. Some people worry that these issues are too political and not really religious. After all, isn’t Christianity about inviting people into a personal relationship with Jesus? The logic continues by assuming that once people have Jesus all this “other” stuff will work itself out. In theory this sounds nice, but I have rarely seen this work out in practice.

In my experience Christians have the ability to be as judgmental, racist, and sexist as anyone else. Limiting our experience of God to an “individual” testimony is dangerous because it leads to reinforcing a particular set of stereotypes of who God is. We need experiences that demonstrate God’s concern for the world and displeasure with structural sin. Some examples of structural sin are institutional racism, economic disparity, unregulated consumerism, and the dehumanization of those without legal rights. For many in the church it is much simpler to have a God who is only concerned with my needs and personal salvation. A God who cares about the whole person and the whole world is intimidatingly large.

This may be the strongest argument for sending people on short-term learning (mission) trips. Getting to know a God who cares for the whole world can be a faith stretching experience. If the essence of conversion is change or seeing the world through new eyes, then even conversion is possible.

One of the more dangerous things pastors can do is to point their congregation to examples of how God is working beyond the walls of the church. Developing a larger understanding of God changes everything. Tight simple answers will begin to disappear. People will begin to question long held assumptions. It may even seem that God wants us to figure things out, as opposed to providing us with easy answers, especially to the big questions.

As a child the God I knew cared about me and protected me from the bad people. I still pray to the same God, but as I have grown this God helped me see a more complete picture of who God is. God still cares about me, but this God has also always cared about the rest of the world. Where there is hatred between people, God desires reconciliation. Where there is judgement, God desires grace. Where there is structural sin, God asks us to work for change and be the change.

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Rethinking the Mission Trip

Last night I watched the 40th anniversary episode of Saturday Night Live (SNL). During the show they did some looking back. Some of my favorite sketches featured Jake and Elwood, the Blues Brothers. The sketch was so good that eventually a movie was made. It was a tale of redemption for Jake and his brother Elwood, who go on “a mission from God” to the Catholic orphanage in which they grew up.

I might be stretching history a bit, but I do find it interesting that the movie came out in 1980, about the same time that short term mission trips started to become popular. DOOR, the ministry I work for, began in 1986 as an effort to organize the growing number of groups that were coming to Denver’s Westside to do service.

The groups that arrived came with the purist of motives. They wanted to help the poor people of West Denver. These motives were where often chock full of stereotypes and assumptions. The poor were brown, uneducated, unable to do for themselves, and didn’t have a personal relationship with Jesus. The Mission trip was about giving something to the Westside that the Westside couldn’t get on its own.

Over the years we, and other similar programs, began to see the fallacy with this way of thinking and doing. By the late 1990’s DOOR adopted the tagline to “see the face of God in the City.” This was our effort to recognize that God was already present in the city. It was our way of challenging participants who talked about bringing Jesus to the city.

Recognizing that God is in the city also exposed prejudices. Just because people look different does not imply that their faith is any less vibrant or real. A person’s physical location, in our case the city, says nothing about someone’s ability to achieve educationally or think theologically.

In the last few years there has been another shift in our thinking about the Mission (or Service) trip. Why invite outsiders to the city? If all they want to do is have us reaffirm their stereotypes of urban folks, then all we are is tour operators giving the client what they want.

Where does this leave us? Well, I am a huge believer in the Mission trip. I do wish I had a different word than “mission,” but that is for another discussion. We, particularly young people, need to take these trips because there are very few places left where people are afforded the opportunity to reflect deeply on the meaning of their faith.

For the most part people of faith only gather together with those who share their stereotypes, worship preferences, theology, and understanding of God. A mission trip, when done with thoughtful intentionality, provides a place to reflect and think about your faith with those who are different. Sadly, when it comes to faith beliefs and differences we are still an intolerant people.

If you are a leader looking for a mission/service trip make sure you find a program that isn’t going to reinforce all your preconceived ideas of what mission is and what the needs of the people are. Find a program that is less concerned with service and more concerned with who you will interact with.

