Trust is vital to any relationship, but when it comes to funding African American-led urban ministries, it can mean the difference between success and failure. At least that is what Urban Faith heard from several notable leaders who identified lack of trust as a key factor in race-based funding disparities.
Brian Jenkins is director of Entrenuity, a ministry that helps urban youth start their own businesses. Although the organization has been featured on public television and has trained more than 700 adults and 4,000 youth since 1993, Jenkins says, “What I have found is that when it comes to people saying ‘we’re brothers and sisters in Christ,’ that’s fine, but when it comes to supporting my work and me as a minister in Christ, that’s where the breakdown occurs.”
Jenkins (left) was honored to be a presenter at a recent urban-ministry event with an audience of 200, but disheartened to find that he was the only black speaker when every organization there was working with minority populations. He says, “I just felt like, Wow, how can I be the only one here? … I have a directory full of people, you know, good Christian leaders, black men, black women, Latino men, Latino women, yet I was the only one there, and it was so frustrating because their stories weren’t being told, relationships weren’t being created, and the funding kept going to these same [white-led] organizations.”
The event organizer later told Jenkins he was limited by the people he knew. Jenkins responded, “You have to be intentional in finding and creating new relationships and also relationships that you don’t necessarily try to control.” As an independent, free thinking urban leader, he says, “A lot of times when you work with another organization — when you work with anybody — you give part of your freedom up, but what I have found is that some African American men and women who are successful in majority-culture organizations oftentimes have given up some of their cultural identity, and I’ve just refused to do that.”
Mark Soderquist is a Christian philanthropist, urban minister, and a good friend of Jenkins. He sits on several nonprofit boards and has lived and ministered in the predominantly black Chicago neighborhood of North Lawndale for the past 20 years. Jenkins says of Soderquist, “He didn’t come in and try to use his family’s wealth or resources. He came in and served under a church. He didn’t come in starting a ministry; he came in serving.”
As Soderquist (left) talked to ethnic pastors (including his own), he kept hearing things like, “We could use help, but we don’t need another white organization to move in and set up shop and act like we don’t even exist.” It was an education for him. “Here I had grown up in the church outside of a major city, gone to a Christian college, had five years overseas with a great mission organization, got a master’s degree [from Wheaton College] in Intercultural Studies, and none of those experiences challenged me about the issue of race in this country and how it relates to my faith and how it relates to justice.” Soderquist, who serves as U.S. Director of Urban Ministries for International Teams, approached his pastor and elders at Westlawn Gospel Chapel about moving his work under the church’s local leadership. “I was saying the right words,” he says, “but what I didn’t realize at the time was they had very little faith or hope, based on their experience, that I would actually minister under their leadership.”
Fred Smith is founder and president of The Gathering, a group that encourages Christian philanthropy. He has seen similar dynamics in the Dallas area and agrees that lack of trust and latent racism can be factors, but says, “I suspect the predominant cause is a lack of networks that are peer-based.”
Soderquist acknowledges the reality that white-led ministries often have an easier time getting funding than black-led ministries. “It’s like urban ministry’s dirty little secret in that we are often the ones who speak prophetically to the majority culture church about issues of justice and issues of race, and yet we continue to fit into this system where we seem dependent on the white leadership of organizations.” He says it’s a catch-22, because inner-city ministries need resources, but funding more easily flows from white resources to white-led organizations. “There is the issue of contacts and connections at work here,” he says, “but I also believe race is a factor. I believe there still is mistrust of black-led organizations by white funding sources and we don’t openly recognize or acknowledge this since white-led organizations are dependent on those same resources.” (For statistical data on nonprofit funding bias, see the sidebar below.)
Another nationally recognized black ministry leader who asked not to be identified told Urban Faith about the painful experience of having to ask white associates to elicit funds from donors who had turned him down. “At least I was smart enough to say, ‘This is life as it is.’ I could either fight it or take advantage of it.”
After three decades of success, this leader has the clout to court donors independently, but says, “I’m watching 30-year-old white guys … Everyone wants to give them the world, and they haven’t done a thing yet.” His voice trails off. “But I’ve had to build this whole history of successful ministry that goes 30-plus years, and now maybe, maybe somebody might trust me that I might be able to do something constructive on their investment.”
