Christians in America have far too little interest in economic and community development. We have generally argued that our mission is spiritual and the saving of communities is not our concern. I personally cared next to nothing about community development until I got to know my good friend John Perkins (photo left). An evening with John in my home, some years back, was memorable and life transforming. But even before I got to know John as a friend, and visited his work in Jackson, Mississippi, I was touched by the story of Wayne Gordon (photo right), a Wheaton College peer who launched a major effort for community development in Lawndale, a West Side neighborhood in Chicago known for poverty and violence. John Perkins and Wayne Gordon are my heroes, my role models, in showing me how the gospel is relevant to community and economic development. They did this not so much by what they said as by what they did, that is by how they put their Christian belief into action.
A young friend in California, who shares this economic and community development perspective with me, recently sent me a link to a moving story about a nearby Chicago suburb where a banker made a huge difference. This Chicago area banker had compassion for the community that was right next door to his much more affluent suburb. This led him to use his considerable skills in banking to make a real difference in Maywood, Illinois, a town of small homes built for factory works in another era. Today Maywood is mostly African-American and has been since the 1970s, just shortly after I came to this area in my late teens. I now live about twelve miles west of Maywood but it might as well be a thousand miles. “Out of sight, out of mind,” the saying goes. The problem is that I pass by Maywood on my way into Chicago, just glancing at it as the freeway cuts right across the town. This story reveals why the federal government has taken an approach to saving big banks that is desperately flawed. It should make you angry if you are committed to kingdom values. It did me.
Look, this is not a politically partisan issue. Both parties have clearly failed when it comes to a story like this one. And this story reminds us that churches do play a very human role in the actual well-being of their neighborhoods. They can help save neighborhoods in ways that go far beyond a purely spiritual mission. This, to me, is clearly a faith-works issue; cf. James 2:14–26; 5:1–6.
I am of the persuasion that partisan political involvement by the church is generally counterproductive. It warps a church’s mission and turns the election of “our kind of candidates” into the mission of the gospel. This is why I find the frequent “voter’s guides” the Christian Right distributes so offensive. But when and where the church must speak is when the whole system is plainly broken by systemic sin and justice and mercy compel us to speak and act. The churches, and their leaders, in suburban Maywood have much to teach all of us. The banker in this story is a role model for Christian bankers. When I read this story I was moved to weep for God’s people and their failure to express their energy in real works of mercy and compassion that have political overtones of the sort that do not fit into party politics. I fear that we are so rooted in our own consumerism, and the lifestyle that goes with it, that we cannot see what is actually happening to many neighborhoods. If we cannot see then it is unlikely that we will care. Maybe this story will help some to see and to grasp why the church cannot avoid politics in the best sense of the word.