Virtual Voices
 A sign advertises the Indiana University Student Outreach Clinic at Neighborhood Fellowship.
Indiana University School of Medicine
A sign advertises the Indiana University Student Outreach Clinic at Neighborhood Fellowship.

Turning poverty into an opportunity for the gospel

Compassion

Working out of an aging church building in the Eastside community of Indianapolis, Neighborhood Fellowship is waging a low-key undeclared war on poverty. The small church partners with some of the city’s emerging medical and legal talent to help broken families spiritually and physically.

With Jim Strietelmeier as a key elder, the church works with the Indiana University School of Medicine to provide medical care for the neighborhood needy, as well as the IU Law School-Indianapolis for legal assistance.

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Yet Strietelmeier doesn’t think of it as a war on poverty. To him it’s a war on godlessness and foolishness, through the preaching of the gospel. “We look at financial poverty as an enhancement to the preaching of the Gospel rather than a problem that should take center stage,” he said. “After God has been made central, the secondary needs of life are met by God Himself.”

Yet an intriguing side benefit is a startling drop in emergency room visits from the church’s ZIP code. ER visits have been replaced by a mix of medical student care and food for those who are hungry on Saturday mornings. In recognition of this good work, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis Chancellor Charles Bantz honored the church last year with the school’s civic engagement award.

Strietelmeier got his training for this unusual urban pastorate at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago as well as growing up at the Wheeler Rescue Mission for the homeless in Indianapolis. His family was middle class but attended the mission church and spent much of their time with broken families.

Now he serves in a church of homeless people, those recovering from addictions, the working poor, and a few members who have moved into the area for ministry purposes.

Strietelmeier has the temperament for this calling. He bubbles with enthusiasm for anyone, especially the hurting ones who come through the church doors. He hugs everyone. He weeps with those who weep. “We cry a lot here,” he said. “We are sad at times. We see the brokenness in people’s lives and we are part of it.”

He and his wife, Debbie, live nearby, not far from where a motorcycle gang was recently broken up by law enforcement. The Strietelmeiers take care of children as adoptive and foster parents and have four biological children.

He thinks church and state can work together to fight suffering. Yet he doesn’t see any reason to hide the gospel under a bushel.

“There is no hidden agenda. We are first a church. Our first concern is their eternal soul. Our second concern is their physical health,” he declared. “We live in this neighborhood. In poverty, the only commonality is relationship.”

Strietelmeier laments the larger breakdown of the family in American society in his lifetime, both in the inner city and in the larger society. “There is less attachment between family members, or mother and child. And fathers are gone. As the family breaks down, there’s no more loyalty or kindness.”

Yet the suffering in the world is an opportunity for the gospel. “Poverty is an opportunity to see the first priority, God and His righteousness, placed where it should be,” he said. “We aim to change all society by a race of humility to the bottom.”

He has no magic answers. He and the church just take to heart the Bible’s admonition to care for the widow and the orphans.

Russ Pulliam
Russ Pulliam

Russ is a columnist for The Indianapolis Star, the director of the Pulliam Fellowship, and a member of God's World Publications' board of directors.

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