Elmer Jackson sounds a similar note. As the charismatic founder and principal of West Side Christian Academy in Asbury Park, New Jersey, Jackson says, “What I’ve found is that I’ve had to make relationships and show myself faithful. People are looking to see what our end product is.” (Among West Side’s early supporters was musician Bruce Springsteen.) Jackson says he’s had to outperform his white peers in order to secure comparable levels of support, but the former Marine adds, “I’ve been doing that my whole life.”
For all these leaders, race-based funding disparities present a significant spiritual challenge. Though they remain confident that God has called them to their work, they find it difficult to have confidence in the current system. Says Jenkins: “There’s just this lack of trust, and oftentimes I feel that if the body of Christ cannot be representative of a new model, then how will we have any credibility to speak about what the kingdom looks like?”
Nonprofit Funding Bias: The Numbers
What is tithing? And do most Christians practice it in the correct way? Journalist Douglas LeBlanc traveled across the country to speak to people about the spiritual discipline of financial giving, and how today’s churches get it right — and wrong.
Churchgoers know it’s time to dig a little deeper into their pockets when the pastor announces his annual series on stewardship or starts to extend his offertory prayers. The “offering” has become an important part of Christian worship, but many of us don’t understand the difference between tithing and charitable giving. In his new book, Tithing: Test Me in This, journalist Douglas LeBlanc sheds light on the ancient practice of Christian giving by taking readers on a pilgrimage across the United States to meet a variety of people who have made tithing an central part of their spiritual lives. Though some debate the validity of the concept of tithing, and whether it was strictly an Old Testament practice, LeBlanc was more interested in showing how this spiritual discipline of deliberate giving can transform ordinary lives. He recently spoke to UrbanFaith about the subject of his book.
URBAN FAITH: Very simply, what is tithing?
DOUGLAS LEBLANC: To my mind, tithing is giving 10 percent of your income to the church where you worship God week after week. Some people like to count donations to all nonprofits as part of their tithe. That’s a more easily achievable definition of tithing, but it’s better than not giving away 10 percent of your income. The one thing I resist strenuously is referring to anything other than giving 10 percent as tithing: “I’m tithing 4 percent of my income this year.” Words matter, and that’s an abuse of a perfectly clear word.
Does what we do in our churches each week during offering time resemble anything that happened in the early church? How has the practice of corporate giving evolved through the years?
I’m afraid my book does not explore the evolution of giving, other than through a few quotations from the early church. Consider this from the Didache, which may have been written before A.D. 150 and is quoted by leaders in the fourth century:
Do not be one who stretches out the hands to receive but withdraws them when it comes to giving. If you earn something by working with your hands, you shall give a ransom for your sins. You shall not hesitate to give, nor shall you grumble when giving, for you will know who is the good paymaster of the reward.
What we have in most churches today is a formal opportunity to give. Some pastors whom I spoke to for the book, such as Jerald January of Vernon Park Church of God on the South Side of Chicago, have done away with a designated time for collecting offerings. I think it’s outstanding if a congregation supports the church without a formal offering, but I am not bothered by churches that collect the offering with more ritual. In my church, the choir sings some of its loveliest hymns during the offertory.
What are some of the most fascinating stats or findings about tithing in American churches that you discovered during your research?
What’s most fascinating to me is how low the level of giving is. Read any of the annual surveys by empty tomb, inc., and you’ll have to fight away sadness with a baseball bat. The founders of empty tomb, inc., John and Sylvia Ronsvalle, drove it home for me when I visited them in Champaign, Illinois. John Ronsvalle has calculated that a serious work of world evangelism would cost $182 million, which translates to about 2 cents per day from churches that clearly identify themselves as evangelical. Are we anywhere near achieving that goal? No.
I once heard a youth leader point out that the average congregation spends more on air conditioning than on youth ministry. I think you could replace “youth ministry” with any number of categories and still make that statement. I love air conditioning as much as the next guy — probably more, being a son of southern Louisiana — but surely we can do better than this in our church budgets.
