Churches 'show up to be Jesus' in Jacksonville's inner city




Editor’s Note: Across Jacksonville, a city of more than 200 different neighborhoods, Florida Conference churches are serving a wide variety of communities, including the upscale, the impoverished and everything that lies between. In the following story, we hear from three people—two pastors and one layperson—who minister in some of the city’s more disadvantaged neighborhoods, about the role of church and faith in those communities.

Show up, be Jesus

A year ago, Rev. Juana Jordan was happily serving on a team whose mission was to plant a new church—Bridges UMC in the City—in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Jacksonville.

“There’s a lot of history there,” says Jordan, who was ordained as an elder in The United Methodist Church in June 2017. “That community has been there for many, many years, but it was really depressed, and because it was largely African-American, a lot of people didn’t pay attention to it.”

For more than six months, she and other team members spent time in Brooklyn, which is currently experiencing significant redevelopment along with all the growing pains that accompany such changes. They learned about Brooklyn’s history and its residents, made friends and formed relationships they hoped would grow deeper.

“There was a genuine feeling of love,” Jordan said.

Ultimately, however, the Florida Conference put the church plant on hold, resolving to explore new strategies for serving Brooklyn.

Like most people, Jordan isn’t crazy about waiting, but she believes it can be part of God’s plan.

“God sometimes calls us back, calls on us to pause,” she said. “He wants us to stop and really take notice of what is going on around us.”

For Jordan, it’s a rubber-meets-the-road kind of moment.

“What it means for me is…continuing to be present in the community, to find ways to connect with people and get to know them,” she added. “It’s not so much about the (church) planting piece so much as it’s about discipleship, showing up and being Jesus. That’s what I’m excited about.”

In Brooklyn, where economic challenges are great, residents have seen well-meaning pastors come and go, and they simply want to know that people who call themselves Christians are going to be there for the long haul, Jordan said.

In her experience, being Jesus can be as straightforward as sharing bottled water in a neighborhood where it’s hard to come by or making a few calls on behalf of someone who needs a job. In both situations, the key was being present to be aware of those needs.

“A lot of the time, we don’t show up because we are unfamiliar with the territory. We are unfamiliar with the terrain, or we are not clear on the language and how to communicate,” Jordan said. “But if we just go in loving people and just go in with our presence and listen…If we are people who actually show up and be Jesus, that changes the ballgame!”

‘Every drop of water’

Sometimes Cristal Winu feels overwhelmed by the physical needs of the young people she serves at Murray Hill United Methodist Church.

“What I understand is that a lot of people come to church to connect with (others), but they also are trying to meet basic needs like food…because they might not have enough food at home,” said Winu, the children and youth director. “We usually have a night service on Sunday, and that’s one they rarely miss because we usually have dinner. I will see some kids packing up some of the leftovers to take home to family members.”

Winu, who is from the Democratic Republic of Congo, says she’s thankful God is using her and Murray Hill to nourish the neighborhood kids both physically and spiritually.

“In the midst of the trials these families might be facing, it’s good to know the church has been like a hospital for them, like a place of refuge, a place of relief,” she added. “Sometimes I do feel drained, but God gives me the strength every day.”

If Winu had an unlimited budget, she would establish a food pantry that would ensure all of the kids have bag lunches and other food when they need it.

“Especially in the summer when they’re not in school,” she added. “It’s very, very important.”

Winu serves at Murray Hill through the Global Mission Fellows program and is in partnership with the Young Adult Missional Movement of the Florida Conference. During her term at the church, which began January 2017 and is set to end in August, she has come to know and love dozens of children and teenagers active at the church. Many of them face serious financial and emotional hardships at home, and they have come to depend on Winu as a mentor, confidante and all-around big sister.

“I visit them in their homes,” she said. “There is a very strong connection. I am going to miss them so much!”

For now, though, Winu is doing all she can to share with them God’s love and his promises.

“We pray together, and I have been teaching them how to pray on their own,” she said. “They need to learn how to pray for themselves…even little prayers. Just be thankful for the gift of life!”

Every couple of weeks, Winu hosts gatherings at the church for the children to eat, relax and have fun.

“I can witness that the seed we are trying to sew into their lives is actually influencing and shifting the way they live in their homes, their schools and their neighborhoods,” she added. “Every drop of water can fill the bucket. I might be just a drop of water in this little corner of the community, but I know God has been using me to point children and youth to Jesus.”

Listen and learn

When it comes to ministering to Jacksonville’s urban core, predominantly white churches must be willing to listen and learn, says Southside United Methodist Church Pastor Bruce Jones.

“When mostly white people go down to the mostly black or minority urban core…we need to listen, and we need to look for their leadership, so we can step in with them and become servants,” he said. “The key is partnership!”

That willingness to listen is essential with black-white racial tension and gun violence looming so large in Jacksonville, he added.

“It’s a hard conversation to have,” said Jones, a supporter of MAD DADS, a group committed to curbing Jacksonville’s drug and gun violence and its pledge to hold vigil on the street corners of the neighborhoods where the killings occur. “There’s a lot of fear that separates people.”

Many white people fear going into traditionally black neighborhoods in the urban core because they see them as dangerous and crime-ridden. At the same time, many black people fear the traditionally white culture and power structures because they see them as aligned against minorities, Jones said.

His response is simple—to serve the city’s downtown neighborhoods in ways both large and small and to encourage members of Southside UMC to do the same.

“My mission is to try to get, one way or another, as many of our folks exposed to what’s going on downtown,” Jones said.

Several other churches and agencies, including the Sulzbacher Center—the city’s primary homeless shelter—are in place downtown doing excellent work, and there’s no need to reinvent the wheel or divert resources from their work, he added.

“Our aim is by this time next year, we will have formal partnerships with some of these agencies—helping with funding, volunteers, supplies—and really have a significant presence with our people downtown.”

--Kari C. Barlow is a freelance journalist based in Pensacola.


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