Urban Ministry: Looking for a Place to Call Home

It didn’t make any sense. What was a suburban 16-year-old doing in the downtown basement of a soup kitchen for Toronto’s poorest residents? The kid wasn’t looking for soup, and he certainly wasn’t cruising the main drag with the intent of meeting, let alone serving, homeless men and women.

The date was 1969 and the place was a coffeehouse in the dingy underbelly of Yonge Street Mission. I was the kid. I found myself in this setting drinking bad coffee and listening to some decent music. By the late 1960s, a mission that had been established to reach out to the poor and destitute of Toronto found itself in the middle of a youth culture gravitating toward the inner city, looking for sex, drugs, and rock and roll. So they decided to offer up coffee, Jesus, and folk music.

After a few months of hanging around this place I fell in love with all three, but not in that order. I am a follower of Jesus today with a love for good music and a distinct distaste for bad coffee (though I love the good stuff) because of the way in which God worked through that urban ministry in the core of Toronto.

When we think of “urban ministry” we tend to think of food banks, homeless shelters, after-school programs for kids who are disadvantaged, community development initiatives, and other ways to minister among our poorest neighbors in the city. All of these are essential. But Yonge Street Mission, way back in 1969, decided to throw a coffeehouse and music into the mix. This was not an initiative to reach out to the folks living on the street who were their primary clientele back then, but to reach another rising population in their neighborhood—wandering and lost suburban kids like me.

From Soup Kitchen to Youth Ministry and More

At first the music was likely just an attraction—something to get kids into the space so that more decidedly evangelistic conversations could take place. But the music became more and more important. Sure, it was Peter, Paul, and Mary stuff with a Christian twist, but there was a quality and an integrity to what those Christian musicians were doing on that little stage. Eventually, as this ministry grew, other arts and other musical styles became important. Street festivals began to feature some straight-up rock and roll. The mission made art supplies available, and kids would start to paint, draw, and do sculpture.

And so a soup kitchen ministry evolved into a youth ministry (more and more characterized by street youth, not just kids hanging out downtown on the weekends), and then an arts ministry. Pretty soon they were training kids in the culinary arts and doing catering as well. Since then, this particular urban ministry has branched out into housing, social enterprises, a church, financial services, health clinics, computer training, and many other ways to seek the welfare of the city and the redemption of broken lives.

Looking for Home

That’s the way it goes in urban ministry: one thing leads to another. And it is the city itself that sets the agenda. Changing demographics, different social and economic needs, and cultural change call forth different dimensions of what it means to be the body of Christ in the city.

Without the body of Christ taking the city seriously, indeed, without the body of Christ loving the city and committing itself to seeking the peace of the city, I don’t know if I would be a follower of Jesus today. So my debt to urban ministry is, quite literally, eternal.

Truth be known, I wasn’t downtown looking for sex, drugs, or even rock and roll. Something else was going on. For me, the boring sameness of high school in the suburbs met the vibrant cultural scene of the inner city and didn’t stand a chance. The city sparked my imagination. There was a vitality downtown—not unrelated to a burgeoning countercultural movement—that seemed to catch the spirit of the times.

But there was something even deeper behind this cultural attraction. When it comes right down to it, I was looking for meaning, for a sense of identity and purpose. At the deepest level I was looking for a place to call home. And I found my way home in the basement of a soup kitchen in the inner city of Toronto. You see, Jesus was serving the coffee, playing the guitar, and hanging out with the kids who came in. And the more I looked, the more it became clear to me that Jesus was also to be found in the men who were homeless and the struggling moms on welfare who came to this place every day of the week. In their company, I came home to Jesus. And my discipleship over these years has never strayed too far from urban ministry.

Jesus Is There

Almost all the people I know who are deeply involved in urban ministry tell me that they came into this ministry to bring Jesus to the city—but once they deeply entered into the city, they found out that he was already there. Jesus was already there in the alleyways with crack addicts; he was under the bridges with people who are homeless; he was walking the streets with workers in the sex trade. He was already there.

But he’s also there in other ways. The architect who designs houses for folks who are homeless and people with severe disabilities looks like Jesus. The playwright who produces a powerful story of pain and redemption—there’s Jesus again. The local gardener developing community gardens in the city—well, Jesus has been confused with a gardener before. The lawyer defending the rights of refugees and illegal migrants—wasn’t Jesus a refugee once, the child of migrant laborers? The politician who seeks to transform the city into a place of hospitality and justice—isn’t that a vision not far from the kingdom of God? The community activists or church members who step into the breach when tensions run high and things get violent—kind of looks like bearing a cross, doesn’t it? The local church as a place of refuge, celebration, and spiritual identity—there’s the body of Christ.