Finding ways for your group to sit in a circle of “differences” and be challenged will produce good fruit back at home!

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Fatigue

Have you ever found yourself eavesdropping on other people’s conversations? Every once in a while I catch myself doing this. Generally it happens at a coffee shop when the people next to me are chatting a bit too loudly.

It doesn’t always happen at coffee shops. The office is also a fertile location. In the course of a day it is not unusual to hear half an exchange or walk in to the middle of a discussion. Once people realize I am present one of two things happens (a) the topic changes quickly, or (b) the conversation just keeps moving forward. One of the special things about the staff who work for me is that they are about as diverse a group as can be found anywhere. As you might imagine the conversations can become quite animated and intense.

“White people fatigue” is one of those topics that our staff and board members of color talk about on a regular basis. When I first overheard folks talking about this I didn’t spend a whole lot of time thinking about it. Mostly I saw it as a way to blow off steam or make a challenging reference simply because I walked in to the conversation. I am slowly coming to see this perspective as erroneous at best and demeaning at worst.

White people fatigue is a real condition. It is time that (we) Anglos begin to own the pain and frustration that is too often visited on our brothers and sisters of color. With this as background, I want to offer some ideas to consider:

  1. When it comes to defining diversity too often it is white people who get to say what diversity is and isn’t. I have found this to be an interesting issue for the more progressive (read liberal) folks. For many reasons, both good and bad, this is the group that has defined the extent and limits of “true diversity” – whether it be about skin color, theology, class, gender, or orientation. As you might imagine this is interestingly ironic. To add even more irony to the situation when people of color do not accept these progressive Anglo ideas as to the nature and extent of diversity, it is people of color get written off as immature or uneducated. This creates fatigue.
  2. The “you’re my best friend” pressure. Being everyone’s best “Hispanic” (or Black, Asian, etc.) friend can be taxing. The truth of the matter is, best friendship takes time, lots of time. When a cross cultural element is added it is probably best to assume that it will take twice as much time. When white folks pressure people of color to be friends, stress and fatigue are natural outcomes.
  3.  The “I get what you are thinking.” Again, really? I have lived in a Hispanic neighborhood for 20 years and attended a Hispanic church for 10. One of the important lessons I have learned is that it is best not to assume anything, particularly that I would understand how and why someone believes and acts the way they do. When we assume that we understand the other, particularly people of color, we disrespect their culture, background, and history. These assumptions create fatigue.
  4.  The pressure to understand popular culture, at least white popular culture. This includes quoting lyrics from current songs to reenacting a scene from The Princess Bride. As Anglos we have the privilege of assuming that everyone else relates to, knows, and appreciates our particular slice of popular culture. Quite simply this is misguided. I don’t know many people of color who fixate on old Seinfeld episodes or current story lines from The Big Bang Theory. It creates fatigue when Anglos expect everyone to understand their particular cultural references but rarely take the time to understand other cultures. When we don’t understand a broader world it demonstrates both privilege and ignorance.
  5. Don’t assume that to be Hispanic (African American, Asian American, etc.) implies that a person holds to a particular set of cultural norms. Expecting a universal Black, Hispanic or Asian “experience” is ignorant and small minded. These types of expectations create fatigue and anger.

What can be done?

  1. Diversity is what its name suggests, a whole bunch of difference. Just because that difference isn’t the kind of difference you approve of doesn’t make it wrong, evil, or less diverse. Don’t think that you have the complete picture of what diversity is and is not.
  2. Don’t assume that friendly equals best friend or even friend. Sometimes friendly is just a way to be polite or a way to avoid having to confront your insensitivity.
  3. Don’t speak for other people. Listen closely to what they have to say. Ask clarifying questions. Allow their story to be their story.
  4. For every movie directed by an Anglo watch two directed by a person of color. Apply this matrix to your TV watching, music choices, and reading. As a side note, living by this standard will reduce both movie and TV viewing.
  5. It is a good idea to start from the supposition that we are all unique children of God. Rather than force people into pre-conceived boxes be surprised by the gifts, talents, and abilities each individual brings to the table.

