Lessons from AmericaÕs dark corners
TodayÕs Pentecostal Evangel Editor in Chief Hal Donaldson is the author of Midnight in the City, a book based on three-night visits he made to eight U.S. cities: Detroit, New York, Miami, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Seattle, Chicago and Washington, D.C. He wrote the book with the assistance of Evangel Associate Editor Kirk Noonan. Donaldson, who also is president of Convoy of Hope, which helps meet the physical and spiritual needs of the poor, spoke with Evangel News Editor John W. Kennedy.
PE: What spurred you to investigate the underbelly of eight American cities?
DONALDSON: I made these trips some years ago, at a time I felt like I was becoming more religious than Christlike. I was doing good, Christian things and hadnÕt lost my moral moorings, but I had become isolated from sinners and people in need. Through this experience God broke me out of the religious bubble, reignited my faith, gave me a vision for helping the poor, and reintroduced me to the prayer of tears for people who are hurting.
PE: What prompted you to write this now?
DONALDSON: I started writing it several years ago. It was a deeply personal spiritual journey and I didnÕt want to commercialize it in any way. I went places most ministers donÕt go. I had concerns about how people would respond to such an honest, unsanitized portrait of America. I wanted the Lord to show me how to tell the story the right way, to help Christians reignite their faith and shed their religiosity.
PE: What makes the message of this book relevant today?
DONALDSON: ItÕs a message that Jesus taught 2,000 years ago: Guard your heart against pride, elitism and prejudice, and do what you can to help people in need.
PE: What are the basic needs of those living under the canopy of poverty, crime and drugs in the inner cities?
DONALDSON: Let me turn the question around. ItÕs more about what believers need in order to meet the spiritual and physical needs of people. We throw around the word Òcompassion,Ó but it goes beyond compassion and pity to desperation. Are we desperate enough for the souls and well-being of others that we demonstrate ChristÕs love in a tangible way? Do we care enough to put our faith into action for people we may never meet? Do we care about children who are victims? If we do care, weÕll begin asking, ÒGod, what can I do?Ó
PE: Describe the hopelessness you saw.
DONALDSON: It manifests itself in two ways: in the loneliness and emptiness you see in peoplesÕ eyes, and the dilapidated buildings. Because lives are crumbling, the infrastructure and foundations of these cities are cracking as well.
PE: Did you ever feel threatened?
DONALDSON: Definitely. Because I rode along with police in each of the cities, I was involved in chases on foot and arrests. I had a gun pulled on me. Yet I felt God had put me there. There was danger, but not utter fear. My respect for law enforcement personnel soared. They put their lives on the line every night.
PE: What was the most unusual situation you encountered?
DONALDSON: There were many. I never went into dark, wicked places alone — without a minister-friend. The book is filled with experiences that were shocking and disturbing. But I met a kid in the streets of Miami who told me he had AIDS. He was addicted to drugs and taking female hormones. It started to rain during our conversation. He ran for cover. I walked to a street corner to be alone. I had seen so much pain, desperation, devastation, hatred and evil. I just stood there, the rain drenching my clothes. I raised my hands to heaven and cried out, ÒGod, people are dying! What can we do?Ó At that moment, the battle between heaven and hell in the streets of America became so real to me. The lives of millions of men, women and children are at stake. If we donÕt do something these people are going to spend eternity in hell.
PE: Did anyone you meet particularly inspire you?
DONALDSON: Yes, we have some real heroes working in the inner city. But an unbeliever, in a strange way, inspired me too. I met a young girl on the streets of Seattle whose boyfriend had been shot and killed at a party. I started talking to her about Jesus and going to church. She said she wasnÕt interested in a place that was Òmore focused on rules than love,Ó that required her to wear Òcertain clothes to be accepted.Ó Obviously, I told her that all churches werenÕt like that. But that night in the streets of Seattle I vowed not to be the kind of Christian she described.
PE: Why should Christians take the gospel to the inner city?
DONALDSON: I donÕt claim to be an expert on the inner city. The people who minister there day in and day out can give a more sophisticated answer than I can. But, very simply, if we donÕt reach out, people will die without Jesus.
PE: What does the plight of the inner city say about the Christian community?
DONALDSON: Let me say right up front that this book doesnÕt bash the church. The church has done a lot of great things. The book is meant to inspire Christians to go beyond their comfort zone when it comes to helping the poor and suffering and even those victimized by their own choices. Inner cities are an opportunity for Christians to demonstrate their gratitude to God by helping others. Not everyone has been called to go to the inner city. But we can all pray and invest in people and ministries that are already there.
PE: Are some places too dangerous to evangelize?
DONALDSON: I asked a police officer in Chicago if there were some places too dangerous for him to enter. He said, ÒNo, because we canÕt give up any ground or weÕll lose.Ó The same is true for Christians. Look at the prophets in the Bible. They went places they werenÕt especially appreciated. They put themselves at risk, but they so firmly believed in GodÕs protection they werenÕt afraid to go anywhere. ThatÕs not a license to be stupid. We must be led by the Holy Spirit. If we are, we donÕt need to walk in fear.
PE: Looking back, what are the lessons you learned from all this?
DONALDSON: I learned that ÒreligiousÓ people can have their faith reignited. When we sincerely ask the Lord to give us a burden and to make our lives count — to move from success in manÕs eyes to significance in GodÕs — He answers that prayer. I concluded that cities can be reborn –– not by erecting buildings or by launching programs, necessarily — but by investing in people. I saw that racism and prejudice are alive in America. Christians cannot be neutral on this issue. This isnÕt a political or social issue; itÕs a spiritual matter. We must speak out against prejudice that is directed against races and the poor. In addition, I saw that churches have a tremendous opportunity and an obligation to reach out. A churchÕs outreach ultimately determines whether itÕs a social club with religious banners on the wall or whether itÕs really the body of Christ with a mission to heal and restore.
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