Writer, editor, Christian activist Billie Silvey dies of cancer at 74
LOS ANGELES — Billie Wesley Silvey, writer, editor and Christian activist, died…
November 1, 2005
Billie Silvey. God’sChild in the City: Catching God’s Vision for Urban Ministry, Siloam Springs, Ark.:Leafwood Publishers, 2005. ISBN 0-9767790-0-5; 224 pages; $14.99; (877) 634-6004or www.leafwood publishers.com.
Urban ministry is notinner-city ministry, explains Billie Silvey in God’s Child in the City:Catching God’s Vision for Urban Ministry. It requires living in the city, notjust going into the city. And there are two ways to do it, she explains:“tucked safely behind a desk, or face-to-face with human need.” Silvey chosethe latter, and describes her journey in this book — part memoir, parttheological treatise and part how-to guide.
In its 200 pages, sherecounts her experiences and analyzes, with a good degree of self-examination,what urban ministry is and is not, how it should be attempted, and what workedfor her and what didn’t. She deftly places such issues in a biblical andtheological context.
One of the book’scover-blurbs uses a Eugene Peterson quote to describe Silvey’s work as “a longobedience in the same direction.” Such captures well her gritty commitment todoing God’s work in the polyglot, fascinating and harrowing confines of Los Angeles.
Readers familiar withchurches of Christ will recognize Silvey’s name from her many years as aneditor of 20th Century Christian.
In many ways, Silveyis an unlikely advocate of urban ministry. She grew up as the daughter of anewspaperman in small-town Texas,but had a dream from her early years. “I had grown up in the tiny West Texastown of Happy where the mournful wail of steam locomotives in the night set medreaming of the large cities that were their destinations,” she says, “I hadbeen born in Sacramento when my father was in the military, and I was sure thatthe West Coast, the big city, Los Angeles was my destiny.”
In the summer of1965, she says, she was called to serve in Los Angeles. Her move began a 40-yearinvolvement in urban ministry — which ended recently in disappointment andre-analysis when she was asked to resign from a job-training program she hadled since the late 1990s. The ministry folded shortly thereafter. Along the wayshe decided to write the book on urban ministry, she says, that “I wish I’dhad, the book I so often felt I needed.”
Interwoven with herpersonal experiences with Pepperdine University on its original campus and the Vermont Avenuechurch, both on the border of Watts, she doesa work-up of the urban environment. Its cultural and ethnic differences arehuge. Racial and class conflicts are never far from the surface. Ninety-twodistinct languages are spoken, and 15 percent of its people live below thepoverty line.
She describes thedisturbing presence of check-cashing and high-interest payday loanestablishments that prey on the poor, and the marked increase in homelesspeople — caused, in part, by ill-conceived programs that deinstitutionalizedthe mentally ill. But it is to these overwhelming difficulties that Silvey isdrawn to help — not only through programs, but through direct contact withpeople she sees as children of God with unique circumstances and gifts.
A chapter on theextremes of poverty and wealth in urban centers is an illuminating discoursedrawing on the words of Jesus and writings of the minor prophets to describewhat we all see, but may not be able to describe. Silvey has seen it all — from Rodney King to a city awash withconspicuous consumption. She examines the role of the church in the city, asking,“How can we truly be Christ’s body, his representatives in a city that at timesmay frighten, sadden and even disgust us?” In this section and elsewhere, shetells of the many ways she has worked to be Christ in the world — teaching theGospel of Luke through English-language classes, participating in Hispaniccongregations, delivering sack lunches to the homeless, organizing a schoolstore for needy children, and living for a time in high-crime sections of LosAngeles.
She is candid in herreactions to Pepperdine’s move from Watts andother events that she sees as devastating to racial harmony and progress ininner city churches.
Silvey continuallysought to learn — through Urban Ministry Conferences and study at FullerSeminary. Yet nowhere does she point to herself as an admirable success storyin urban service. Instead, she analyzes her actions and decisions with anunwavering examination of her successes and failures — probably with morenegative conclusions about her service than she deserves.
Yet, it wasgovernmental welfare reform, and the fact that it left poor single mothers withno income, that led her to her most ambitious project — establishing a lifeskills lab. The lab’s purpose was to prepare people in need for the job market.Silvey explains every step of this process, which she began as involvementminister for the Culver Palms church, which supported the ministry for manyyears.
Her detaileddescription of the program, from its inception to its metamorphosis into anonprofit with an independent board that eventually asked her to step down, ismust-reading for anyone who wants to make a difference in the urban world. Itis fascinating and highly informative reading for anyone struggling to make anonprofit succeed and flourish.
Silvey ends with anepilogue entitled “Learning to Let Go” about coming to terms with the closingof the life skills lab and the death of a dream in light of her belief in God’sguidance in her life. This chapter and the entire book, however, are much betterexpressed as a lesson in “learning to hang on” in the midst of the city’senormous need. All in all, God’s Child is a deeply valuable testament toSilvey’s “long obedience in the same direction.”
Lindy Adams isdirector of church and public relations for Predisan, a medical mission in Catacamas, Honduras.A former Chronicle editor, she and her husband, Ken, live in Oklahoma City and have two children.
Subscribe today to receive more inspiring articles like this one delivered straight to your inbox twice a month.
Your donation helps us not only keep our quality of journalism high, but helps us continue to reach more people in the Churches of Christ community.