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How to win a Christian argument

Have you ever found yourself passionately believing something to be true, but unable to convince others of your truth?  Frustrating, isn’t it?  I have found that the frustration level dramatically increases when talking about faith issues.

Faith convictions and beliefs tend to be sacred.  Changing or adjusting these beliefs is often seen as back-sliding or drifting from the truth.  Encountering people of faith who hold different positions while at the same time claiming to be “Christian” can be stressful.  Why can’t they read the bible correctly?

Right now the denomination I am part of is in a fierce debate about ordaining gay and lesbian persons.  There are entire churches and conferences talking about leaving the denomination.  From their perspective a clearly discernable line of sin has been crossed.  There is scripture to back this all up.

Equally as fascinating is the other side.  The church is finally figuring out that all people should be included in the full life of the church.  For them a clear line has also been crossed.  Interestingly it is in the exact opposite direction, the church is moving from sin to righteousness.  Like the other side they have scripture to back up their position.

What I have discovered in the various debates, discussions, and arguments I have been part of is the first person to say something like “Scripture clearly says…” wins the debate. To my embarrassment I need to own that I have used this tactic myself.

I think we use this tactic because as people of faith we desperately want Scripture to speak clearly to the big issues of the day.  I am just old enough to remember when people of faith were convinced that rock ‘n’ roll was Satan’s music, or when drums in church, drinking, and smoking.  I live in Colorado; currently there is a whole lot of conversation about marijuana.  Believe it or not Jesus never addressed the subject of legal pot.  What was he thinking?

Framing theological arguments in such a way that those who don’t agree with us are wrong is probably something people of faith need to avoid.  It embarrasses me that church leaders so quickly move to absolute positions.

Learning to live with difference, even when that difference is seen as sin by some, might just be a sign of Christian maturity.

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A Christian One-Liner

The other day I was involved in one of those controversial Christian conversations.  As our discussion was wrapping up this person said to me, “Well you have to love the sinner and hate the sin.”  Then we hugged and went our separate ways.  This one-liner was not new to me.  As a matter of fact I have heard and used the exact same phase for years. I have probably even uttered it from the pulpit.

This time the conversation was a tough one and the phrase did not sound so spiritual.  You see it was the first time I had ever been the target of the line.  To him I was the sinner that needed loving and my prayerfully considered convictions were the sin that needed hating.  Quite frankly it did not feel good to be on the receiving end.  I had been judged to be a sinner.  His love for me, in spite of my sin, did not make me feel any better, respected, or accepted.  I would not be whole until I quit sinning.

I have done a lot of thinking about loving the sinner and hating the sin.  It is one of those statements that sounds good; so good that many of us might even wonder why Jesus didn’t have the wisdom to use it himself.  I could just imagine Jesus as he looked a Peter after the third denial, shrugging his shoulders and muttering to himself, “Well you have to love the sinner and hate the sin.”

The problem with loving the sinner and hating the sin is that it shifts power.  It is an attempt at becoming God.  When I say love the sinner, hate the sin in essence I am saying that I have God knowledge.  I have the ability to name who sinners are and what sin is.  Granted there are times when this seems obvious to all.  Pedophiles and murders are two groups of people that come to mind.  However, most of us live in a world that is much less stark.  As much as many of us would like Scripture to be crystal clear on issues of war, patriotism, sexual orientation, speaking in tongues, hell, heaven, and many others, it isn’t clear.

When believers differ from each other it is tempting to name that difference as sin.  The temptation is especially strong when we believe that we have Scripture on our side.

I remember going to church and being told that drums were a sign of the Devil and that women were not gifted in leadership.  These opinions were held fervently, leaders believed they had God and Scripture backing up their beliefs.  I am glad that the church had the courage to grow beyond those convictions.

I do not know where we are going to end up with the big discussions of today, but I do know that if we keep naming those who are different than us sinners we won’t have the opportunity to see where the spirit of God is leading us.

