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Pleasing God by helping people

A volunteer for The Relief Bus gives woman helping hcorner New York's Harlem neighborhood after she received goods from faith-based

A volunteer for The Relief Bus gives a woman a helping hand on a corner in New York's Harlem neighborhood after she received goods from the faith-based New Jersey organization. | John Fountain photo

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Updated: November 19, 2012 3:09PM

On an inconspicuous corner of thirsting souls one cold autumn afternoon in Harlem, I saw the hands of God.

I also saw them here in Chicago, at a makeshift market on the West Side, at a place known as Breakthrough, where the poor and needy shopped for free, fresh produce with dignity and where teams of volunteers assist with smiles as bright as the glint of sunshine on chrome.

I have seen the heart of God.

At a prayer meeting inside an Austin neighborhood storefront of the Westside Health Authority, where boys and men in the ’hood are welcome on Friday mornings to break bread, to find a listening ear, a word to live by, or maybe even a lead on a job.

I have seen the heart and hands of God.

In Washington, D.C., inside the cozy headquarters of Restoration Ministries, which serves as a respite for young women caught in the sex slave trade. The ministry’s aim: to help set them free and to place their feet on straight street.

It was this time last fall that I began to embark upon my journey for the story behind the numbers that, according to noted Christian researcher George Barna, show millions of Christians have left congregational churches. Many of these former churchgoers — whether church-hurt or frustrated — have left, observers contend, not because they don’t want to be Christian, but because they do.

In fact, some of these believers say they want to “be” the church rather than simply “go” to church.

They want to be the hands and feet of Jesus, to live out their faith, whether as individuals, and organizations, or as ministries operating beyond the usual institutional religious framework.

They are not anti-church, but pro-Christ. Less about religious frills, more about doing the hands-on, often gritty work of social justice. And they tell me they see no greater vehicle for showing God’s heart than by their own hands. I call them “The Transformers” and have set out to chronicle some of their best efforts.

“The motivation is always one about caring for other people,” said Jacqueline Reed, who in 1988 founded the Westside Health Authority, which seeks to create community empowerment zones — block by block — by providing health care, affordable housing and social services.

“When we stay in church all day long and dance and sing and get emotional in church, we ain’t helping God,” Reed told me. “I think God is pleased when we love Him enough to do something for people.”

That is the aim of other faith-based organizations like Breakthrough Urban Ministries. It is the hope of the 60-something-year-old woman who holds Bible study in a suburban Chicago bagel shop that she lovingly calls “bagel church.” It is the focus of the Georgia church that a few years ago sold its properties and began “using the proceeds to increase ministry and mission efforts in our community and beyond,” and that currently hosts Sunday service at a local movie theater.

Among them also are movements like The Relief Bus, a faith-based organization in Elizabeth, N.J., through which I witnessed last fall the power of unconditional love, filling a lonely corner of Harlem as volunteers emerged from a refashioned white school bus equipped with gallons of soup and drink.

Without religious pretension, expectation or that inevitable invitation to come to church, those volunteers touched, talked with and embraced folks considered societal misfits: the poor, the lame, the brokenhearted.

“This is church,” I remember someone saying spontaneously as we stood on that corner in Harlem in the cold autumn wind.

And I saw the hands of God.

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