Wherever Jesus is in the city, there is urban ministry. And it seems to me that such ministry has at least five areas of focus. Let’s call them ministries of justice, imagination, restoration, reconciliation, and renewal.

Ministries of justice. Urban ministry has no grounding unless it is a ministry of justice that reaches out to the poorest of the poor. That’s where it all begins. That dingy little coffeehouse back in 1969 had its deepest integrity because that Christian community first served the needs of men and women who were homeless. Those folks had priority, and I understood that if I were to throw in my lot with Jesus, then I was signing on to a ministry to neighbors who I had quite decidedly ignored so far in my life. If there is no such street-level dimension to urban ministry, then it is likely a ministry to the urban rich that unwittingly legitimizes gentrification and the continued marginalization of people who are poor.

Any ministry rooted in the Nazareth Manifesto of Jesus in Luke 4 is a ministry of good news for people in poverty. Such good news in urban ministry includes political advocacy, food ministry, community development, housing, shelters, social and economic enterprises, harm reduction, aboriginal ministry, addiction rehabilitation, and much more. Blessed are the poor, Jesus said, for theirs is the kingdom of God. Urban ministry is a ministry of justice.

Ministries of imagination. That coffeehouse had music. And before long, the young people who frequented the place were creating art together. Not surprising, really. Many of us were looking for cultural vitality, something to spark our starved imaginations.

Culture is rooted in the imagination, and cities are at the heart of the shaping of cultural imagination—whether in fashion, architecture, advertising, culinary arts, fine arts, film, drama, dance, or music. Vibrant urban ministry recognizes the importance of the imagination and is committed to both engaging in imaginative expressions of the city and shaping a Christian imagination.

Maybe that is why ministries of justice always seem to end up with an arts dimension. One urban ministry spawns a theatre group, another runs an arts ministry among street-involved youth, another invites men and women who are homeless to paint or to write out of their experiences of pain and their deepest longings and hopes.

The church also wants to enjoy, celebrate, and engage the diverse expressions of imagination at the heart of urban life through film festivals, concerts, drama, dance, and the fine arts. And so urban ministry finds itself producing public forums on faith and film during the local film festival, sponsoring various kinds of arts events, and encouraging local arts initiatives. Urban ministry is a ministry of imagination.

Ministries of restoration. There isn’t much point to urban ministry if the city is ecologically unsustainable. Insofar as the restoration of all of creation is at the heart of the biblical story, so also does “seeking the peace of the city” require a ministry of ecological restoration. Urban ministry is a ministry of urban homemaking, and therefore it strives to make the city a place of sustainable habitation for both rich and poor. Such a ministry includes encouraging green churches, local urban gardening (including on church property), and advocacy for political policy and economic practices that foster sustainable and accessible transportation systems, waste management, green spaces, and much more. Urban ministry finds itself an ally with local initiatives for building sustainable cities. It is a ministry of restoration.

Ministries of reconciliation. In biblical faith, the city is to be a place of safety and refuge, but invariably it ends up being a site of threat and exclusion. In contrast to the vision of the New Jerusalem, where all are welcome and the gates are always open, there is Babylon, where there is nothing but violence and oppression. The prophets name the violence of economic structures that leave most people living in poverty while the few enjoy the opulence of large homes and rich foods. And violence begets violence.

From the “not in my backyard” discrimination against those who are poor and vulnerable, to assaults on the kinds of social, ecological, transportation, and educational programs that make our cities vibrant, to the violence of our city streets, the city cries out for the church to engage in ministries of reconciliation that bring communities together and seek the peace of the city. Through processes of restorative justice, advocacy, and community development, urban ministry is a ministry of reconciliation.

Ministries of renewal. The body of Christ in the city—that’s what urban ministry is all about. But if the church is absent, disconnected, or preoccupied with its own survival rather than its call to mission, then there can be no vibrant urban ministry. An identity as kingdom communities is foundational to revitalizing the church in the city through church planting, church “reboots,” intentional communities, and parish renewal ministries.

Ministries of justice, imagination, restoration, and reconciliation flow out of the life of renewed parishes in particular neighborhoods and are also instrumental in the renewal of those very parishes. It goes both ways. We need renewed urban churches to spawn and sustain a comprehensive vision of urban ministry, but struggling churches that enter into ministries of justice, imagination, restoration and reconciliation will experience new vibrancy. You don’t just sit and wait for the Spirit to renew your church. Rather, you start living as a Spirit-led church in the midst of the city, and in so doing, you find that the Spirit is renewing your church.