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The Table

Note:  This is an article I wrote for “Zing,” the monthly newsletter of Mountain States Mennonite Conference (MSMC).  This is the group that holds my ordination credentials.  Recently MSMC licensed an openly gay pastor.  As you might imagine this decision resulted in a tremendous amount of controversy.  Letters have been written in support, in opposition and calling for more conversation.  While at the same time some churches are contemplating what it means to leave the conference.  The goal of this article is to suggest that there is a way for us to stay to together without having to surrender biblical convictions.  Your thoughts and feedback will be much appreciated!

On September 11, 2011 I did something I never thought I would do, I got ordained.  For almost 20 years I avoided this decision.  There were good reasons for not taking this step.  In general my reasons boiled down to not feeling that I would be fully accepted.  I grew up Mennonite Brethren, so I tended to hold a conservative understanding of Scripture.  In 1994 I started working for a program on the Westside of Denver called Discovering Opportunities for Outreach and Reflection (DOOR).  This ministry experience has consistently challenged every one of my deeply held convictions, except one.  I believe that Scripture is God’s message to us and must be taken seriously.

This tension has put me in a strange place.  My conservative friends think I have gone over to the “other side” and my liberal friends don’t always know what to do with my conservative leanings.  These tensions left me in a space of never feeling like I could belong or be accepted.  That is until I met Herm Weaver, our conference minister.  Over the years he has been slowly introducing me to the people of Mountain States Mennonite Conference.  It is in this conference that I saw things I didn’t think were possible- conservative and liberal churches participating as co-laborers and equals.  MSMC is living in tensions that would split most conferences.

What I have come to understand is that being at the table together trumps any of the reasons that would cause us to leave the table.  This isn’t always easy because sometimes our differences are significant.  2014 is going to test us.  Talking about leadership and sexual orientation is not easy or comfortable. There are many voices that will tell us that the prudent thing to do is separate.  For some it even feels like a litmus test; that unless you agree with my position we are going to have to leave the conference.  When I speak with people both for and against the ordination of gay and lesbian persons this issue quickly becomes an all or nothing faith matter.  In situations like this it is tempting to assume a “my way or the highway” stance.

In Matthew 22:34-39 Jesus is questioned about his understanding of the law. In short he says love God, love people.  I have a friend to takes this statement one step farther by adding “nothing else matters.”  The call to love God and love people seems to be the lens Jesus calls us to use when dealing with difficult issues.  When we choose to leave a conversation or sever a relationship are we not ignoring this imperative?

I would like to suggest that leaving, or expelling, is the sin that should concern us the most.  The primary call of the people of God and the church is to relationships that include reconciliation, redemption, and restoration.  If any of us leaves the table we are in essence saying that this is no longer possible.  My friends, that is a decision only God can make.

Staying at the table demonstrates to those outside the church that we are not afraid to engage the difficult issues of the day.  As members of Mennonite Church USA the decision of one worshipping body does not dictate the convictions or beliefs of another worshipping body.  Staying together even in the midst of great difference does demonstrate to the world one of our core convictions – all people are made in the very image and likeness of God and for that reason we chose together instead of separate.

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10 years

Have you ever experienced a moment when your perspective changes forever? The birth of my children and death of my mother fit into this category. Another similar moment happened on my first day at this job. We were at one of the helping agencies DOOR partners with, almost 20 years ago, and I was being introduced as the new DOOR city director. It was a time when I was full of all kinds of “creative” ideas for making DOOR a more effective urban program. Then one of the ladies, we will call her Christine, to whom I was being introduced stood up, walked around her desk, came right up to me, looked me up and down and said, “so you are the new DOOR director (long pause), don’t tell us anything until you have been here 10 years.” After which she turned around, walked back to her desk and went back to the work. Later on we became good friends, but that first day and the advice she gave have haunted me ever since.

In one sentence Christine put me in my place and began a process that reshaped my understanding of mission, service and the role of people who come to participate in these acts. I can best explain it this way. On my first days of work I believed that I had been called to urban Denver to make a difference. Children were going to be tutored, the hungry were going to be fed, houses would be repaired, the homeless would be loved and everyone would be grateful for the changes I was engineering. Until I met Christine those dreams and visions seemed God ordained. What I had forgotten is that Christianity is about relationship. Relationship, in its purest form, is always mutual. My “day one” vision wasn’t mutual; it was paternalistic. At best paternalism stinks; at its worst it destroys communities.

