I’m a white, middle class man. I attend a church of mostly white, middle class people. My church is located in the middle of a very poor, almost exclusively black neighborhood. The average family lives in the neighborhood for less than six months. The brokenness and poverty there is palpable and unsettles me. The majority of the church’s outreach ministry is to that community, particularly its children and teens. A lot of kids come to the children’s/youth service on Wednesday nights, where they play basketball, eat a meal, and have a Bible study or short lesson. Some of those kids come on Sunday mornings. Even more of the people from the neighborhood come to our various outreach events, such as our Christmas, Halloween (er . . .  Fall Festival), and Juneteenth parties.

When my family joined this church and started getting involved in its ministry, I thought that we were there to do good work in the community—to bring Jesus to these impoverished African Americans who mostly didn’t attend church. We were there to help them learn how to raise their children, achieve financial stability, prepare healthy meals, and the like. I thought that I had something to offer this community because I had “made it”: I am a Christian, financially stable, well educated, and I know how to cook.

Several months ago I resigned from my job as an assistant professor. That led to a lot of long discussions with my wife about what we want to do, where we want to live, and how we want to live. A major issue we kept coming back to was living locally, to being fully engaged in a local community for the good of that community, to living in the same neighborhood where we worship on Sundays. And that made me start thinking about the outreach work we do at our church, and specifically about my assumptions about the people who live in that community and the good I bring them. Then it just slapped me in the face: what if it wasn’t the community who needed me and my church, but rather me and my church who needed that community? What if God had placed the community there to help me? I (and my family) have gifts to contribute, sure, but my arrogance didn’t let me see these people as people. I need them. I’d elevated myself above a whole neighborhood on the basis of my education and bank account, not thinking in the slightest that perhaps I had something to learn from these people. I was wrong. I’m no white knight.

Russ Meek

Author, editor, and lecturer in Old Testament and Hebrew at Ohio Theological Institute