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A conversation with Billie Silvey

Billie Silvey owes her love of words, in part, to the Happy Herald. Her father owned the small newspaper — based, appropriately enough, in the town of Happy, Texas — and she helped him put it out every week.
Born in Sacramento, Calif., she grew up in Texas but returned to the Golden State to study English and journalism at Pepperdine University. She did graduate work in urban ministry at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena.  
For 24 years, she worked for 21st Century Christian magazine as an editor. She later served as outreach minister for the Culver Palms Church of Christ in Los Angeles.
She also was executive director of the Culver Palms Life Skills Lab, a ministry of the church. She served a diverse population of people in need, encouraging them to complete their education. She also helped them get jobs — and, occasionally, refrigerators.
Now 67, Silvey works as a case manager and grant writer for Westchester High School Healthy Start in Los Angeles and does freelance writing and editing. Her book, “God’s Child in the City: Catching God’s Vision for Urban Ministry,” published by Leafwood Press, is a moving picture of ministry among the poor and disenfranchised.
Married to Frank Silvey for 47 years, she still loves ideas and language and “getting the words right.” She writes about a variety of subjects monthly on her website, billiesilvey.com.
What is “urban ministry?” What makes it unique?
When I lived in a small town as a child, we knew when someone suffered a catastrophe or was in need. Problems came at a manageable pace.
In an urban setting, you’re working with so many people with so many needs and motivations, you pray constantly for the wisdom and discernment to identify the people you truly can help.
God doesn’t expect us always to know when a person is lying, but he expects us to do our best and seek his guidance.
Urban ministry demands the heart of Christ. It demands flexibility and accepting people who are different from you. It demands creativity, energy, money and prayer. It demands commitment to a constantly changing group of people who may not appreciate your efforts or may expect more than you can deliver.
Urban ministry demands that you relinquish control. It can get messy, because people and their problems often are messy. It can be physically, emotionally and spiritually taxing. But it can be satisfying.
How are the needs of urban dwellers unique?
People in small towns know and help each other. Urban people often have moved away from their families and support groups. They may be suspicious of strangers trying to help.
Most of the people who sought our services had been laid off or lacked up-to-date technical skills. Some were single women who had been abused or left with children to support but without the education or experience to get jobs in the demanding Los Angeles job market.
Many urban people are lonely. Though they live in areas of dense population concentration, they may not know as many people as their counterparts in small towns. They lack the support network many rely on.
Urban people are mobile. As soon as you seem to be making progress, the person you’re working with may move away or fall back into bad habits or just stop showing up.
The challenge to urban ministers is to see past the defenses sophisticated urban dwellers put up to shield their vulnerability.
What drew you to urban ministry?
In 1965, Frank and I moved to Los Angeles. I’d been a Christian since I was 13, always involved in a local church. The needs I encountered, first with the Vermont Avenue Church of Christ in South Los Angeles, then with the Culver Palms Church on the west side, touched my heart. I’ve worked with neglected youth, homeless people, the unchurched, the unemployed and recent immigrants.
Some Christians in the city draw closer to each other and avoid the people around them. That doesn’t reflect the teachings and behavior of Jesus, who came to do good, to seek and save the lost, and to preach good news to the poor.
You have said that ‘we find new life by serving others.’ How so?
Serving others, using our talents to the fullest, then going beyond through prayer, is the most energizing life possible. When we’re working with a group of Christians who are united in purpose and motivation, even the most difficult tasks seem simpler and more fulfilling.
When we forget ourselves and focus on others, our joy increases and we become more aware of God’s direction in our lives. We’re less critical of others and more at peace with ourselves.
How have you, as a woman, ministered in these situations?
I counseled our students, filled in for the teacher, supervised employees, kept financial records, met with potential students, employers and supporters, reported to the elders and our board, met with community groups, trained college students and wrote news releases and publicity materials in an attempt to maintain our program. When problems arose that I didn’t know how to handle, I made contacts in the church and community to get the help we needed.
I don’t know if I did it differently from the way a man would minister, I just worked as hard and as effectively as I could so we could meet the needs of those who came to us. That’s the way I’ve always worked, regardless of who conceived or directed the ministry.
Women may be more collaborative and less competitive than men, more relationship oriented and less quantitative in emphasis. Those are areas that trouble me in working with men. They want quantifiable results, and I’m not sure you can quantify the way God works in people’s lives.
How can church leaders in urban areas become aware of their local needs and serve them?
Church leaders can survey the community and work with schools, agencies and community groups to discover the needs.
They can survey the talents and abilities of the congregation, matching the needs with the talents available. Then they can think and pray and develop creative ways to meet those needs using the resources at their disposal.
There will always be more needs and potential ministries than they can meet, but God will give them the resources they need to do his will.
The task is enormous, the needs are overwhelming, but with God’s guidance, we can identify and do the part he expects of us. We don’t need to worry about the rest.

Filed under: Dialogue

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