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The least, last and lost

By Sky McCracken

First United Methodist Church

A reader of The Jackson Post emailed me this question a few days ago: “How does your church minister to the downtown area and keep your church safe?”

When news of my being appointed to First Methodist Downtown Jackson got out, an older colleague reached out to me and shared the misgivings he had from serving churches of all sizes and locations (paraphrased): “Sky, I gave in to pressure and didn’t do the Lord’s work in some places. I wish I had a do over. Please be sure to remember these things:

• The Spirit anointed Jesus to bring good news to the poor.

• When you have a feast, invite the poor, the injured, the lame, and the blind.

• Live ALL of the Sermon on the Mount.” All from Scripture. All from the words of Jesus. Non-negotiable. Forget what “people want” or “people are saying,” Jesus makes it CLEAR what HE desires from those of us who profess Him crucified and resurrected, and thus how our own inward and outward desires should be manifested.

I have always taken the notions of parish and community seriously: we are to grow and thrive where we are planted.

Forty years ago, for whatever reason, lay leadership at our church discerned the Holy Spirit saying to them, “Stay downtown. Don’t move. Don’t yield to temptation.”

How do we minister to the downtown area and keep our church safe? We do what it takes. We remain diligent – innocent as doves yet shrewd as serpents.

We moved our nursery and children’s wing upstairs with check-in procedures. All children are supervised with appropriate adult-child ratios of non-related adults.

We have paid security as well as people who are part of the church family who are trained to remain diligent and always-aware.

We do financial/resource counseling for our neighbors during the week to go beyond providing aid, assisting our community members to become more financially stable and to be good stewards of our resources.

We also greet people – whether homeless or comfortable – with a smile and cup of coffee on a Sunday morning.

We support Room in the Inn and other related community entities with financial aid and people-presence as needed, because we know they have specialized and God-given gifts and abilities beyond the ones we have.

What we have found is that we have far fewer safety concerns than we ever dreamed: someone who is homeless, down on their luck, a victim of circumstance, usually doesn’t need our suspicion: they simply want to be acknowledged as a human being and child of God.

While we have to practice tough love, it isn’t as hard as we thought. It does take commitment to discipleship and mission, and an adherence to our baptismal vows beyond lip service.

Some folks are homeless and poor because of bad luck: they got two paychecks behind and lost all that they had. Some are high school dropouts. Some have an MBA. Some have a form of mental illness. Some are embarrassed, and were even former contributors to their local church and homeless shelter.

What we have also realized is that while we minister to a small part of the homeless population, it is but a SMALL part.

The number of homeless, functionally homeless, and “on the edge” people in Jackson/Madison County is staggering.

My prayer is that my answer to the reader’s question isn’t to brag or boast on the church I serve, but to challenge all of us to hear the call of Jesus in ministering to the Least, the Last, and the Lost: “Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you? ’And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’” (Matthew 25:44-46)

Sky McCracken is the senior pastor at First United Methodist Church in Downtown Jackson.

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