More personally, when I take an honest look at what I spend on cable TV, books, broadband access, magazines, two pet cats, travel, and computers, my stewardship begins to look paltry. I try to remind myself regularly that, by the terms of history or the terms of how most people live in this world, I am among the remarkably wealthy by virtue of living in the United States. I try to let that inspire more generosity rather than guilt and self-loathing.
You interviewed various pastors and Christian leaders regarding the practices of tithing and giving. What were the most surprising things that you discovered as you spoke to different people?
What I greatly enjoyed was meeting several people on the Christian left who tithe. I’ve been a cultural and theological conservative for most of my adult life, and I’ll admit to making many glib assumptions about people on the other side of the aisle. As I traveled to various states to interview people, I saw just how much the basic discipline of tithing transcends so many political differences. Tithing even cuts across vast differences in theology. Tithing becomes a quiet rallying point for people who realize that serious Christian faith makes demands of you. Jesus does not settle for whatever kindness that comes naturally to us.
I also loved the drama of interviewing Randy Alcorn, who considers tithing as the training wheels one uses on the way toward real giving. Randy is a full-throttle Christian, and I find it humbling to spend time with people who submit so much more of their lives to God than I manage on so many days.
What is typically the trend with giving in the church during tough economic periods like the one we’re currently experiencing? Have you observed anything unique about this latest economic crisis?
Based only on my own observations, I believe many of us see giving to our church as part of our discretionary income, something that we would cut sooner than other outlets of discretionary income, such as dining out, entertainment, or vacations. I am horrified, more often than not, at how self-indulgent I can be on any given day, so I’m not arguing that tithing is the line of demarcation between holiness and sin. For those of us who do not struggle with much economic uncertainty, tithing is the beginning of Christian stewardship, rather than some Mt. Everest that only a select few would think of scaling.
Still, I also strive to remember the deeply pastoral perspective I heard from Ron and Arbutus Sider, two of the great champions of living more simply. “It’s an Old Testament principle that makes enormous sense, and it’s a great starting point,” Ron told me. “I wouldn’t say to a desperately poor single mom, ‘You’ve got to tithe or you’re disobeying God.'” Arbutus added: “It’s perfectly fine for impoverished people to give 2 or 3 or 5 percent.”
A recurring question that you hear a lot about tithing is whether it’s 10 percent off your gross or net income. What have you come to believe about that one?
I like the cleanness of tithing off my gross income, because income is income, even if it is taxed or allotted to a medical savings account before I receive a pay stub. Still, a tithe from a net income is better than no tithe at all. I think the biblical principle of giving with a cheerful heart should inform that choice.
There are so many perspectives and theologies out there about Christian giving, everything from prosperity teaching to pooling your resources and living in an intentional community.
I consider prosperity theology entirely bad news. It helps us confuse what we need and what we want. Worse, it tries to conceal carnal materialism in pious clothing. It turns prosperity into a sick measure of God’s favor, or of the authenticity of a person’s Christian faith.
Of course God does not want people living in poverty, but throughout Scripture the emphasis is not on blaming people for their afflictions. If anything, Scripture indicts those of us who are healthy and wealthy if we do not try to share what we have with those who have less. If a prosperity theologian had told Jesus’ parable about Lazarus and the rich man, the rich man would rebuke Lazarus for not having sufficient faith to claim the riches that are his as a King’s Kid.
Living in an intentional community is a noble sacrifice, and I have great affection for people who do it, especially long term. One thing is also clear: Living in community is exceptionally difficult, and many communities simply fall apart over time because they cannot resolve the conflicts that arise when people live in that sort of emotional and spiritual hothouse. Few people are truly called to that life, and still fewer can make it work over many years. God bless those who can do it. Those few who argue that all true Christians should live such a life will soon enough find their idealism challenged by hard experience.
So, what do you think is the most biblical approach for Christians to take?
I consider the tithe my starting point. After that, there’s no shortage of other opportunities to give: natural disasters in impoverished nations; a friend or relative in an emergency; sponsoring a child through a relief and development agency; volunteering at a soup kitchen or homeless shelter. As a shy person, I find it too easy to write a check rather than making myself vulnerable among the poor. I struggle against that, though, and when I relax enough, God sends moments of grace.
