I just spent a week working in the inner-city of Memphis for the second straight year. I worked with a ministry that lives, works and worships in the ghetto of the city year round. I have seen the poverty of those in Memphis first-hand. I know that something like this will not solve it.
On July 4, Pastor Alton R. Williams of World Overcomers Outreach Ministries Church faced the 72-foot Statue of Liberation in Christ and blessed the city of Memphis against disease, crime, intolerance and poverty.
This gaudy, gargantuan trinket was constructed by the church for various reasons, at least Williams gave several reasons to the different media gathered at the unveiling, including the New York Times. He wants people to know that “America belongs to God,” “Jesus is the only way,” the statue is a response to the nation’s “godlessness,” Christianity should be the guiding ethos of the nation, help black people have patriotism, preach the Gospel to the poor, “decree the spirit of conviction” on the statue’s location, and to prove “that Jesus Christ is Lord over America, he is Lord over Tennessee, he is Lord over Memphis.”
While I may agree with many of those statements, I deplore Williams methods of proclaiming that message. The cost ($260,000) of the statue being one of my complaints. Williams responded to price tag criticism with assertions that his church gives millions to the poor and that “the answer for the poor is Jesus Christ.”
Again, having served in Memphis and personally witnessed the turnaround of an entire community because of the involvement of a church, I agree that the only true solution to the ills of Memphis is Jesus. However, I’m not sure how inner-city youth and the poor of the city will be reached for Christ by placing a gigantic State of Libery rip-off on the corner of a street.
I’m sure the ministry I worked with could find a lot better uses for a quarter of a million dollars than building a statue which seems designed to only bring attention to those associated with it.
While, I was in Memphis eight people were murdered. One was a young girl playing at a park with her dad. She was on the swings when a gang decided to do a drive-by. The father jerked his daughter to the ground when he heard the gun shots, but when he went to get up he realized it was too late. She had been shot in the head and died. I was at the park about an hour earlier. Our group was working with kids at the community center and picking up trash around the swings that would soon be a murder scene.
Memphis needs something. The city is riddled with gang violence, drugs and crime. I believe as Pastor Williams does, that Jesus Christ is the only person who can truly change hearts and impact the city, but I believe he is going about it the wrong way.
The church we partnered with is located in the middle of the ghetto. Several years earlier, the church had been meeting away from their inner-city site in an suburban church because their building was condemned. During this time drug violence erupted and several kids on the street were the church used to be were shot. One little girl died from gun shot wounds.
The church was convicted and decided to return to that area. Since that time the entire community has changed. Many on the street are now church members. The church has bought several crack houses on the street. The community kids are now “churched.” They know Bible stories and they are well-behaved. The little girl was the last one to be murdered on that street. The presence of God in that church has changed the community.
That is what Memphis (and every other city) needs – not more showy Christians, intent on bringing the national media to look at (and mock) their latest program or publicity stunt. Memphis needs ministries and churches working in the inner-city, with the people in the community, offering them a way out.
The church I worked with, decided not to build a fancy sanctuary for everyone to look at. They built a gym that they use as a sanctuary. They built a gym so the children in the community could have a safe place to play and be surrounded by positive role models. They started an urban academy which educates the children in a Christian environment, away from the gang influence in the public schools. They offer a food pantry and a clothes ministry to help those in need. They offer reading classes to young and old to help them escape the cycle that keeps many stuck in dangerous situations and places.
The world will not be changed by our pretty stained glass windows and gigantic statues. They will not be impressed by our well-planned programs full of church members. They don’t care that we have a budget in the billions and a pastor for every possible demographic.
They just want to see something, someone, real. They want to know that we care, not just hear us say it. They want to see us love Jesus by loving the least of these, not by building the newest building. They want to see which church sends out the most into their community, instead of which one brings the most inside their doors.
This statue is a monument, dare I say idol, for Williams and World Overcomers Outreach Ministries Church, not for Jesus Christ. As Memphis musician Todd Agnew says:
Blessed are the poor in spirit
Or do we pray to be blessed with the wealth of this land
Blessed are they that hunger and thirst for righteousness
Or do we ache for another taste of this world of shifting sand
Cause my Jesus bled and died for my sins
He spent His time with thieves and sluts and liars
He loved the poor and accosted the rich
So which one do you want to be?
Cause my Jesus would never be accepted in my church
The blood and dirt on His feet would stain the carpet
But He reaches for the hurting and despised the proud
I think He’d prefer Beale St. to the stained glass crowd
And I know that He can hear me if I cry out loud
I want to be like my Jesus!