EFCA in the City

Life in our L.A. neighborhood

“You look conservative. Real conservative.”

Frank surveyed my husband, Scott, with genuine interest. Dressed complete in a suit and tie, Scott wasn’t quite sure if Frank was complimenting him or warning that he looked like an undercover cop.

Frank has had plenty of experience with cops. But these days he mostly just hangs around the Nehemiah House or the adjoining Emmaus House—community homes for our family and two others, as well as home base for our church’s young adult interns and our teen center.

Frank doesn’t have contact with his family. His grandma who raised him passed away, and his sister doesn’t want to be found by him. So he comes to sit on our porch, drink coffee and catch a bit of the action that makes these houses so special to their many neighbors.

Frank is not a great candidate for completing Bible school or even a basic discipleship program. But he is an essential part of our church body. He is missed when he doesn’t show up. When his absence extends to weeks, guys in the church call around to mental-health facilities and find out where he is. Our small, multi-language church has ministered most to Frank through presence and inclusiveness, rather than any formal program.

Our relationships with neighbors like Frank enrich our lives.

The fact that Frank has done hard prison time and is rough around the edges doesn’t deter our children from developing a friendship either. He’s never been harsh. On the contrary, he takes a keen interest in my oldest son, hoping he’s not being bullied at school. (“There’s a lot of mean kids. I know. They was mean to me, called me dumb.”)

Both with him and apart from him, we have held conversations with our three youngest children about mental illness, homelessness, racism and prison.

That’s one of the reasons it’s such a rich experience to participate in an urban EFCA church like First Evangelical Free Church of Los Angeles. As we share life with Frank (and with others who experience little protection from abject poverty), his needs become our own. Even though we can’t meet all of those needs, we certainly ache for his loneliness and struggle. And the kids ache. And get a total kick out of him. And worry for him.

Our relationships with neighbors like Frank enrich our lives.

The Yetter family. Credit: Ryan Chambers

The power of community​

In our dense, diverse neighborhood, we are constantly challenged to reexamine our possessions and what we are willing to share with those in need. Some families around us struggle with hunger. Others are simply lonely or depressed because they are displaced from their families. Yet we stand back and watch this community share what it has. From them we learn how to share and take care of others and how we, also, can do without, when need be.

And it’s not always about sharing belongings. Frank has often spoken a timely word of encouragement to my husband, for example, about how much it means to him to watch Scott be a dad. Frank’s gift is the encouragement; Scott’s gift in return to listen.

In a crazy way, there’s a strong parallel between Frank and the young hipster/foodie/artist/educated crowd that finds itself drawn back to city centers. These a-religious young people are not even asking the questions that we in the church feel so comfortable answering. They are a community unto themselves and tend to regard Christians with great suspicion. They, like Frank, are lonely. They, too, seek to be heard and not just talked to.

Similar to recent immigrants who are making a new start, many upwardly mobile city dwellers are also seeking a sense of family and don’t fit into traditional discipleship structures. In the city, these diverse groups of people can come together, despite what media portrays. City ministry is not just about ex-cons or the downtrodden. The city church creates a space for the marginalized to share life with those of more resources. The more-resourced folks are equally in need of community and also find a place to explore how to live with justice and compassion alongside poorer neighbors. Although it can be a painful process to work through differences in search of that meaningful community, it’s worth the effort.

I have a great snapshot in my mind of our community house one night, as we celebrated the 21st birthday of one of our interns. Several instrument-wielding friends were present, along with youth from the neighborhood, our kids and Frank, who was probably eating way more than appropriate at a birthday party. An informal music jam session followed as people continued to eat—skinny-jeaned vegans alongside carne asada-loving graffiti artists—bound by a mutual love for our city and this unexpected community.

The whole wide world

Meaningful suburban partnerships have been an important part of a healthy chemistry for our church. These are people who began by simply visiting, sharing a meal with us and asking questions. Those relationships then flourished into short-term serving opportunities, where we cast vision to a younger generation for the city.

It’s been a privilege these past 13 years to watch our interns—suburban and rural young adults—co-labor with our native-born city leaders. These transplants fall in love with Los Angeles and sometimes stay. More often, they move back, impassioned, to city centers in their home states. I’m dreaming even bigger than that city-by-city influence: I’d love to see the day when the EFCA is equipping our city youth to plant churches abroad, where they might more easily fit in with Middle Eastern and Asian cultures.

Frank often asks to pray before community meals. Besides being in a hurry to get to the eating, he is genuinely eager to express his gratitude. Hands folded together before his face like a child, he often prays “for the whole wide world.”

I smile when I hear my kids in turn pray for “the whole wide world” like Frank. And I feel so fortunate to be serving with EFCA in the city, where the whole wide world is pretty much within a bus ride down the street.

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