I once encountered a poor woman in Minneapolis and we spent about an hour together, talking and walking on a chilly day. She told me about being kicked out of her house by a heartless son. I bought her coffee and a piece of pie. She helped me find a better corner for catching a taxi to the airport. I prayed with her before we separated. I told her that our encounter reminded me of Hebrews 13 (“Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it”). As I paraphrased it, she completed the sentence with me. It was eerie and I spent the rest of the trip home feeling unduly blessed.
I don’t see any one perspective on giving as the most biblical, except perhaps that Jesus calls us to be generous because generosity is at the heart of the Holy Trinity. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus represent the most extravagant act of generosity in all of history.
What do you think is the biggest misconception that American Christians have about giving?
Many Americans seem to believe we are somehow doing God a favor by giving even token money to the church by tossing $5 or $10 into the collection plate every week or two. God does not need our money, but he wants our hearts and souls. If our love for God does not lead us to a greater generosity with our time, talent and treasure, perhaps it’s time to stoke the fires of that love again.
And what are we generally doing right?
My sense, and perhaps it’s just wishful thinking on my part, is that thousands of churches are doing exceptionally creative works of mercy and hospitality with the resources they have, whether they’re storefronts or megachurches. It’s easy to take shots at Willow Creek or Saddleback, but both of those churches are deliberate about helping struggling people, whether they’re on the West Side of Chicago or across the world in Rwanda.
One of the sweetest films I’ve ever seen is a PBS documentary, Let the Church Say Amen, which depicts the small, struggling World Missions for Christ in Washington, D.C. I had never heard of this church before, and I doubt that it ever will be known widely. The film left me with an abiding sense of God’s presence, because Pastor Bobby Perkins Sr. was there to weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice. I expect there are far more churches like that throughout the country, both in inner cities and in tiny towns.
When my caroling group gave the desperate man a helping hand, we were proud of ourselves. We expected gratitude. We thought someone begging on the street would be thankful for our holiday kindness. We couldn’t have been more wrong.
O come all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant …
It was a chilly December night in downtown Chicago, and about a dozen of us from a suburban Christian college were Christmas caroling. My best friend, Uriel, stood next to me as we sang. A few people stopped to listen.
… O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem, Come and behold him …
A black man edged closer as we sang. He seemed to eye me, the only African American in our group. His head nodded in rhythm with the melody.
… O come let us adore him, Christ the Lord!
“Say, brother,” he said, approaching me as the song ended, “would you please help my family? We ain’t got no money and my baby needs formula.”
He was probably in his 20s, but his tired and ragged appearance made him look much older. “Please, man. I need to get us some food.”
I glanced at the others in my group. We knew the safest response was to politely refuse. Yet we were Christians. Weren’t we supposed to help needy people?
“Would you please help me?” the plea came again. “Just a few dollars.”
I looked at Uriel.
“We can’t give you money,” we finally said, “but we can buy you what you need.” If the guy was telling us the truth, it was something we had to do.
“My name is Jerome,” he told us as we hiked toward a nearby convenience store. He lived in a city housing project with his wife and three kids. As we entered the store, I noticed that his eyes seemed to brighten. Maybe we’d brought a little hope into his life.
Soon we’d bought him baby formula, eggs, and milk. This seemed a fitting conclusion to our evening of caroling.
As we handed Jerome the groceries and bus fare, I noticed his eyes had darkened into an frightening stare. “You think you better than me, don’t you?” he said. “You all think you somethin’ ’cause you come out from the suburbs, buyin’ food for the po’ folks, but you ain’t no better than me.”
“No …” I struggled to find more words, but nothing came. I realized there was nothing I could say that would change his mind.
After a moment of awkward silence, Jerome grabbed his bag of groceries and walked away. Then he suddenly turned and said sharply, “Merry Christmas.” It was not a warm wish, but a condemning statement filled with broken pride.
The December air blew colder. No one said a word.
There wasn’t anything to say. Our holiday spirit had suddenly evaporated, and there was no way to bring it back.
