Life in Christ Cathedral of Faith: Meeting the Needs of a Community in Crisis
"Holistic ministry is properly balancing evangelism and social justice," says Bishop Robbins, founding pastor of Life in Christ Cathedral of Faith. His church puts this principle into action.
Voted one of the ten most corrupt cities in America, Chester has no shortage of arenas for social ministry. Nearly three-quarters of households have annual incomes under $10,000. The school district ranked dead last in the state of Pennsylvania. The city is a dumping ground for the rest of the (suburban, mostly Anglo) county, with waste treatment facilities almost literally in residents' back yards. The child mortality rate is the highest in the state. Businesses have fled Chester for the more friendly tax policies "across the river" in New Jersey. Unemployment, substance abuse, single parenthood, welfare dependency, and violence plague the lives of many residents.
The vision of Life in Christ from its founding was "to reach out to the poor and disenfranchised of Chester with a love and hope that only comes from the Gospel," as Bishop Robbins describes it. From the beginning, the church has taken a holistic, multi-faceted approach, from relief to reform. In response to the complex, interlocking problems presented by the community, Life in Christ's outreach contributes to the revitalization of the community "at every level - the spiritual, the economic, the educational, and the social."
Life in Christ is concerned with meeting people's immediate needs. The congregation regularly responds to requests for emergency assistance from people in crisis - people needing groceries or help paying a utility bill, families faced with eviction notices, parents of a teenage shooting victim. "I had people coming to me in the middle of the winter, women with children saying we don't have a place to stay and the shelters are full," says Bishop Dickie Robbins. "We decided that we needed to begin to develop some housing alternatives ourselves." The church purchased seven apartments to use for housing needs. The church expects people receiving emergency housing to attend church services and Bible study.
Another important way that the church provides relief is through the L.I.F.E. (Love In Feeding Everyone) ministry. L.I.F.E. began when Bishop Robbins discovered that no local agency was supplying meals for homeless persons on Sundays. L.I.F.E. provides weekly meals for up to seventy-five people at selected open-air sites. Before the meal, an elder in the church shares the plan of salvation and invites people to Christ. Volunteers offer Christian literature and information about church services along with the meal.
Helping people move toward long-term transformation, ministries of personal development focus on substance abuse rehabilitation, education, youth mentoring, and financial counseling. In a ravaged city like Chester, personal transformation is a necessary foundation for community development, Bishop Robbins believes. "If you change the people, the people will change the community. If you just change the community and don't change the people, the people will change the community back."
Spiritual transformation and character development are central to each of these ministries. Through faith in Christ and participation in a church community, people gain hope, integrity, and perseverance in overcoming brokenness. Without discipleship, Bishop Robbins believes, people can learn new skills but will always struggle to overcome old habits. People do not have to become a Christian to get off welfare, for example. But if the goal is to "change their quality of life in every sense, then the power of God is essential." A key insight of Life in Christ's social ministry is that internal and external needs form a vicious cycle. To stop the cycle, the church complements its ministries of personal development with projects aimed at rebuilding the community. In addition, Life in Christ is active in several local community development collaborations and state-funded projects. Because of the church's reputation, the Lt. Governor invited their involvement in a major initiative to clean up the community and spark economic development.
A core ministry of the church is the Life in Christ Economic Development Corporation, a separately incorporated nonprofit, which creates opportunities in housing and entrepreneurship. Besides the housing available for emergency needs, the nonprofit owns several apartments that it rents at a discount. Bishop Robbins also developed a relationship with an apartment complex owner to make additional housing available. The owner knows that the church holds these people accountable: if someone is late paying rent, he calls the church, and the church works with the tenant. In addition, the ministry has sponsored various events to promote small business development, job training, home ownership and healthy personal finances, and has served as an incubator for a dozen locally-owned businesses.
Life in Christ's ministry does not stop with development. Bishop Robbins also sees political involvement as crucial to fostering community revitalization. "Our people are citizens as well as Christians," he explains. "I don't think that we are expected as Christians to avoid the political arena. In fact I think we have to influence it. I am not certain that ministers like myself should be a part of the political structure. But I certainly believe that I need to be a part of influencing what happens in the political structure." He points to the model of the prophets who advised Israel's kings on creating a righteous government.
One way that he seeks to influence that structure is by participating in governmental and non-profit committees that develop local policies and implement social programs. These include a government-funded "work first" program helping people leave welfare, the Chester Education Foundation, the Delaware County Drug and Alcohol Commission, and an environmental action committee. "I can't wait until the wagon's fixed," Bishop Robbins says of his activism. "I should be a part of fixing it."
The church's Political Involvement Ministry (in the process of being separately incorporated in order not to jeopardize the church's tax exempt status) informs and organizes congregational action on issues affecting the community. The ministry consists of three components: political education, voter registration, and political participation. The ministry aims to help members understand the issues from a biblical and practical perspective, know how the political system works, and take a bold stand on concerns where they can make a difference. The ministry also encourages those with "political gifting" in the congregation to become involved in local positions.
Bishop Robbins introduced the ministry at its first meeting: "I'm tired of things happening around us that affect us that the congregation has no say about. ... People make unjust laws which impose on us, and by the time we know it, it's too late." Political change does not necessarily mean becoming disruptive or boisterous, Bishop Robbins explains. By working quietly, persistently and faithfully, the church pursues an ambitious vision: "We'll put an end to evil government in the city."
[Adapted from Churches That Make a Difference, chapter 4].