A few years ago my church, the Highland Church of Christ, inherited a small, older church building in a poor part of town. The building had belonged to a church that shut its doors due to declining membership.

Highland renamed the building Freedom Fellowship and started hosting praise nights on the weekend. A small but faithful following soon grew with a lot of the Freedom community made up of low income and special needs populations. The church now worships every Wednesday night and they still host a monthly praise night on a Saturday. Meals are served before all the worship services.

I started going to Freedom in the fall and it's now my favorite place to worship. I really look forward to Wednesday evenings.

Worship at Freedom can look a bit, well, free. It's a small church with about 60 of us in attendance. There is a praise band. And during the worship it's not uncommon to have people swaying, dancing, or going up and down the aisles waving streamers. You can bring your tambourine. And pretty much everyone raises their hands with lots of "Amen's!" and "Praise the Lord's!" It's not Charismatic. It's just free and uninhibited. People just do what they want. And if you want to go up and down the aisle with a streamer, you go up and down the aisle with a streamer.

Me? Where do I fit in?

I'm not a hand raiser. I don't shout Amen. I may be the most inhibited person in attendance. But my heart soars when I'm there. The joy around me is infectious.

More, I go to Freedom because the people there aren't like me. Most are poor. Many are emotionally and intellectually handicapped. Some are homeless. Many struggle with addictions of various sorts. But I love the way these people worship.

Another thing I like about Freedom: One of the church leaders and I have a running conversation (and he might have this conversation with more than just me). A few months ago he came up to me and asked, "Richard, do you know why we come to church?" "Why?" "So God can kick us in the ass." Every week it's a variation on that theme. "Richard, did God kick you in the ass today?"

I smile and say yes.

A couple of weeks ago the leaders of Freedom asked if I might preach to the church after the praise time. There was a little anxiety on their part. Many speakers have floundered at Freedom. They just didn't know how to connect with a low income and mentally challenged audience. I was a bit worried about this myself, but my time teaching in the local prison has helped. My speaking repertoire has been expanding: I can speak to academicians, college freshmen, maximum security inmates and now, at Freedom, the poor.

Speaking of preaching to the poor, I'd always been troubled by this passage in the gospels:

Matthew 11.1-5
After Jesus had finished instructing his twelve disciples, he went on from there to teach and preach in the towns of Galilee.

When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”

Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.
I'd always felt that the poor were getting a bum deal in this text. The lame get to walk. The blind get their sight restored. The deaf get to hear. The dead, and this seems sort of like a big deal, are raised to life again.

And what do the poor get?

A good sermon.

That seemed kind of lame.

Well, it did until I started worshiping with the poor and listening to and sharing the gospel with the poor. Because when you do that you see what Jesus was talking about.

Many of the people at Freedom are at the absolute bottom of society. And they know it. But in the midst of worship and during the proclamation of the gospel they are transformed. They become citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven. They are infused with an incandescent dignity that they cannot find in the soul crushing meritocracy of American life. There is a reason they pull out the streamers and the tambourines. During worship at Freedom the Spirit of God moves and tells those in attendance--tells me--that we are precious, wanted and loved. That we are not waste, trash, or failures. That we are human beings.

So I've come to see what Jesus was talking about. I've seen the gospel proclaimed to the poor. And it's a beautiful thing.

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23 thoughts on “Freedom”

  1. It's always good to be able to engage in fellowship and dialogue with others who are different from ourselves.

    As a disabled boy from a broken home who often went hungry, at the start I had little hope of a better life.  Somewhere else I might never have made it.  In fact, I might have died. We all knew we were on the bottom rung of the ladder in our own community.  It was the most frightening time I have ever lived through.  So I can relate.

    Living here I was able to obtain a good education, eventual repair for my broken body, and then meaningful and fulfilling work helping others.  I was able to create and then rear and feed a family of my own, purchase my own home, and educate my child.  I was able to travel, own and care for pets, and enjoy entertainment and hobbies.  I was able to break out of the cycle of poverty in my family.  All through my own hard work and efforts, because I had little help from even my own parents.  I am so grateful to have been born in this country, because I did have liberty and the freedom to better myself in spite of tremendous barriers and odds.  I am not unique.  My siblings can tell much the same story.

    My soul was never "crushed" by the system of merit in America.  It took the ministers of the gospel and the church to do that.  Only now am I beginning to climb back out of that existential hole.  And I am grateful to be a part of your community here at E.T., because you and they are restoring my hope that I can, in fact, have my soul restored as well.

  2. Yes, this is the type of worship and fellowship that enlivens the spirit and gives me hope.  From all that I have read here at ET, and all that I -- either rightly or wrongly -- can read into that about you as a person of faith, it doesn't surprise me that Freedom Fellowship is where you would be, Dr. Beck.  Naturally!

    What is the worship "atmosphere" at the Prison Bible Fellowship?  Do you get a similar vibe?

    I experience the same connection with my Nursing Home Fellowship.  We sing, we pray, we read and talk about the Bible.  I have found that I read the Bible differently, as a result of preparing each week's program.  I don't sermonize or preach or "lead."  I love those people, and have received more joy from that community (!!) than at any other time or place in my church life.  I speak of Good News, exclusively.  I wouldn't dare condescend to allude to a spiritual ass-kicking, divinely prescribed or of human delivery mode.  I'm simply humbled to the core with these people.

