In one of those “small world” stories, I went to a conference with my wife where we had dinner with the chaplain (Rev. Jon Scott) that was there at the birth of my second daughter. While reminiscing about our time in seminary, we got to talking about a mutual friend, Rev. Jeff Brown. Jon asked if I knew what Jeff was doing and I didn’t. I suggested Facebook, and Jon doesn’t do Facebook, so I thought I’d track down Jeff and found him easily enough. I gave him Jon’s information and added Jeff to my “Friends” list and went on with my life.
Then something weird started happening — after the Ferguson chaos, Jeff would appear in a picture with the Vice-President of the United States! Joe Biden is heard on one of the videos that he remembered Jeff from some project with clergy in Boston years ago. A week or so later, Jeff is seen talking to the President of the United States about building bridges between community and police to decrease violence. A guy I know knows the President of the USA! and it’s on my Facebook page!
It turns out that Jeff is hanging out with famous people — he’s a one of a small bunch who were chosen to give TED talks this year — along with, among others, Monica Lewinsky. Jeff’s TED talk came out recently and I heard the story of how a guy I knew went from a guy in a church to a national (albeit not famous publicly) leader. Jeff is the opposite of the Cardasians and what is wrong with our society. Jeff is not famous for being famous and doing nothing. Jeff is not famous while doing something incredibly meaningful.
As Jeff tells the story in his TED talk, he deals with the issues of ego and fame straight out of seminary, but then he settles into his job — the job of doing the work of Jesus in the community where he pastors. Violence escalates in the community where he works — Boston in this case — among teenage gangs and drug dealers and other people most would call “low-life scum” — people from the Wrong Side of The Tracks morally.
What Jeff did is interesting, though. While most pastors (including him at first) would try to build up the Church of Good People, Jeff decides to take a walk into The City of the Apparently Bad People. That’s it. He walked and listened. He met people. Soon he and three other clergy walked at night every weekend. They didn’t do it for fame. They didn’t do it for glory. They did it for understanding and in that understanding came miracles. Boston’s murder rate went down 79% without guns or tanks, without more people ending up in jail, without all the things that happened in Ferguson, New York, and Baltimore.
As Jeff talked, what I thought of was not Jeff, but Jesus…and St. Francis…and Jeff. Each of them share a way of doing ministry that is outside the church (though Jeff pastored in a local church) and involved undesirables. Jesus is well known for hanging out with and reaching out to sinners, prostitutes, and the political hot-potato of the time, Tax Collectors. We all know what happened to the church under his guidance. It grew world-wide.
St. Francis of Assisi recreated that style of ministry with the truly repugnant — disease ridden, smelly (as he would note) and religiously “unclean” lepers in the 1200’s. Francis ministry had over 4,000 followers within a few years and caught the Pope’s notice more than once. The Catholic Church had a rebirth in the process.
In the late 20th century and early 21st, Rev. Jeffrey L Brown and three colleagues began to hang out with drug dealers and prostitutes and gang members and his/their community is changed radically as well. Maybe we’re doing something wrong in our churches. In each of these cases, instead of growing more of what is already planted to reap later, Jeff — and Francis, and Jesus before him — started to see the seeds of hope that hadn’t been paid attention to in the fields of weeds that the world has become. In doing so, they transformed the lives of those they ministered to and –as a secondary gift — grew themselves and their communities.
Jeff points out in his TED talk that the drug dealers and criminals wanted to see three things: 1) Did they care enough to keep doing it — was it real love? 2) Were they doing it for the fame? 3) Were they going to get hurt by authority? When the answer to all of those was settled, transformation happened.
The parallels in Jesus’ ministry: 1) When Jesus preached to others, they frequently wanted to know why he was talking to them (see the Woman at the Well); 2) Jesus says, “when you pray, don’t do it in public for everyone to see” — the really important folks/deity will know what you’re doing 3) The demon-possessed in the community are afraid that Jesus wants to hurt them. Jesus want to remove the demonic from them and they are transformed, not hurt.
In St. Francis’ ministry, 1) I’m sure the lepers were confused by his talking to them. Certainly the Religious People were. 2) Francis prayed all the time, not in the Halls of Power, but in the leper colonies, where no one from the outside world would see him. 3) Francis kissed a leper and the leper disappeared, leaving Francis to understand that the leper was actually an incarnation of God. Not only “not unclean” but truly holy.
I have absolutely nothing against parish pastors. They are able to shepherd a group of people through the transitions of their lives. They do wonderful work and support The Good People who still have problems, despite being good, living in a messed up world. Egotistic preachers and judgmental holier-than-thou congregations give me fits. The pastors I know are, for the most part, not them.
Being a person or preacher in the Congregation of the Good People is a good place to be and to stay, but as these three leaders show, it is not the only type of ministry out there. Inside the building, people tend to stagnate. Outside of the building people come alive in transformation. Inside of the building, there is loud judgment about those in the world. Outside of the building, quiet love is needed and respect is given to those in the church.
May we do more of this type of ministry and not limit ourselves to what we think is possible, instead doing the impossible through the God who lives within us.