Lessons Learned by Following God into Urban Neighborhoods

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Dr. Randy White brings over 25+ years of incarnational urban ministry leadership to Cleveland, having served neighborhoods struggling with deep poverty. His efforts have also helped launch more than 40 social enterprise ventures. Globally he led doctoral programs of Bakke Graduate University, helping leaders from 39 countries imagine and implement new forms of community transformation in their cities.

Building Hope in the City welcomes Dr. Randy White from The Center for Community Transformation and Fresno Pacific University as we seek new ways to link arms and efforts. If you’re engaged or interested in Christian community development, church outreach, ministry among urban youth, incarcerated, individuals in recovery, homeless populations, refugees or who simply want to receive a little hope and practical insight, don’t miss this event!

Randy graciously offered his time for an interview before the holidays, and here’s what he had to say!

Q:  Where do you draw from biblically to catalyze churches/individuals to engage deeply & holistically in urban/low-income contexts?

A:  I would begin with what I call the Jeremiah trinity – three passages that are foundational for me.  The first passage, Jeremiah 29 is addressed to a people living in a less than ideal environment, exiled, separated from family, their human rights violated, living in a city and culture they did not choose. They are told by God that their mission was to seek the peace (shalom) of that city, to pray for it, and invest in it (v4-7), for if it experiences well-being, then they would too. Next, Jeremiah 22:16 describes how someone who follows God (in this case the good king Josiah) uses their power – “He defended the cause of the poor and needy and so all went well with him. Is that not what it means to know me, declares the Lord?” In other words, to “know God” means to link one’s life to the pursuit of shalom for people who are marginalized. Finally, in Jeremiah 32, Jeremiah is told by God to invest in a piece of property that will soon be taken over by the Babylonians. Makes no sense from an investment standpoint. But God was making a public display of hope to a people surrounded – my people will return after exile, and houses and lands will one day be bought and sold again. Place matters, and God is committed to healing places because of how they affect people. This is why housing is so important to human dignity.

It is also important to know how crucial cities were to the Apostle Paul and his practice.  Not only does he prioritize cities on his missions as the crossroads of culture and commerce, but he ministers in a way that brings liberation, disrupts exploitative systems and insists on public justice (see Acts 16), plants new possibilities for reconciliation (see what happened in Antioch in Galatians 5), surveys the commercial, religious and social/cultural/academic systems in Athens (see Acts 17), which gave him insight to minister there.

Finally, we follow Jesus as he helps people re-orient their lives around what truly gives life and restores them to their community. Notice most of these encounters happen in cities where the diseases people came to him with, e.g., blindness, leprosy, a hemorrhage, demon possession, epilepsy, and unacceptable profession, etc., isolated them from their community. Often after healing he would tell people to go home show them self to the priest and be restored to their families.


Q:  How would you summarize the impact you’ve seen in these contexts throughout your career? What part has the body of Christ played?

  • You would not recognize the very poor community I live in from what it was 20 years ago. Formally called the Devils Triangle, no one uses that name anymore because it wouldn’t be accurate. Partly through the presence of intentional relocators engaging in incarnational ministry (or what we call strategic neighbors), we have seen improvements in infrastructure such as the repair of our streets, new street lights, new parks, new code enforcement, a veterans home, a better relationship with police, community garden, new rental housing and several churches working with the school resulting in improved test scores. All of this has been done without displacement of residents. All of this done by the body of Christ.
  • We have helped churches start small social businesses that are employing people who were formally incarcerated. Social enterprise is an alternate form of poverty alleviation.
  • We’ve seen churches embrace the local playground and work with the city to make improvements.
  • We’ve helped churches work with the city to get a dangerous street changed where children kept getting hit by vehicles.
  • We have now had churches embrace more than 60 of the 90 elementary schools in our city, creating after-school programs, in-class reading and assistance, campus beautification projects and Saturday sports programs. This is the church embracing an entire educational system in a city. In every school where this is present, test scores have improved.
  • We have seen the Fresno Housing Authority invite our Christ-centered financial literacy program into their complexes. This is a federal agency sanctioning a faith centered program because of its effectiveness among vulnerable populations. (A miracle!)
  • We have seen a doubling of the number of churches forming Economic Development Corporations (EDCs and CDCs) to seek the physical welfare of communities with all sorts of housing and economic development projects emerging, such as jobs programs, new community centers, community improvement projects, etc.


Q:  What big shifts need to take place so that the Church can better serve and empower people in low-income contexts?

  1. The first is philosophical. In light of declining numbers of church attendance across the country, we need a shift in the way we understand what it means to be church. We need to link the goals and methodologies of being church to the well-being of our communities. We need to combine word and deed very openly, side by side. The church becomes a staging area for mobilization and training.
  2. We need new tools for the toolbox. For example, churches can take on new competencies in areas that means something for the marginalized, including financial literacy training, soft skills and job readiness training, housing assistance, micro business or social enterprise development, and seeing civic engagement and involvement in city systems as a valid mission.


Q:  What should people expect to hear when you speak in Cleveland late-January? 

A:  I plan to share lots of stories and examples from my city and our struggle to formulate approaches that worked when we were experiencing a kind of helpless desperation. We will talk about things we’ve learned. I won’t be prescribing what Cleveland should do; I’ll be describing what we did in the belief that you’ll find something helpful. Mostly, I come to encourage.

Register for this free event here!


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