By Colleen Smith
BALTIMORE, Md.—When I chose to leave behind my comfortable row home in one of the nicest parts of Baltimore and move to a place called McElderry Park a few miles away, where the crime rate is high, drugs and murder run rampant brokenness and poverty is around every corner, people looked at me like I was crazy.
People asked, “You want to live there? Will you be the only white person? Aren’t you going to feel uncomfortable?”
That was seven years ago, and I would be lying if I said that doesn’t still occasionally happen. What’s even more crazy is when I respond and tell people “Yes, this is where I live. Yes, I chose to live here. No, I don’t feel uncomfortable.” People don’t understand, but, to be honest, I don’t expect most people to.
This life I chose wasn’t really a life I chose; it’s a calling God put on my life, and He chose this for me.
If you’ve come here to read these words it’s because you’re curious about what it means to love and to serve people in poverty—people who look and act different than you or the people you lead. The Bible tells us in Genesis 1:27, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”
I might be one color. You might be one color. The people who live on the other side of town in a pocket of your city you aren’t familiar with might be another color. But the reality is God made us. He made all of us. Black, white, brown, yellow or whatever color—it all exists in the world. But in my world what really exists is people who were made in God’s image.
What exists in my world is love for my neighbors. What exists in my world is love for the people who are loud outside my window when I am trying to sleep, or love for the boys who roll their dice and sell their drugs outside my house. What exists in my world is love for the people who have made this their community one way or another.
I grew up in poverty and wanted as far away from it as possible as an adult. I didn’t understand what it meant to love others the way Christ loves us. But around 10-15 years ago, I met a man name Michael who changed my life and my way of thinking.
Michael was a dirty, homeless man. I was a naïve girl from the Midwest who knew nothing about this person who looked and acted different than me, who was standing on a corner with a sign that said “Homeless and hungry.”
I’ll be the first to admit I had an attitude about him. For a week, I would not speak to Michael as I hurled bags of food out the window so he could eat.
During that week, I felt true heart conviction. God was breaking my heart for someone different that me—someone I had an attitude about.
I took the risk and, one day, sat with the dirty man in the middle of a diner. I listened to his story. I heard his pain. I felt his discouragement, and I saw his determination for change. Heart change can happen. I was once a person who felt uncomfortable around people who were “different” than me. But I am no longer her.
This is what Christ has called us to.
I am not asking you to leave your comfortable home in the suburbs or even to understand how a white girl from Kansas could want to live in the “hood.” What I am asking you to do is to look at people who are different that you from a biblical perspective. Are we really all that different? Christians should know black and white exists in the world, rich and poor exists in the world and different exists in the world, but Christians should also understand God never intended for the world to be cruel when it comes to differences.
In John 13:34, God tells us we should love one another as He loves us. And His love is without boundaries, without worrying about how much money the person next to you has, without worrying about what color they are or what side of town they live in.
His love is for everyone.
I have learned so much about loving people while choosing to love people that others find hard to love. I have learned so much while being intentional about living in a neighborhood that looks different than me. I have learned that once you’re accepted, you’re going to be loved and cared for in ways you’ve never imagined. I’ve learned that when it comes down to it, the people who live near you are going to be the ones you count on in the midst of tragedy. They aren’t worrying about how much money you have or what color your skin is.
I’ve learned that once you’re accepted it’s not about black or white, poor or rich, it’s just about being there for each other.
I hope people become more educated about what inner city is and who lives there. The “hood” is more than a few corner boys hustling drugs on the corner. It’s more than a poor grandmother raising her grandbabies because the mom is an addict selling her body for the next hit. It’s more than a single mama raising her babies alone because their dad was killed across town trying to make some money for his family.
There are many lessons to be learned from inner city living and serving. The people I have chosen to live among and serve have taught me of a love I never knew existed. They have taught me so much about being Jesus even when they don’t yet know who Jesus is in their lives. They have inspired and encouraged me. They have taught me what it means to make something out of nothing. They have taught me that the color of my skin means very little here.
Here are some ways you can start your next step: Mentor in an inner city kids program; Tutor at a local school; Invest in a neighborhood that looks different than you. Do you or someone in your church have a skill you can teach a struggling father or mother to help make them more job marketable?
Start changing the way you look at people. Surround yourself with those who will challenge the way you view circumstances of those different than you. Pray for heart change in your life and seek ways you can get involved in areas in your cities that may look different than you.
It doesn’t have to be hard.
Colleen Smith is a team member of Captivate Church and serves as a missionary in her neighborhood.
Published March 26, 2018