The following is a story from an article by Dr. Robert Linthicum; one that I found very challenging and thought worth sharing. You can read the full article here.
In 1957, while I was a student in college, I was working among African-American teenagers in a government housing project in a major city of the United States. This housing project was built to warehouse the poor in high-rise buildings of poor construction and design. Our ministry among those youth included recreational and athletic activities that were designed to bring them to confession of Christ as Savior. Once they received Christ, they were encouraged to join our Bible studies where they would be discipled and connected to the life of a local church.
One of the youth who began to actively participate in our Bible studies was a new Christian named Eva. Eva was an exceptionally beautiful teenager, physically mature for her age. She became even more radiant when she received Christ as her Lord and Savior. I began discipling Eva, building her up in the “nurture and admonition” of the Lord.
My academic year was drawing to a close and I was looking forward to returning home for summer vacation. Just before I was to leave my teenage “parish”, however, Eva came to me greatly troubled.
“Bob”, she said, “I am under terrible pressure and I don’t know what to do about it. There is a very powerful gang of men in this project that recruit girls to be prostitutes. They are trying to force me to join them. I know it’s wrong, but what should I do about it?”
I didn’t know what to say to Eva. Nothing in my experience had prepared me to deal with something like this! After all, I was only 19 years of age! The only thing I could think to do was to share with her what I had learned in Sunday school and in the Christian college I attended — to “resist evil and it will flee from you”, to “commit your way unto the Lord and he will give you the desires of your heart”. I urged her to stick with her Bible-study group and not to give in to the gang’s demands.
And then I left for my summer vacation!
Three months later, I returned to college and to that ministry. Eva had stopped attending the Bible study. When I asked about her at the Bible study, the other youth told me she had stopped coming about a month after I had left.
I feared the worst! I went to Eva’s apartment in one of the project buildings to talk with her. Eva answered the door. When she saw that it was me, she burst into tears.
“They got to me, Bob,” she said. “I’ve become one of their whores!”
“Eva, how could you give in?” I unsympathetically responded. “Why didn’t you resist?”
“I did resist!” she replied. “I didn’t give in; I was forced in.” Then she told me a story of sheer intimidation and terror.
“First, they told me they would beat my father if I didn’t become one of their whores. I refused — and they beat him bad. Then they said my brother was to be next. I still refused, and he ended up in the hospital with both legs broken. Then they told me that if I didn’t yield, they would gang rape my mother. I knew they meant it, and I couldn’t allow that. So I gave in and became one of their whores.”
“But Eva,” I said, “Why did you let them intimidate you that way? Why didn’t you get some protection? Why didn’t you go to the police?”
“Bob, you honky,” Eva responded in disgust, “Who do you think the gang is?”
Suddenly it hit me. This gang of “very powerful men” Eva was describing was that city’s police! The police — the very people entrusted with the task of protecting and defending the people — were in reality the real exploiters and oppressors of the people. Here was evil like I had never known it before — for the police were the gang operating the prostitution ring and recruiting young girls like Eva out of that slum. And later it was discovered that this was not simply a single police precinct gone astray. What was happening in that one precinct was the tip of the iceberg in what was a city-wide operation of gambling, prostitution, drug-distribution and bootleg liquor by the police, with the judiciary organized to legally protect from exposure and prosecution this betrayal of the people.
It was in this encounter in 1957 that I discovered two things. First, I realized that the power of the world’s evil is far greater than the sins of its individuals. The very systems of a city or nation could become corrupt, grasping, oppressive and exploitive. And it little mattered even if all the Evas among that nation’s poor were to be won to Christ as long as the evil in the systems could be allowed to run unchecked and destroy these Evas.
The other thing I realized was that my theology and the very way I read the Bible was inadequate for ministry in that kind of evil-dominated world. Through Eva’s tragedy, I realized that if the church does not deal with the systems and structures of evil, then it will not be effective in transforming the lives of that city’s individuals. What I needed, I realized, was two things: First, I needed a theology as big as the city itself, a biblical understanding that would be equal to the challenge of the social and individual sin of the world! Second, I needed a praxis, a system, a strategy that would be equal to the task of empowering both the poor and people of good will to work together to confront and change the systems and to empower the people to create their own corporate future. Over the years, I found the theology in a justice reading of scripture. And I found the praxis in the practice of community and broad-based organizing. That praxis I would discover ten years later – and have practiced organizing for empowerment ever since. But the theology I discovered came out of my ongoing work with scripture.
Faced with the shock of Eva’s fate and how I had contributed to that fate because of my own naiveté, I did the only thing I knew as a Christian to do. I turned to scripture. And I began studying scripture in order to try to understand the kind of urban world in which I had been called to minister – what God’s intentions were for the city and what kept going wrong that seemed to always be thwarting those good intentions. I turned to scripture to try to understand what the church was called to be and do in a world of such corporate and systemic greed, corruption and abuse of power. I studied scripture in order to understand what Christians like myself were called to be doing in the world and how we were expected to carry out those ministries. I examined scripture to understand how God would empower people to set their own corporate future and how to accomplish that future. And I allowed scripture to speak to me about how God would nurture and sustain each one of us caught up in the struggle through disciplines of personal spiritual formation, being sustained in community, absorbing into one’s self and one’s spiritual community God’s very vision for the city, and to celebrate the spiritual discipline of simply “keeping on keeping on”!