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 11.1-5I'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.
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.
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.