OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis is the entrance to the “Underground” church


Steve Dresselhaus

“The church  is defiled when those kids show up.”  These were the words aimed at  a new friend of mine, a pastor in a rough neighborhood in Guatemala City.  The high school and college-age members  of his fellowship have been showing the love of Jesus to the  drug-addicted street kids in the impoverished areas  around the city dump, which is only a hop skip and a jump from where this group of Jesus followers meets.  Their facility used to be a nice building but now, for a number of reasons, they have never  been able to rebuild after  the 1976 earthquake destroyed much of their construction.  Now the members meet in a  parking garage at street level or below in the part of their building which survived the quake.  The Sunday school rooms are tin shacks built up on the rooftop of the garage.   This group  could almost be considered an underground church–literally.  Relationally they are underground, as some  leaders of their denomination and some influential  members of their congregation are opposed to  them working with the street kids and have ordered them, in essence, to cease and desist.  In more ways than one they are an underground church.

The church is defiled when those kids show up.”  These are some of the ugliest words a Christian could say.  Too bad we don’t all wear a WWJS (What Would Jesus Say)  bracelet.  I am not the judge of the world nor of any individual, but I can’t help but ask myself if a real Christian would even  be capable of uttering  those words.  They are wrong in so many ways, and they hint at what is so sinfully askew in many congregations.   A  building, holy?  Really?  No one actually believes this, do they?  Is it even possible for behavior  to mess  with the spirituality of a physical place?  Sounds  kind of  like pantheism–or  is it  evangelical Feng Shui?     This building is nothing but poured concrete strong enough to withstand a major earthquake,  which it already  has.  What could these kids possibly do to it?  Can the messed up behavior of a young girl who has been serially raped uncountable  times  by malodorous, unwashed   men, filthy after having spent their days scavenging in the dump,  really be blamed for messing up a church building’s  spirituality?   A building, holy?  This is a joke, right?  Sure,  in the Old Testament there were some places called holy, such as the Tabernacle, Solomon’s temple, and the ground around the burning bush, but it was the temporary, very evident presence of the Lord that set the place apart, not the place itself.   For a Christian to give  more value to block and mortar  than to  a truly needy person – well, I just don’t have the words right now to describe how that makes me feel; although I can say, my  current feelings  are not pretty and might not even be Christian.

“The church is defiled when those kids show up,” was later followed by, “Our church isn’t a safe place anymore.”     We like to quote God’s promises, and we even publish that  little booklet of  100 promises we can carry in our purse or in our hip pocket snuggled up against our  often flabby gluteus maximus.  I don’t recall any promise that the church is supposed to be safe.  Actually, in the Bible we do have one example of when church was downright dangerous.  Eutychus fell asleep during a sermon and fell out the window.  Fortunately, in America we have padded  protective pews to keep sermon-induced narcolepsy injuries to a minimum.   Jesus does make some promises, but they are not always pretty.  We are promised blessings if we obey him and we are promised that he will always be with us. But other statements made by Jesus sound harsh. Some of his harshest words come when he is really angry at the mistreatment of the powerless by the powerful.   Maybe if enough of us who are in  the habit of living for ourselves while ignoring the poor  could   band together we could vote to excise Matthew 25 from the Bible.  Being sent to Hell because we ignore the plight of the poor doesn’t seem to fit  with the  “get out of jail free card” we call grace.   Our passionate, laser-like  focus on grace may have  blinded our eyes to obedience.  Grace without obedience is impunity. This is what that troubling passage in Hebrews  6 is all about.  Not serving others is what is “…nailing him  (Jesus) to the cross once again and  holding him up to public shame”  (Hebrews 6:4-12).

“The church is defiled when those kids show up.”  Where else are these kids, created in the image of God,   going to find help, dignity and respect?  Aren’t these the sick people Jesus came to seek and save?   Isn’t the church the tool God generally uses to accomplish his purposes  for planet Earth?  Or does Jesus only love the middle class or higher?  The Jesus followers I was with yesterday  feed the street kids, give them a change of clothes once a week, and give them access to toilets and showers.  Most importantly, this group of Jesus followers gives the street kids access to their hearts.  This group of Jesus followers gives the street kids membership in a group.   These young Jesus followers give a sense of belonging to people who have been rejected by everyone else from their very first breath.  This group of young Jesus followers understands   those first words God spoke to humanity when He said near the beginning, “It is not good for man to be alone.”  Rather than abandoning  the lonely street kids to unending rape, abuse, hunger, scorn, rejection, sickness, violence and  the filth of the street, the young people of this small fellowship in Guatemala City share life with those rejected by society and by the church.  I take that last word back.  The true church would not and could not reject  street kids.   The young Jesus followers I met  share life and resources with  those their “Christian” leaders have declared to be dirty, dangerous and ultimately unworthy of salvation.   The institutional church  has damned the street kids in life and it will damn them in death.  The humble, loving attitude of the pastor and the young folks in his church reflects  the attitude Jesus would have shown.  The attitude of the denomination and of  some of the church leaders is a send-off  to Hell.

Yes,  I am angry, actually quite angry.   I am not claiming  my anger  is good or that it is righteous indignation.  I am just angry and I am exposing my soul to you.   I am debating  in my own soul whether I am  guilty of judgmental anger or if I am sharing  the feelings of  the Old Testament  prophets  as they looked at the corporate sin and greed of Israel while  she   ignored the plight of the poor.  I confess I am feeling sinfully superior to many wealthy American Christians who wallow in their comfort ….. yet  at the same time   I am mired in  shame at my own hypocrisy because  I have not  sold   everything I own and given the proceeds to the poor.  I find myself  trying to justify my own American,  middle-class, hedonistic, God-owes-me-this-because-of-my-Judeo-Christian-heritage  lifestyle by  assuming others are greedier  and more materialistic than I.  PTL for tax brackets  which allow me to  prove I am not as rich as my neighbor and therefore less guilty than he.  I preach the temporariness of this life; yet  I collect material goods and comforts  as if this current life is the one that really matters.   I know the arguments that say, “I’m okay as long as I hold my stuff in an open hand”   or that “I’m okay as long as the stuff I own doesn’t own me.”   What a  load of garbage.    Just saying these words is a paltry attempt to justify our materialism, our greed, and our comfort and we know it.

As I was leaving the   parking garage church yesterday a group of the young people approached me.  I had just preached  the Sunday sermon and they wanted to talk to me about how to protect abused women and children from dangerous men.  I was honored that these  servants  of King Jesus  asked me for help.  But, I was humbled because it was I who should have been seeking answers from  them.  They live  lives of sacrificial service  every day.  I, on the other hand, am writing these words in an airplane on my way home to the comforts of the wealthy suburbs.     Two  questions need to be asked:  How can we make holy a church which has defiled itself by ignoring the poor?  And, what am I going to do about my own life?

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  1. Jesus knew I needed this message today. Thanks for delivering it.

    1. Ana.I hope this has been a helpful story and that it will serve you in your own walk with Jesus. I’m still trying to figure out what my next steps are.

  2. Thank you for your transparency Steve. Should the Lord call you to submit any of your comforts to Him I am sure that you will do so. In the meantime I hope your message reaches your fellowship right where you are. I know that I needed to hear it today.

    1. Thanks Julie. I really am at a loss as to my next steps. We are using this experience as a discussion point to guide us when we return to live in Mexico. Do we renounce much of our lifestyle and live in a hurting neighborhood? I really do think that it is the materialism of many American Christians, including me, which is tearing our country apart and ruining the church.

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