By José Humphreys
Our church is in the habit of “mobbing” small businesses. Our mobs are both spontaneous and planned. We learn about a new establishment in our community, make it a point to meet the owners, and if possible, bless the business with patronage and prayer.
Recently a group from our church formed our first ever cash mob, mobilizing a group of church people to support the East Harlem Café. The café’s owner, Michelle, lives in East Harlem and is a member of our Metro Hope Covenant Church community. Our worship band became the house band for the day. Two group members volunteered as servers to accommodate the crowd. Our church and local residents packed out the café on the one of the snowiest days of the year. People from our local community board and civic organizations attended too. And we encouraged everyone to pay with cash. It was a great success particularly during a long winter season with a low revenue tide. Michelle told us the effort even helped her meet payroll that week.
Supporting local business is embedded in our core value of concern for the city. More important, it’s one way we teach people how to live as Christ followers. East Harlem is a neighborhood that has felt the impact of gentrification, where bodegas have given way to big box stores. We’re keenly aware of how the identity of our neighborhood continually hangs in the balance. Closed businesses can represent loss of income, history, and cultural identity.
In a city where pop singer Taylor Swift’s anthem “Welcome to New York” lays the welcome mat for fresh urban elite, I’ve prayerfully reflected: How are we engaging the economic realities of our city as disciples? What is the role of the church in seeking economic dignity for the disinherited in a city increasingly built for educated professionals and the upper classes? The disinherited include not only local business owners, but also poor and middle-class people who are vulnerable to continuous rent increases as their neighborhoods are “discovered.”
Adventurous discipleship recognizes that our calling is replete with beauty and brokenness derived from the particularities of our location. God once asked a begrudging and grumpy prophet, “Should I not be concerned about that great city Nineveh and should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” God not only calls Nineveh a great city but reveals an understanding of its demographic data, even showing concern about Nineveh’s cattle, which in the ancient Near East represented household economy.
The Greek word for economy is oikonomia, which translates as the “rule of the household” and is the root for our word “stewardship.” When we talk about discipleship and stewardship, we tend to relegate economy to talks on tithing. Yet the challenge of Christian formation is learning how our own “rule of the household,” our gifts, are tethered to a larger household—of church, neighborhood, and city. How we give to Caesar, how we spend and invest our dollars in our local context matters.
Using cash in a local establishment allows dollars to circulate in communities up to three times longer. A restaurant that receives cash can purchase from local suppliers, who then can pay local employees, who can then make purchases at the local market. It ensures a healthy circulation in commerce, and heeds indigenous wisdom that the gift must always move.
This kind of engagement has allowed our church to imagine and experiment with a cohort model of discipleship. Groups meet once or twice a month. We break bread together. We read Scriptures. And we plan ways to engage our neighborhood.
As churches we can harness the power of a mob to become a movement—a movement that shares Christ’s concern for our neighborhood, reminding us that the gospel is an adventure in our backyard. As we deepen our discipleship, we can witness how God’s justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.