Humphreys, Jose. Seeing Jesus in East Harlem: What Happens When Churches Show Up and Stay Put. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2018.
I first heard of Jose Humphreys from an IVP Podcast on gentrification. I’m a church planter in Philly who is deep in the mix of a neighborhood in transition. There are drug dealers on the corners while half a million dollar homes are being built next door. It’s an inexplicable situation. I was impressed listening to Humphreys and found myself in agreement with his thoughts on the church in relation to gentrification. I was looking forward to reading his book.
I need to step back for a moment to make a confession: I don’t like poetry. My brain isn’t wired to comprehend poetic language as well as I’d like. And I just don’t enjoy it. My wife loves it. I’ve tried, but beyond reading the poetry of Scripture I am just not interested. This is what made reading Seeing Jesus in East Harlem so hard for me. Humphrey writes too poetically for my taste. Half the time I wasn’t even sure what he was saying. I kept thinking, no one talks this way so why write like this.
An example: “To recover a full gospel is to see Christ in more places than ever, tethering the breakdowns in self and the world, locating God’s web of grace that holds us and heals us, encouraging us to show ourselves again and again” (Loc. 275). See, my wife would read that and be like, okay. I read that and am left scratching my head. Why do we need to recover a “full gospel”? What does he mean by “full gospel”? Tethering breakdowns? Encouraging us to show ourselves again and again? What? There were far too many sentences and paragraphs that just left me shaking my head, unable to grasp Humphreys’ intention.
I try to give all the authors I read the benefit of the doubt, but when I am not able to process clearly what I am reading I tend to throw up intellectual walls. Why is it so hard to write plainly? I get that more artsy people are drawn to this type of writing. Speaking only for myself, I just can’t do it. Reading through Seeing Jesus, I often felt like the disciples after just hearing one of Jesus’ confusing parables. And not in a good way.
With that out of the way, I do appreciate his focus on planting and building churches that cultivate ecologies of grace. I would have liked a clearer definition of what soil these churches are to be rooted in, what water we should be pouring out upon them for growth, and how we should prune them to maturity. In short, I would have liked greater clarity on the Gospel and its implications.
He seems to fall into the camp that the Gospel has holes, or is insufficient, or is not big enough, etc. He often talks about the need for a “bigger” view of the Gospel but never really explains or defines what he means. The problem with this is that it confuses the Gospel for the implications of the Gospel. The Gospel is big enough, great enough, and lacks nothing. The Gospel is the work of God’s Son upon the cross. It is his death for our sins, his priestly work securing for us an eternal redemption, his intercession before the Father on our behalf. The implications of that Gospel are that we have new life, we are re-created, we have been made and redeemed to good works. And those good works play out in discipleship, pursuing justice in all its forms, loving God and loving one another.
Some positives that I appreciated:
- His love for the local church. “I love the local church, with all its hopes, dreams, and beautiful letdowns” (Loc. 44). The local church is where the rubber hits the road. The local church is Christ’s body on full display, warts and all. The local church is Christ’s beautiful bride. Humphreys is a pastor who loves Christ’s body.
- I appreciate his understanding of the church’s diversity: “God’s guest list will include all sorts of strange people who might not typically belong together” (Loc. 102). That is no doubt what heaven will be like. In some respects, we will be surprised at who is there and shocked at who is not.
- His focus on the imago dei is commendable even if I don’t agree with (or fully understand for that matter) the implications he attempts to draw from it. The “embodied” language quickly became overused, however (Loc. 489f). This is thoughtful: “Shalom is when the image of God is recognized in every single human. Shalom is our calling as followers of Jesus’s gospel. It is the vision God set forth in the garden and the restoration God desires for every relationship” (Loc. 959). The challenge with all “transformative” views of culture is the question of how God’s already, but not-yet kingdom plays into things.
- Focus on the church’s idols such as “whiteness” etc. is helpful, but not deep enough. It’s too surface level. What are the deeper, root idols behind “whiteness,” racism, etc.? What are the idols behind the idols, the sins behind the sins? We need to go deeper.
- I appreciated his call for Christians who are moving back into the city (gentrifiers) to be aware of the economic disparities and hardships of their neighborhood. And even to consider how they are negatively affecting the neighborhood that they have moved into (Loc. 1124).
- The best take-a-way, in my opinion is his idea of the church as an ecological community of grace. To be a follower of Jesus “in its very essence is a communitarian practice” (Loc. 1238). “Growth in Christ is slow and happens best in the ecology of a community” (Loc. 1224). I don’t believe we need to take it as far as they did by having families physically living together, but there is much to be said and worked out in practice for the church as family.
- I also appreciated his focus on the Sunday gathering. Many of these types of books tend to disparage gathered worship, but Humphreys sees the importance of the church’s liturgy for the practice of community and family practice as the local body of Christ.
Churches, who stay put in their communities, are visible manifestations of Christ’s body to the world. When my African American brothers and sisters walk into this white guy’s house to worship Christ together we are sending a message to our friends and neighbors. The world sees no reason for us to be together. The Gospel of Jesus Christ speaks differently. We are being counter-cultural by gathering as a diverse but unified body. And I believe Christ is honored by the diversity and unity of our church on full display.
Even though I found Seeing Jesus in East Harlem not to my reading taste and I have serious concerns with how he defines the gospel and its implications there is much practical wisdom once you wade through the opacity of writing style.