I have a plaque on my wall. It reads: “Yonge Street Mission celebrates with Brian Walsh Forty Years of Christian Discipleship.” It is a gift that I prize very highly. You see, I came to the city looking for home. And I found it.

God loves the city. The Word took on flesh and moved into the neighborhood. And when Jesus is in the neighborhood, people get to come home.

Questions for Discussion

  1. How would you describe your own experience in the city?
  2. What kinds of urban ministries already exist in your city? What is their primary purpose?
  3. Brian Walsh says that “God loves the city. The Word took on flesh and moved into the neighborhood.” In what people, places, or activities do you see Jesus in your city?
  4. How does the city spark your imagination? What music, art, dance, food, or festivals best depict, for you, the movement of God’s Spirit in your community?
  5. Describe the involvement of your church community in your closest urban area. How is the Spirit renewing your church through this ministry?
  6. Your city is setting the agenda for urban ministry. Brainstorm together what that agenda may be and how you can participate in it.

About the Author

Brian J. Walsh is a Christian Reformed campus minister at the University of Toronto. His most recent books are Beyond Homelessness: Christian Faith in a Culture of Displacement [with Steven Bouma-Prediger] (Eerdmans, 2008) and Kicking at the Darkness: Bruce Cockburn and the Christian Imagination (Brazos, 2011).

See comments (7)


You honor us!
Bless you always.

I appreciate this... But I also think that the core of the gospel (the cross, repentance, the forgiveness of sins, etc.)needs to somehow be part of your urban ministry model. There exists, after all, a deeper form of oppression--one that will not be alleviated by building a community garden or correcting a corrupt policy.

If the Kingdom of God is to be fully enjoyed in the city, the inhabitants of the city must be born again. John 3

Having worked for 8 years a few blocks away from your UofT, in a CRC outreach to the very people you talk about, I can agree with a lot of what you say. And now, back in London Ont in a true urban, core, downtown CRC, involved as Deacon, we see opportunities to work with disadvantaged, marginalized, street folks.

But, in all of that, we are missing a grand opportunity to work with another part of our community - those in the high rise apartments around us, our neighbouring condos, the office towers with professionals and stressed workers, the downtown businesses, the court house, city hall, restaurants, theatres, parks, and so much more. Are we a church just for the downtrodden? Or is our church for all? Don't the comfortable and established need Jesus as much as the poor?

Yes, Jesus had a heart for the poor. But he also worked with, and challenged, the rich.

Let's all see the bigger picture....

Brian - I appreciate your article. I most appreciate the call to the church to incarnate the presence of Jesus in this place, to inspire and to be inspired, to give and to receive.

The gospel calls us to profound other-centeredness, and the observation that "Jesus is already there" is a helpful one. We are not ourselves the centre of a saving mission to the inner city, but rather find ourselves growing in relationship with God and others, as we are welcomed into a pre-existent community, especially amongst the 'least of these' spoken of in Mt 25.

It seems to me that your sections on restoration, reconciliation and renewal do quite expansively and particularly get to "the core of the gospel" David S talks about, just not in the same coded language. Thanks for testifying to the expanse of God's salvific work through Jesus.

Bravo Brian.

In the summer of 1983 I volunteered at the Yonge Street Mission. I assisted at the coffee house while youth came off the street to hang out and listen to Christian rock and roll music. It was there that my eyes opened to God's love for the city, and I fell in love too. I went on to seminary and kept a promise to come back. I planted a church in Jane & Finch in the north west end of Toronto and stayed there 17 years. What sustained the vision you described and gave me courage to keep working at realizing it was a sense that this place was my home and that the people there were my people.

I'm in Kenya now supporting churches transform their communities. I see the same thing. Churches that have a strong ownership of their communities invest deeply in bringing hope and change, even at personal risk. The outcome is not only renewing community but multiplying faith, which rings familiar with our early beginnings.

Please, where are the discussion questions announced in the May issue ("Study Questions Online")?

hello. I just read this article and it resonated with me. i am planning to take approx. 20+ students in high school from the nj/nyc area to toronto to do urban missions. i run a missions outreach in nyc and wanted to bring a group to toronto this summer. can you use volunteers? can you use some people who just want to love others and share the love that Christ has for all people? we will be there from july 15-21. please let me know. thank you and God bless you.

Patrick Nam

Pilgrim church
Youth director