    When I go into that place and see my friends every week (also on Wednesday, as it happens), I am more alive and free than anywhere else.  (I wish I could bottle that up!)

    The problem with the soul-crushing meritocracy of American life is that it has been incorporated into evangelical theology and tradition to blend the blessing-curse, good-evil dichotomies onto a deserving-undeserving, strong-weak economic framework.  Women, children, and the elderly are still the most vulnerable, in American society at large, and in too many cases, of church life.  If you're not strong enough to withstand an ass-kicking, bad on you.  Most people seem happy to assume that it must be a well-deserved ass-kicking.  It's a hard sell, religion and/or the Gospel of Jesus Christ, to folks whose identity has been formed around the self-image of a refugee.  (I love Tom Petty's song about that, which always reminds me of spiritual slavery vs. freedom, and homelessness in more ways than one.)

    "During worship at Freedom the Spirit of God moves and tells those in
    attendance--tells me--that we are precious, wanted and loved. That we
    are not waste, trash, or failures. That we are human beings."  Hello!  Self-esteem, dignity, whatever you want to call it...I'm for it!  Yes, and Amen!!  Tying into the previous few posts, this creates a few waves in the value judgment (objectifying, consumeristic) culture in which we're immersed.  :-)

  3. Richard, Thanks for your engaging and helpful work. This is off subject for today, but we are discussing "Unclean" in our Wed. evening class right now. It has been a great opportunity to attempt to articulate the argument of your book. I was wondering if you are familiar with Luke Bretherton's "Hospitality as Holiness"? He uses MacIntyre's work as the basis for a conversation about Christians engaging the culture while maintaining a Christian voice. 

  4. When we started working with Cambodian refugees back in the early 80's, one of the first songs they learned was "Nothing but the Blood," which was quite adaptable to the "call and answer" spirituals bequeathed to the world by African American worshipers. The leader would shout out, "What can wash away my sin?". And we all know the answer. I have never experienced a more joyful, soul stirring response to that song! These new American believers didn't know much English, but they knew THIS song and it's meaning. Blessed are the poor and the poor in spirit! Yes!

  5. We have a church here in Austin, loosely connected with Westover Hills, that is also called Freedom and it, too, is largely people who are struggling to make it.  Some recently released form prison, others just hanging on.  Whenever (too rarely, I must admit) I worship with them I am always surprised at what happens.  I sometimes wonder if the power of the Gospel is diminished in those of us who have been 'privileged' with a good education and high socio-economic status.  Perhaps that's what Jesus was talking about in Matt 11:25? 

  6. I envy you - a 'small' church of about 60.  I attend a truly 'small' church of about 12 faithful!  I envy you even more because the doors are open to those the Lord God shepherds in Isaiah 1.  You are a blessed man.

  7. I just love the fact that meals are served before all the worship services! Such an important ingredient into that missional approach!

  8. When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”

    A few days ago my preacher asked me who WE are?>  I'm big on proper understanding of scriptural pronouns, expecially the second person ones.  After stumbling around for a while, he asked if it could possible by John and Jesus who for years had been discussing the coming messiah and what he'd be like.  I'm still mulling this.  You?

  9. Do you mean "we" like referring to Jesus and John and conversations they had when they were growing up together? As in: "Should we--John and Jesus--be expecting someone else or is this ministry of mine [Jesus's] looking like what you [John] and I [Jesus] always talked about when we were young and dreaming about what the ministry of the Messiah might look like?"

  10. The best friend I ever had was an alcoholic/heroin addict. He used to say, "How come every time God works in mysterious ways I take it in the ass?"  Truth you could never preach anywhere I've ever worshipped. 

  11. A month ago Jana and I were at one of the Freedom meals and someone was complaining to someone else and the language was, well, interesting. It's just a different world when you get outside of the regular, proper, cleaned up Sunday morning worship service hour. A lot of "church people" couldn't tolerate worship or church out on the margins.

  12. Thanks for that insight. That is so true. the poor don't automatically become the rich or middle class due to the gospel, but they do get to transcend their circumstances. They being me as well, because i am reminded of my poverty in various areas of life daily. shalom

  13. If I may be so bold; let me offer two questions that may provide an answer here.
    1)  Who was it who were waiting for the Messiah?
    2)  Was John and/or Jesus members of this 'waiting' group?

    I think the answer to who 'we' is is this group.

  14. I used to go to a church in the inner city.  One of my closest friends and a former elder at the church was a judge (R).  R sent a man to prison, where the guy became a Christian and sought out R's church afterward because of how R had treated him in court.  My most vivid memory from seven years at this church was seeing the man praying for R at a worship service, throwing out all sorts of F-bombs (like those on his neck tattoos) in his clumsy and incredibly powerful prayers.   I can't remember another time I've felt the presence of God so tangibly.

  15. "How R had treated him in court" = meaning that R had treated him lovingly and mercifully...

  16. I am the pastor of a small congregation in a community with simular people so this peice struck a particularly senitive cord with me. Thanks freedom for confiming our usefulness in the service of the lord.

  17. Have you thought that he did not mean financially poor-but meant the poor in spirit. Then it wouldn't be a bum deal, but exactly what they need.

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