Loving The Neighbors
Moving from unsure to on fire for the city
By Maggie Rohweder
I grew up with mixed messages about the city of Detroit: “Don’t go there alone, or at night, or unless you really have to.”
And yet my family would talk about how much they had loved living there, about my great-grandfather who tuned the pianos at all the major theaters and about my great-grandmother who took tap dancing lessons at the Fox [Theatre].
My mom and her parents grew up in the city, but left during the riots in the ’60s; I grew up in a suburb about a half-hour north.
So Detroit was a part of my story, but I had almost no connection with it until I went to Hope College. Through lectures, classes, and eventually mission trips, I got to know more about the dynamics of life in the inner city.
The moment I fell in love with inner-city ministry, though, was the summer I worked at a day camp in Detroit. I came face to face with children who experienced injustice every day of their lives. Kids would hoard the lunches we gave them, beat each other up at activities, and were so utterly desperate for love. The sadness and loneliness I saw was heartbreaking.
I decided I needed to spend my life fighting for people like those kids.
I took a big step in that direction when I helped lead a Hope College mission trip to North Reformed Church in Newark, New Jersey. People from that church shine in the darkness of the inner city because they refuse to narrowly define what ministry is and how it should be done.
What impressed me most is their love for all of their neighbors, not just the people who walk through the doors of the church. Pastor Randy Van Doornik and his staff are very conscious of how their decisions and attitudes impact their neighborhood—whether it’s being aware of how much space you take up on the sidewalk, or going to a local privately-owned restaurant and getting to know the owner, or leaving the safety of the church building to talk with the men and women who live in the park across the street.
Getting to know people and caring about the issues that impact them is incredibly powerful kingdom work. It allows you to engage with that community in myriad ways.
If you never leave your building, how will you ever know what God is up to on the streets, under the overpasses, in the alleys?
Inner-city ministry is more about being present and humble than it is about having a plan or program. One of Randy’s favorite sayings is “Show up and shut up.” It’s the idea that we don’t have to preach at people to minister to them.
"We don’t have to preach at people to minister to them."
During my time at North Reformed, we were not allowed to talk about God or religion unless the other person brought it up first. For someone like me, who’s always felt a little condemned for my shyness, this was the most freeing week of my life.
I learned that I don’t have to say the right thing or have the script down to spread God’s message. I can simply sit next to someone and ask about their day, and that is ministry, too.
I heard the most incredible stories about faith and forgiveness and incomprehensible joy. I learned that the people we write off as poor or homeless or deviant, or whatever label we might choose, are actually some of the most faith-filled people on earth. When we give up our agendas and ideas of what we have to be as Christians, we have the freedom to get to know each other. And through that, we learn to love each other. Isn’t that what God wants from us anyway?
I think the people who are viewed as the lowest here on earth are the people who are going to make the biggest impact in the kingdom.
After the week we spent at North, Randy asked my co-leader and me whether we thought we’d evangelized during the trip. Our answer was “Yes...I think?” It was a way of evangelizing that I’d never experienced before, but it was the most powerful, life-impacting evangelism I’ve ever been a part of.
Working through brokenness
I was surprised by the staff at North. You expect church staff to be wise, put-together people who exude righteousness. North is a place full of flawed people. And yet they take care of their community so well! I love that North is made up of criminals and drug dealers and gang members—people who’ve spent time in jail or on the streets—as well as little old ladies who wear pearls and turtlenecks. I’d never heard of a church that employs people who have done time for murder, and yet I think it’s one of the best parts about the church. It’s a testament to the way God changes lives.
"I’d never heard of a church that employs people who have done time for murder, and yet I think it’s one of the best parts about the church. It’s a testament to the way God changes lives."
No one is ashamed to admit to the things they’ve done, because those things are not who they are. First and foremost, they are children of the Lord.
Randy and the North Reformed staff saw so much potential in me and encouraged me to ask hard questions of myself and others. I was inspired and challenged, and I had to confront some ugly prejudices and ignorance in my life. The staff saw my flaws and loved me anyway, and they readily admitted to their own. I learned that you don’t have to be perfect to be a part of God’s work. In fact, it’s our brokenness that brings us together. I learned about my own worth, and because of that I learned to see the worth of others.
I spent this past summer working at a church in South Africa. They have a word, ubuntu. It means “I am what I am because of what we are together.” I saw this at work at North. I learned that the individualistic, independent attitude of our society is the complete opposite of what God sets out for us in the Bible.
We need each other, and when some of us are experiencing hunger or injustice or homelessness or pain, we all are suffering.
Maggie Rohweder is a graduate student at Wayne State University’s School of Social Work. After graduation she wants to do neighborhood organizing and development in the inner city.
Check out volunteer opportunities in Newark or elsewhere: www.rca.org/volunteer.
Make a gift to a scholarship fund for next-generation volunteers like Maggie: www.rca.org/scholarship.
Pray for urban congregations and the people in their inner-city communities.