We might have resented Jerome and felt justified. But was he wrong? We gave him a gift. He accepted it. Should there have been anything more?
That’s sort of how it was at the first Christmas. Jesus wasn’t born a helpless baby for applause. Years later, he didn’t hang on the cross for the praise and adulation — many of those he died for made fun of him. Still, he gave selflessly and unconditionally. So, why had we expected gratitude and warm fuzzies for our gift to Jerome?
Strangely enough, Jerome gave us something far better than another opportunity to feel good about ourselves. He made us look hard at our motives and gave us a sobering lesson on the real reason for giving.
We were expecting a pat on the back. Jerome reminded us of what the true reward of Christmas is all about.
Panhandlers and beggars seem to bombard us in the city. They wash our windshields at stoplights and then come to our windows expecting payment. They cling to ragtag cardboard signs and approach us with forlorn faces. Some are missing limbs. They sit in wheelchairs holding dirty cups. Some are in obvious need. We can tell by looking in their eyes that they truly are blind or hungry or ill.
What should we do?
As the leader of a large organization that specializes in ministry among the homeless, let me give you my expert opinion: I don’t know!
I think God gives us these dilemmas to cause us to rely on the compassion of Christ he has implanted in our hearts. Coming face to face with someone who asks us for money is an opportunity to be led by the Holy Spirit, instead of being driven by guilt or obligation or the desire to bolster our own ego as a “generous person.” There is no simple answer.
Jesus said in Luke 6:30 that we are to give to everyone who asks of us. Most of us are hesitant to do that because we are afraid that we will be taken advantage of. Perhaps the recipient of our charity will use our hard-earned cash for booze or drugs. Surely giving to someone who would use our money for those purposes would not be in anyone’s best interest, would it? Yet, the directive is clear. We are to give without question and without judgment.
While we don’t want to contribute to someone’s addiction, it is helpful to understand that people who are living on the street usually do not have access to appropriate pain medicine, mental health counseling, or the gentle pacifiers such as chocolate and ice cream that we turn to when we need a lift. Who are we to judge them for how they spend money? I certainly have not always made the best decisions with the money that God sends my way. Yet God keeps giving to me.
On the other hand, our gifts do not always have to be cash. I urge people to give financial gifts to organizations that specialize in wise care for the under-resourced — like Sunshine Gospel Ministries, Circle Urban Ministries, or my own Breakthrough Ministries — and then get involved by volunteering to help those ministries. Then, when asked for cash, we can respond like Peter and John did when confronted by the crippled beggar. “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk” (Acts 3:1-10).
A financial gift to a mission or an organization that provides opportunities for the homeless will help men and women who have been crippled by life get back on their feet and — in the name of Jesus Christ — walk a new walk. As stewards of the resources God entrusts to us, we want to make sure our gifts to the poor are invested wisely.
Instead of giving cash to people on the street, we can give directions, or perhaps a ride, to the nearest ministry that provides loving care in the name of Christ. Like the Good Samaritan that Jesus described in Luke 10, we can transport those who are battered and broken to the nearest rehab center and pay for their rehabilitation.
I have a friend who always gives people exactly what they ask for. If they ask for change, he gives them change. If they ask for a couple of dollars, he gives them a couple of dollars. He says that in the grand scheme of things, considering his budget for giving to the poor, the amount of money he hands out is actually relatively small. He thinks we make a bigger deal of being taken advantage of than we should. After all, Jesus let himself be stripped, beaten, and hung on a cross unjustly to show his great love. It is not likely that we will ever experience that much injustice in our giving to the poor.
The June 13th entry in Oswald Chambers’s great My Utmost for His Highest reads, “Never make a principle out of your experience; let God be as original with other people as He is with you.” So, again, we are asked to let the Spirit guide our practices when we come face to face with someone asking us for money.
One thing I am quite certain about is this: When I stand before God in the judgment, I don’t think he is going to drill me about how smart and frugal I was when I was face to face with someone who asked me for money. I doubt that God will point out how proud he is of me that I didn’t let myself get scammed by someone who was lying to get a few bucks out of me.
God is more likely to say something like this: “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me…. I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”