“Jerry, the word on the yard is that there’s a hit out on a preacher in Hayward. Is that you?”
The call came from Gerald Harris, a dear friend and college roommate who was serving as the associate warden in one of California’s most dangerous prisons. I responded, “Yes, brother. I’m afraid it is.”
A few people thrive on change, many resist it, and a few feel so threatened that they’ll do anything to stop it. As our church shined the light of the gospel of grace in our community, lives were changed, addicts got clean and sober, marriages were restored, and a new sense of hope was infused into the community. But this wave of love, forgiveness and power meant that at least some of the people who had been regular customers of the drug dealers no longer bought the stuff—and the dealers were very, very upset about the loss of revenue.
I wasn’t going to cower in my office. I prayed, “Lord, You brought us here, and we’re Your responsibility. We’re going to live in faith!” I began walking the streets at noon every day to show that faith is stronger than fear. The men of Glad Tidings joined me, and then some young men from the gangs came, too. One of them spoke for the rest, “Hey Pastor, we’re going to walk with you. You need to know that we’d never mess with a preacher.”
The number of men who walked with me at noon every day grew. I knew that a lot of men couldn’t get off work to come, so I scheduled a walk around the neighborhood for 6:00 p.m. on Sunday. Our presence was going to be a sign that the neighborhood belongs to God, but I had no idea who would be willing to give up their free time to join me.
Hundreds of us lifted our voices and prayed as we walked around the neighborhood. People lined the streets like this was a parade, but it was a parade of faith, courage and defiance—unlike any other parade our city had ever seen. Everyone knew the backstory of the threats, and they wanted to see the outpouring of support from our community.
When we made our last turn to go back to the church, we passed the corner where drug dealers had operated freely for many years. By the time we got back, the street was filled with men, women and children. There was a shout unlike anything I’d ever heard before. All over our community, people could hear the shout of the saints!
A peace flooded my soul, and a sense of shalom fell on our community. To be sure, the fight wasn’t over, but this was a moment that would always remind us that God’s love and strength is more powerful than evil.
The challenges of that neighborhood forced us to think creatively and boldly about ministering to the people there. That’s when we began buying properties and converting them into havens of love, forgiveness and hope. We didn’t realize it at the time, but we were in the process of rebranding our church … and even rebranding the concept of church. For instance …
Directly across the street from the proposed site for the new church was a 32-unit apartment complex, Spring Court. The complex had been recently redeveloped and converted into two-bedroom, one-and-a-half bath condos. Unfortunately, the owner couldn’t sell any of the units. Every time prospective buyers would come to see one, either their cars were broken into or they were robbed or physically assaulted.
One day I met with the owner to talk about this problem. He couldn’t form a homeowner’s association because he couldn’t convince enough people to move in and purchase the units. I said to him, “Why don’t we work together? I’ll recruit the people to purchase your condos.”
In the previous two years, many young adults had been joining the church, and I had been blessed to perform weddings for about 15 couples. I went to many of those young couples and said, “I want you to buy one of these condominiums. This will be your starter home.” I went on to say, “Buy it, even though the neighborhood is rough, and I’ll build a church across the street. We’ll work hard to turn the neighborhood around, and the value of your home will increase.”
I let that sink in, and then I explained, “You’ll have equity! Enough to buy another home.” To my amazement, many of the young couples responded, and all of these eventually purchased larger homes. They realized $300,000 to $400,000 profit, primarily because the neighborhood became a desirable place to live so the property values went way up.
At first, we were convinced something had to change. As we took action, something was taking place. And as we looked back from time to time, it was obvious that something marvelous had already happened.
This was community transformation happening in front of our own eyes! As our voices were heard, we did more than talk. This was economic impact, social uplift, individual redemption, family restoration and recovery at every level of our slice of society.
The city doesn’t identify Glad Tidings simply as a church; they call it “Glad Tidings Campus.” Before we arrived, the postal service didn’t want to deliver mail on our street because Forselles Street was too dangerous. Now it’s called Glad Tidings Way.
From my reading of Scripture, Nehemiah is the best example of someone with a passion for community activism. He was a remarkable man who trusted God to do something others thought was impossible. The people of God had been in exile for many years, and their homeland lay in ruins. The city of Jerusalem, the place where their temple had been built and was the center of their faithful existence, had been devastated and plundered. But God put it on Nehemiah’s heart to go back and rebuild the walls so the city could flourish once again. Was he qualified?
There is no indication that Nehemiah had a background in construction or engineering.
There is no indication he had an advanced degree in organizational management.
There is no indication that he had studied political science.
There is no indication that he had a military background.
But Nehemiah acquired those skills exactly when he needed to employ them.
We can’t lead our families, our churches, and our communities to a place we’re not willing to go, and we can’t impart necessary skills to them if we haven’t acquired them ourselves. It’s not who you are that counts, but who you’re willing to become. This is the pattern of the men and women in the Scriptures (and in church history) as they’ve been captured and catapulted by big visions.
When we read the account of Nehemiah’s vision, leadership, organizational skill and tenacity to get the job done, we see that …
He heard what no one else heard.
He felt what no one else felt.
He risked what no one else was willing to risk.
He did what no one else was willing to do.
He saw what no one else saw.
He confronted people no one else was willing to confront.
He stood against powers that intimidated others.
And he declared words of faith when others had forgotten them.
One of the most important tasks for leaders is to impart vision, especially where people are stuck in a dead-end situation. As the pastor at Glad Tidings, I have the opportunity to propel people into a better future, and sometimes they need a little push. Lonzo is a man who has been a member of our church for years. He worked for a plumbing company, and one day when he and I were talking, I asked, “How much does your company charge for unclogging a pipe?”
