Inner city churches

Serving in a climate of distrust




Editor’s Note: Inner-city churches face a multitude of challenges. Often located in areas where drug addiction, crime and poverty fill the streets and alleys of neighborhoods hidden from the lives of many, the roles of churches vary according to their communities. This is the first in an occasional series about inner-city churches in Florida.

Inner-city churches in the Southeast District of the Florida Conference face many challenges, from extreme neighborhood violence to poverty.

It results in a breakdown of community.

“The church's role,” said Rev. Dr. Cynthia Weems, Southeast district superintendent since early 2015, “is to be a model for community—particularly children and young people—caring for one another and promoting peace.

Rev. Dr. Cynthia Weems, Southeast district superintendent, said that the church's role in our inner cities is to be a "model for community, particularly for children and young people."

There are 68 United Methodist churches in the Southeast District, which includes Broward County, Miami-Dade County and Monroe County (the Florida Keys). Many are located in inner-city neighborhoods.

In the large metropolitan areas of Miami and Fort Lauderdale, one sees a drastic disparity between rich and poor, “which creates a climate of distrust, leading further to the breakdown in community,” Weems said. “I would also say the church's role is to feed, clothe and shelter.

“The model these churches provides is fundamentally different from life on the streets,” Weems added.

This often leads them to reach out to their communities in unique ways. The Pompano Beach campus of Christ Church United Methodist in Fort Lauderdale, and First United Methodist Church of Miami engage in annual Lenten foot-washing ministries for the homeless, including podiatry services.

“That's a way that two Christian communities have asked, 'How can we build a bridge that is particularly Christian?'” Weems said.

Seeking bold justice

Unemployment in Broward County is only 4.4 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. But there are pockets of severe joblessness in many neighborhoods.

David Range has been a pastor for almost 12 years at Miramar UMC, which is a founding member—along with other churches—of an organization called Broward Organized Leaders Doing Justice (BOLD Justice).

In 2014 BOLD Justice convinced the Broward County Commission to approve an ordinance that gives high priority to groups deemed hard-to-hire, such as veterans, the homeless, people with felony convictions, high school dropouts, and the mentally and physically disabled.

Range says the 315-member Miramar UMC has a food pantry to address the immediate hunger needs of its community. But members also ask why people are hungry. The goal is to help them to feed themselves.

To that end, Miramar UMC and other churches within BOLD Justice are working to convince the Florida Legislature to change laws to require law enforcement officers to issue civil citations to juvenile first-offenders who commit minor infractions, rather than arrest them.

Each year in Florida, Range said, thousands of young people are arrested for non-violent misdemeanors. Criminal records, even arrests without convictions, can disable people for the rest of their lives, preventing them from getting jobs, serving in the military or even receiving student loans.

With a civil citation, wrongdoing is admitted but offenders are placed in a diversion program.

The bill did not pass in the recent state legislative session, but Range suggests they made progress.

“It's still growing as a movement,” he said.

“Constantly changing”

Simon Osunlana, a native of Nigeria and senior pastor in his 12th year at St. John United Methodist Church in Fort Lauderdale, says among the biggest challenges his church faces is the transient nature of the community.

St. John UMC, located near the downtown area in Fort Lauderdale, is said to serve between 1,000 and 1,500 of Broward County's poor population annually. Many are homeless.

“It's the instability of the people in the neighborhood,” Osunlana said. “The neighborhood is constantly changing. Many come to visit, but it’s difficult to transfer membership because they aren't sure what tomorrow is going to be like.”

The church has about 400 members. Some who do join will leave within two to three months due to lack of stable jobs and low incomes. When they can't pay their rent, “they have to move on,” Osunlana said.

Meanwhile, homelessness has decreased in parts of Dade and Broward counties. There are 1,011 homeless people in Miami-Dade County, according to the January 2017 point-in-time count conducted by the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust. Homelessness has decreased by about 10 percent in Miami in recent years.

In Broward County, some 2,302 people were recognized as “individuals experiencing homelessness” in a January 2016 “point-in-time” count, according to the Broward Regional Health Planning Council.

The numbers are encouraging, but hard work continues at the churches. Located near downtown, St. John ministers to 1,000-1,500 of the county's poor population throughout the year. Many come in only once.

“That's what we do,” Osunlana said. People come for food, but they also receive bus passes and, in the winter, jackets and socks.

Some 85 percent of St. John congregants are African-American. Only about 17 percent give to the church each year.

“Not everyone is financially viable to contribute anything to the church,” Osunlana said. But St. John, one of four Methodist churches within a five-mile radius, manages to pay its bills and simultaneously provide programs for the community.

“I know that everyone is making a dent into the needs of the community,” Osunlana said. The pastors meet and share what's going on at their churches—and how they are confronting challenges—and share resources. They also have Weems' support, Osunlana said, in times of need.

Unity in worship

North Miami Beach experienced tremendous growth among Caucasians in the 1950s-1970s, followed by a Cuban influx in the late 1970s, said Myron Rhodes Jr., associate pastor at Fulford UMC in that city. After that, Haitians moved in, and the city now has the fifth-highest concentration of Haitians in the country.

Fulford's congregation is about 50 percent Caribbean-Americans, primarily from Haiti, Jamaica and the Bahamas. Others include Central Americans, South Americans and Anglos, Rhodes said.

“You hear conversations like you are standing in an airport,” he said. “There are international voices going on around you. It's not just a color diversity. It's a diversity of dress style. It's a diversity in language. It's a diversity in worship experience…but there's unity.”

“That's a gift, and a kind of modeling of a community,” Weems said of the example set by Fulford. “That's a Christian community.”

Rhodes, a native of Arkansas who attended seminary in Texas, said he moved to the melting pot of South Florida with “a new set of eyes.

“When they all come together for church, we are worshiping the same Jesus,” Rhodes said. But sometimes people have a different understanding of the liturgy because they grew up in an Anglican tradition or a Reformed tradition.

“They come in here, and we are injecting this contemporary American thing into it. For some of them, it's an adjustment.”

Rhodes, who has been at Fulford less than a year, says congregants are looking past their liturgical and cultural differences.

The charismatic Caribbean members liven up the worship, Rhodes said. “They 'Amen!' during the sermons, clap and dance during the music. We have a variety of all that going on during the worship services.”

--Ed Scott is a freelance writer based in Venice


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