Left Justified: The lessons learned after 25 years of urban ministries

By Stanley Campbell

I’ve been doing urban ministries for the United Methodists for 25 years. Here are some things I learned:

Don’t expect to make much of a living, unless you’re a great fund-raiser and have a number of rich backers. Most of your support will come from church collection plates and rummage sales.

Try not to mix too much politics in with good works. But be prophetic about the needs of the poor, and advocate for those who have no voice. You can build a reputation for representing the ideals of Jesus if you give to the poor and speak against violence (yes, especially state-sponsored war). Few people will actually follow you, but they will admire you from afar.

I’ve learned to treat “opponents” with respect, even kindness, and to try to show God’s love, even with people who violently disagree with something I’ve said or done. In the long run, hearts can change. Besides, hating someone for his or her beliefs is a fast way to a stomach ulcer.

Never say no to anyone who wants to do ministry. Just because we may be pouring a lot of energy into neighborhood rehab doesn’t mean we can’t be supportive of missions to Haiti. We can do it all!

The church, like any institution, is difficult to move. When it does move, it is difficult to change direction, even if it moves toward an iceberg. The leaders mostly think top down. “We’ll start a mission here,” even though they’ve never been there, and they don’t even speak the language. Churches, though, are great resources. There are many people in that institution who can help, find resources, tell stories and give warnings. And they pray, and their prayers are answered.

So, I always start with prayer and find others to pray. I seek support from individuals and institutions, and then try to do something. The doing something is the hardest. I’ve seen many planning sessions with best-laid plans and stacks of brainstormed ideas do nothing. People feel good coming up with ways to help, but don’t have faith to step out and implement them. My job is to get the church to do something.

Then, when you do something, tell the story and make it good news. The local media love a good story. Learn to write a media release: double-space it and try to stick to two pages.

And don’t be afraid of failure. Doing something (anything) for the love of God and for the least of these will do good in this cold, cruel world of poverty, war and disease. To anyone who is doing good, I pray you find lots of support and get to witness a few miracles right away, so you don’t become discouraged. That’s where the devil lives.

I celebrated 25 years of working for Rockford Urban Ministries this last Thursday, April 22, at Bethany United Methodist Church. We had a great potluck supper, and I thank all the people who made vegetarian food and gave fine remarks, and especially thank people for the monetary donations to the cause. It makes the work so much easier!

Stanley Campbell is executive director of Rockford Urban Ministries and spokesman for Rockford Peace & Justice.

From the April 28-May 4, 2010 issue

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