I thank God for my African-American church upbringing. Mainly, I love the deep emotions in expression during musical worship at any gathering of the church but particularly the Sunday morning service. In my experience, many of the church hymns spoke directly to the urban/African-American situation on the block and in the lives of the inner-city dwellers. I remember the reality of the challenges like poverty, pain, racism, murder, violence, drug dealing, and addiction were in the heart of my born-again mother when she would sing songs like “I Need Thee Every Hour.”

These hymns reminded me of God’s great power to renew and his great love for the hurting and unlovable like me. My dear mother would sing the hymns in a different key with a little urban Patti Labelle/Gladys Knight flavor on it. When my mom would sing hymns, she would sing them with a sort of painfulness but yet a joyfulness almost all at the same time. She would sing from the reality of her pain and hopelessness. She would sing with a joyful desperation that seemed to be the emotional depth to her dependence on God. My mother wanted God to transform her life, family, marriage, and neighborhood.

As I serve as a pastor in Camden today, I desire many of the same things my mother did back in the day, as many believers across the globe do.

Early Tuesday morning this week, two of my family’s cars were vandalized to the tune of five to six thousand dollars of damage. Approximately a year and a half ago, my house was hit by some stray bullets from a shoot-out on my block. Over the course of us planting Epiphany Camden we have seen our share of murder and violence and decadence. 

If I’m honest, I have been ready to give up for the potential safety of my family and move to the security of the suburbs near my city. I, much like my mother, have felt the hurt and pain of life for my family on the block in my Hood. I sat on my stoop angry, sad, conflicted, loaded with a sense of depressed anxiety of sorts. And by God’s grace, he graciously and lovingly reminds me of his care for me through a hymn just like he did with my mother in the 70’s at our little old church in Paterson NJ. The words, “I need Thee, oh, I need Thee; every hour I need Thee; Oh, bless me now, my Savior, I come to Thee.”

I memorized that chorus as a young child, and I have sung and hummed that tune most of my Christian life. However, on my stoop, after my car was vandalized at one o’clock in the morning I sang it much like my mom, from the pain of the situation but with the joy that comes from salvation in Jesus! I felt the pains, problems, and pressures that make me feel that I need to quit, pack, and move out of inner-city ministry. Yet at 2 AM I felt the calling and the safety of my Savior and what I needed as, with tears down my face, I quietly in a groaning whisper sang, “Every hour I need Thee.” God repairs and renews people like me! Lord, I need you! God cares about the people of Camden more than I do. Lord, I need you!

I remember our family leaving out of my old church after deeply emotional worship moments and going back to the same rough and rugged streets. My mother would be ready to fight the good fight of faith again back on the block. May God forever remind every believer who struggles with doing ministry in any context that their greatest need, the churches’ greatest need, is our need for the power and presence of Christ every moment of this life. 

Articles about Camden, NJ:

List: Camden among 'dangerous cities'

The most dangerous places in N.J.


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