He answered, “A hundred dollars.”
I asked, “How much of that do you get?”
He didn’t hesitate: “Twenty-five.”
“What happens to the rest of the money?”
Lonzo told me, “Well, Pastor, it all goes to the owner of the company.”
“Lonzo,” I said, “why is that that you do all the work, and he gets most of the money?”
He just smiled and shrugged, “That’s the way it is, Pastor. I’m just glad to have a job.”
I said, “Here’s what you need to do: Tomorrow morning, show up and tell your boss you’re going to quit.”
He reacted, “I can’t do that! If I don’t have a job, I won’t be able to pay the rent or feed my family! What am I going to do?”
“Start your own business,” I explained.
“But Pastor, I don’t have any customers, and I don’t have a van for supplies.”
“We can fix that.” I pointed to one of our old church vans. “Do you see that van. It still runs. Take to the paint shop, get it painted, and have them put the name of your new company on the sides.”
He started to protest again, “But …” I interrupted, “Then come back to see me, and I’ll line up a lot of customers for you.”
Lonzo had enough confidence in me to walk into his office the next morning to tell his boss that he was quitting. He took the van to be painted, and he had “Alpha Plumbing” painted on the sides. The next Sunday morning, I asked him to park the van in the front of the church. In the service, I told the congregation, “How many of you have drains in your house?”
Everybody raised their hands.
“How many of you have had your drains back up?”
Every hand went up.
“How many of you have called a plumber to fix the problem?”
Again, a sea of hands.
I then told them, “From now on, you can call Lonzo and his new company, Alpha Plumbing, to help you. He’ll do a great job for you.”
This brief announcement launched his business. Lonzo later got his contractor’s license, and when Glad Tidings built our new facility, he was our plumbing contractor. Alpha Plumbing also has been our go-to plumbing company for all of our facilities. Today, he’s semi-retired, but he still oversees the business he began years ago.
God calls each of us to respond in empathy and action to the needs around us—under our roofs at home, in our churches and in our communities. Sometimes, it’s as simple as mustering the courage to say those three little words, “I was wrong,” followed by three more, “Please forgive me.” But sometimes, we can take action to create new structures that have a lasting impact.
During the Clinton administration, there was a push to get people off welfare. I attended a welfare-to-work workshop to study the situation, and as I passed the Oakland Welfare Office, I saw a depressing sight: the office workers were separated from the applicants by a glass shield, anger and tension filled the air and hope was nonexistent. I was sure that God was calling Glad Tidings to get involved and do something to remedy this tragic, debilitating situation.
After much prayer and many conversations, we began the Institute for Success to help people find and keep good-paying jobs. We lifted people’s expectations and helped them develop confidence. Our main goal was imparting a vision so they saw themselves with eyes of hope and courage. To everyone who came to us for assistance, we communicated our theme: “Grasp a vision, make a decision and move out! Someone sees you differently than you see yourself.”
Nehemiah felt an intense burden, and his burden birthed a big vision.
Do you have a burden? Of course you do, but how are you responding to it? It’s easy for us to minimize the problems we see (“It’s not that bad.”), excuse people (“He can’t help it.”), rationalize it away (“Here’s why she acts like that.”), or deny the problem even exists (“I don’t know what you’re talking about!”). To tackle a burden, we need two indispensable traits: hope and courage.
We need a strong sense that things can be better, even if we’re unsure about how to take the first step. And we need courage to actually take that first step, and the next, and the next, even when we fall flat on our faces, we’re criticized for being unrealistic and people don’t respond the way we hoped they would.
Our strategy of community transformation isn’t limited to our church and our community. Each of us is an artist, and God has put a paintbrush in our hands. Talented artists “see” things others don’t see, and their unique perception enables them to produce extraordinary works. This metaphor isn’t blind idealism. The canvas where we paint may be dark or light, clean or smudged, but it’s the canvas God has given us to paint a masterpiece. The people we lead may have suffered (and may continue to suffer) abuse or abandonment; they may struggle with addictions, poverty, mental illness and a pervasive sense of hopelessness. The message of God’s grace and greatness, however, is that God wants to use every victory and defeat, every joy and heartache, for good … if we’ll let Him. But we have to see past the darkness and dirt to realize God’s good intentions.
You and I have a canvas sitting on an easel in front of us, and God has given us a palette of paints and a handful of brushes. We can drop them and kick the easel, we can ignore them, or we can stick a brush in the paint and make a mark on the canvas. As we paint on our canvas of tomorrow, we need to pay close attention to the Word of God that’s our source of truth, listen to the Spirit of God who is our source of strength and spend time with faithful people of God who encourage us to keep going when times are tough. Through it all, we’ll paint a new picture of our future—and it’ll be beautiful!
My life’s compelling theme is this, “Circumstances change, but we can take up the brush of faith and paint in vibrant, living colors on the canvas of tomorrow.” This concept is a bold vision of a better future for couples, parents, children, employers and managers, and employees at every place on the economic spectrum. It’s also a vision for pastors and church leaders who believe God wants to transform their communities.
How about you? Where are you in this story? Are you a Nehemiah who is willing to risk it all to do something great, to answer a call, fulfill a need and shoulder a burden? Or are you one of the many who respond to a leader’s call to get involved and jump in with both feet? All of us can take risks and see what God might do in us and through us. Don’t miss out! These are big brushes and bright colors for us to use on our canvas of tomorrow.
Is your brush in your hands?
This article was extracted from Issue 7 (Fall 2021) of the AVAIL Journal. Claim your free annual subscription here.
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