You see, LA Central City Community Church of the Nazarene is a unique church that was planted in 1988 to be a worshiping congregation for the homeless and poor in skid row Los Angeles. With over 15,000 people living in the community, the church is located at the corner of Sixth and San Pedro, strategically located to be an incarnation of Christ’s love to the community. KCC was created to be a healthy alternative to getting high and drunk and became a great outreach for the congregation, averaging over 200 in worship on Sunday mornings. On this particular Wednesday evening, a lady named Michelle, who was homeless, came to the corner door. I noticed that Michelle was not fully dressed, and I requested that she cover herself before coming into the storefront “sanctuary” for KCC. She apologized and covered herself. I followed her in and sat and talked with her. Michelle told me how she was worried when I stopped her at the door because she thought I would tell her she was not welcomed in the church. As I listened, I began to realize that Michelle was a transgendered individual, whose original name was Michael. Michelle reminded me of two things that evening: 1) that people are broken and in need of unconditional love; and 2) people want to belong. Her biggest concern was whether or not she would be welcomed or judged. Whether in the city or the suburbs, people long to experience love and belonging in the midst of their brokenness.
The biblical account of the woman caught in adultery, in John 8:1-11, can be a model of pastoral care in the city. This passage, filled with grace, justice, and hope, was considered so radical in its portrayal of Jesus and his interaction with people that the first-century church struggled over its inclusion in canonical Scripture. Yet, Jesus’ actions are a model for us to love all creations of God, especially those in the city. In this passage, we see three primary scenes, which are instructive.
FIRST, DROP THE STONES: DON’T USE SCRIPTURE TO SUPPORT A LACK OF LOVE. In the first scene, we see the Pharisees using Scripture as a trap for Jesus. “In the Law, Moses commanded that we stone such a woman,” they said, with stones in their hands. However, they completely neglected other Scriptures, such as Leviticus 20:10 and Deuteronomy 22:22. These Scriptures say that both the man and woman should be put to death; so, where was the man? Jesus had enough wisdom to avoid the theological trap and choose grace for the woman caught in adultery over judgment. Some may argue that this is “cheap grace.” God’s grace is not cheap, and the Bible is full of examples of God’s mercy exhibited in the life of Christ. Jesus demonstrates his preference for grace over judgment.
Too many Christians hold stones in their hands, and this becomes the first impression of the Church: Christians identifying themselves according to what they are for or against. Human beings are always able to find reasons to alienate others who are different. We tend to be the least tolerant or respectful of those with whom we disagree (1 Peter 3:17). And we often use Scripture, out of context, to show what we are against instead of what we are FOR! We should be FOR God’s redeeming grace and his unconditional love (1 John 3:16-18). Michelle longed for a place of love and grace, to begin a journey with Christ, and to learn if God’s words of love extended to her. I know that at some point, lifestyle issues need to be addressed, especially when a believer moves into leadership. From my experience, discipleship and spiritual maturity will “weed” out most of those issues as we grow in Christ. As a pastor in the city, filled with a diverse and postmodern culture, the world is looking for grace over judgment. Allow the theology of grace and love to be the first thing that people see when they come to the church; let us drop our stones!
SECOND, STAND UP FOR THE POOR: LIVE OUT THE DEEP COMPASSION OF CHRIST BY STANDING UP FOR INJUSTICE. In the second scene in the John 8 passage, Jesus bends down to write on the ground. Many people have interpretations of what this means; I like to think that he was writing Jeremiah 17:13: “O Lord, the hope of Israel, all who forsake you will be put to shame. Those who turn away from you will be written in the dust because they have forsaken the Lord, the spring of living water.” He may have also been writing the names of the Pharisees who turned away after he confronted them with their hearts and actions that had forsaken the Lord’s true heart of love. Jesus stood up for the woman and confronted the hypocrisy and hardened hearts of the Pharisees. I’ve known many Christians who see the term “justice” as a socialistic term. How sad that we have been so tainted by the opinion of the world, to miss the radical love of Christ that stands up for the poor, oppressed, and all creations of God. Justice is a form of righteousness as we live out the values of God’s kingdom. This righteousness is grounded in standing up for our church members, even against unjust systems.
I remember sitting with one of my church members, Jeannie, while she waited for more than eight hours in the waiting room of a county hospital. As she sat with her unseen issues of mental and physical illness, I continued to advocate for her with the doctors. Finally, she was seen, but then did not get into her room for another eight hours! Though I was not very successful in getting her the health care she deserved, she deeply appreciated my advocacy for her, which was displayed through my compassionate act of staying with her while she waited. When you are providing pastoral care for your urban congregation, the members want a pastor who will stand up for them, and display compassion in their struggle for justice and community righteousness.
THIRD, GIVE HOPE: BELIEVE THAT THEY CAN GO AND LIVE A CHANGED LIFE. As this final scene unfolds, Jesus is standing with the woman. His response to the question, “Has no one condemned you?” gives her the hope of beginning anew with no condemnation from the Son of God! What a freeing truth that she can “GO NOW” feeling empowered and filled with HOPE. No longer weighed down with the sense of inadequacy and guilt, but rather with HOPE, knowing that someone believes in her! Many people in the city feel discouraged and on the verge of giving up. I remember a bumper sticker plastered across a construction site that read “TRY Jesus.” Someone put graffiti over it: “I TRIED, AND IT DIDN’T WORK.” Pastoral care in the city is standing behind people, giving them the hope that they can experience a life of salvation; it is not just a “pie in the sky” belief.
A member of our church, Tony, is the director of the KCC. Tony was once homeless, struggling with addiction. However, he came to Christ and got involved in the church. As he grew in Christ, we started the KCC ministry. A few years into the ministry, Tony relapsed. He isolated himself due to the shame and guilt of having come so far only to fail. I continued to reach out to him, even visiting him at his home. I reminded him of his worth in Christ, giving him hope that his one-time relapse didn’t mean that he could never minister again. He began coming back to the church, and, after a period of “receiving,” he began to grow closer to Christ and bear fruit in his ministry. He was restored to the KCC ministry, and now, many years later, is the senior pastor at LA Central City Church of the Nazarene. Pastoral care shows people that, when everyone else has given up on them, you will stand behind them—giving them hope and empowerment that they can be the people God has called them to be. People, in the city or suburbs, are looking for radical pastoral care and someone to: 1) stand with them, 2) stand up for them, and 3) stand behind them, believing that they can accomplish great things!
Scott Chamberlain is the former pastor of LA Central City Community Church of the Nazarene and executive director of Central City Community Outreach. He also served as vice president of Women & Family Programs with Union Rescue Mission. Scott is now a consultant, providing organizational development for non-profits and churches in the urban context.