What Christine was trying to tell me on that first day in her own special way was that mission, service and ministry don’t make much sense apart from relationship. In her mind it would take at least 10 years for me to understand the community and at least 10 years for the community to learn to trust me.

I realize that we live in a world where everything happens quickly from overnight shipping of goods across the world to fast food. Telling people that patience and time are needed to accomplish anything almost sounds antiquated. So I will risk it and sound antiquated – if you want to serve then hang out a bit, get to know us, earn the right to speak into our lives and together we will make a difference.

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A Price

Have you ever wondered what it is like to be on the receiving end of charity or to have someone treat you with pity simply because you are poor? The emotional cost of being poor can be extreme. Imagine being a parent who cannot afford to buy Christmas presents for your children. Your only option is to stand in line at the local Christmas present distribution site. Then when you get to the front of the line you have to explain and justify to a complete stranger, from another and most likely wealthier neighborhood, what your “needs” are. It takes a tremendous amount of courage to go through this process.

Christmas presents are just the tip of the iceberg. Finding food, housing, and healthcare are constant concerns for the poor. Having to decide between taking a minimum wage job or staying home with young children is almost an impossible decision. Stability, especially for children, is a constant issue. When housing isn’t stable and long-term then neither is schooling or friends.

Too often the “solution” for poverty has something to do with curing “laziness.” Before I go further it is important to recognize that there are lazy poor people, but I have serious doubts that the rate of laziness among the poor is any greater or less than the rates of laziness among the wealthy. Many of the poor I know are hardworking, creative, entrepreneurial, and smart.

There are many reasons for poverty: a down-turn in the economy, medical bills that couldn’t be paid, mental illness, service men and women who have been abandoned by “the system,” people with no family support system, and immigration policies designed to maintain an underclass of cheap labor.

Make no mistake; there is a price to be paid for being poor. The cost of poverty can be reduced as Christians choose to treat each other less like projects and more like family.

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A New Racism…maybe

For a number of years now I have been encountering on a new kind of racism; it is subtle and politically correct.  During the last election cycle our country witnessed this as some in the evangelical community quietly removed Mormonism from the cult category.  Why? Could it be that it is more palatable to redefine cult than to have a black man in charge?  I doubt we will ever know for sure, but the question is thought provoking.

This same set of issues has emerged at DOOR.  Last year a youth group came and left DOOR on the same day.  The “official” answer was because the neighborhood was unsafe.  Based on the leader’s interaction with our City Director, having a black woman in charge was a bigger issue.  I cannot help but wonder what the response would have been if the City Director had been a white male.

For our staff of color communicating with Anglo participants can often be frustrating.  When staff of color confronts participants about internal or external community issues the information seems to be received differently, in a very subtle way.  There have even been reports that these staff do not fully understand what DOOR participants are dealing with.  The exact opposite response also occurs.  In an effort to build bridges participants accept everything uncritically.  Both extremes tend towards an unhealthy paternalism.

These concerns become more pronounced and complex among our summer staff of color.  Many of our Discover participants come to the city to help the poor and oppressed.  More often than not “poor and oppressed” equals people of color.  When we put youth and young adults from the community in leadership positions the door is opened for all kinds of misunderstandings, assumptions, and hurt.

This past summer one of our summer staff of color (and personal friend of mine for the past 10 years) was accused by another summer staff person, who happened to be white and not from the neighborhood, of coming to work high.  Apparently showing up to work singing, with a baseball cap off to the side, and being overly energetic is “proof” of drug abuse.  Is it possible that he was just in a good mood?

I am not sure what the response to all of this should be.  The subtle nature of these encounters makes it difficult to determine intentionality and motivation.  I do know that these encounters are discouraging and frustrating for the victims.  Moving beyond stereotyping is not always simple, but it is necessary.

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