Salem UMC, Allentown

“Lo siento”

By the Rev. Joy Bagwell
Pastor of Salem UMC Allentown and a member of the Eastern PA Conference Urban Commission

My recent experience has been that when we talk and hear the term “urban” in church settings, it is often seen as a negative, or perhaps as a way to label or warn about the people who live there and the problems that abound there. But when we talk or hear about “urban” in a financial or commercial context, the term is more positive. It’s a particular area that is great because it has housing and transportation and medical care; and everything you need is nearby, so you can walk…

I’m not blaming us, I’m just thinking that it’s all in our perspective.

For me it’s sometimes about getting over my fears. Not of gunshots, although that crosses my mind from time to time. But I mean more the fears of making a verbal mistake or coming across as arrogant or stupid.

People at our church’s food pantry are helping me overcome some of those fears. As I wait on the sidewalk with people in line to come in and get groceries, I try speaking a little Spanish. I’ve learned to say “Lo siento” (I’m sorry), because I’m often in the way of someone carrying a heavy load.

Salem UMC youth dressed as superheroesPeople laugh when they hear me for the first time. But they aren’t laughing at my accent. They are laughing with surprise that I know a little bit of Spanish. It seems to say, in my feeble way, that I’m trying to connect.

The majority of Allentown’s population is Latino. But Salem Church is in a beautifully diverse community. Within one block of our church there are residents of African, Asian, European, and Hispanic heritage. All have stories to tell, and we are beginning to hear those stories rather than assume that we know those stories. It is truly broadening our ministry.

Recently we experienced the best VBS (Vacation Bible School) that we’ve had in several years. With a Superhero theme, we had good attendance, lots of volunteers and lots of energy!

Other churches have great Vacation Bible Schools, too. We aren’t unusual in that ministry area, for sure. But this year was different for us. We now have some laity who are very connected in the neighborhood, and they brought several children from our neighborhood who had not been here before. Two of the children live across the street, and I had never met them. Let me say that again: across the street, and I had never met them.

Shame on me.

Salem UMC youth dressed as superheroesWhy do I say shame on me? It’s easy to let myself off the hook, with excuses about how busy we pastors are. But I say shame on me because I have recently read and listened to sermons by the Rev. Romal Tune. (Thank you Rev. Tracy Bass for introducing me to these sermons.) Rev. Tune makes the point that gang leaders know their neighborhoods really well. They know the names of the people in their neighborhoods, and they know about their lives. And how can we expect to offer our neighbors something better if we don’t even know their names, their dreams, their needs, their lives?

But my failure to act has been redeemed by laity in my congregation who are connected to the people on our street, and who did act and offer an invitation to VBS at our church. With great enthusiasm, these wonderful neighbors have jumped in with all their energy and are already blessing our congregation, reminding us that following Jesus sometimes takes the courage of a Superhero.

Each day we are challenging ourselves and learning what it means to be in ministry with our community, not simply to our community. I admit that I’m still learning what it means to be in ministry in an urban setting. But isn’t that where they say the most growth occurs – at the edge of one’s comfort zone?