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An Unlikely Partnership

Reaching the unsaved in an urban environment

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When I came to plant a church in Allison Hill, a neighborhood in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, I had a lot of ideas for how Heart of Harrisburg (Alliance) would grow and touch thousands of people. I figured we would show up, do a few large events to demonstrate Christ’s love, and preach the gospel. Then people would flood into the church.

Three years in, we’ve done large events; we’ve helped thousands, and we have preached the gospel. Yet I’m still waiting for that outpouring of people who call Heart of Harrisburg (HoH) their church.

Ministry in an urban environment is difficult; winning people to Jesus is slow. Yet it happens—how and when God wants it to happen.

Dinner and Drinks

As Christians, we often separate the “saved” from the “unsaved.” While there is a distinction, separating ourselves from nonbelievers makes us unlike the Christ we represent. Jesus befriended tax collectors, prostitutes, and outcasts. My hope for HoH is to lift Jesus’ name in such a way that all men will be drawn to Him.

An Unlikely Partnership
Heart of Harrisburg gave away nearly 400 backpacks at its community festival.

To this end, we at HoH engage people and love them without judgment. Early on we started hosting monthly community dinners in our parking lot. During one of these dinners, I decided to walk across the street to O. D.’s Place, a local bar. Entering the tavern, I noticed the room was small. Yet somehow 40–50 people sat around, smoking, drinking, and talking. I couldn’t understand how anyone could carry on a conversation with music blaring from the jukebox in the corner.

I walked to the bartender and introduced myself. “May I let the people here know about our dinner?” I asked. He allowed me to invite his customers and then asked if I could bring him a plate. This pattern continued with every dinner we served.

Sacred and Secular

The following summer, as we planned our big event for the year, I needed permission from the bar owner, Otis, to block off Market Street (a main road). After telling him about the Back-to-School Bash, he permitted me to close the street and do whatever we wanted. A week later, Otis offered to help by donating hotdogs for the event. This exchange began an unlikely partnership between the “sacred” and the “secular.”

In one of my visits to the bar while I was sharing about our event, I said, “I want you all to know that you are always welcome at our church, no matter what. We love you, and Jesus loves you.” About a week later a man, probably in his 40s, was riding his bicycle through the church parking lot. Recognizing me from the bar, he stopped and said, “I’ve been looking for you.”

An Unlikely Partnership

Pretty soon, Sean, who stands about 6’6″ and weighs about 265 pounds, climbed off his bike, and we started to talk. Sean told me his life story: He was a drug dealer and user, and he owned a number of guns. But he was ready to turn his life around. He said he needed my assistance to get his act together so he could help me impact the community.

I gave Sean my number, and he said he would call me every day, if that was OK with me. I told him it was fine.

That evening I waited for Sean’s call. At about midnight, I decided he wasn’t going to call, and I went to bed. When I awoke the next morning, I found a voicemail I had received around 2 a.m. It was Sean, apologizing for not calling sooner.

I called Sean back. He was on his way to rehab, a follow-up from our conversation and my counsel to him.

After rehab, Sean attended our Sunday service. Afterward, he joined our church family at my house for a picnic. This was the last time Sean was in church for a while. I saw him in the community and in the bar, but Sean still struggled with his addiction. Church, though a loving and friendly environment, was the last thing on his mind.

Prayer and Pasta

In November 2015, we launched Prayer and Pasta Nights, which served as another great opportunity to go to the bar and invite people. Men and women came the first couple of months, but they soon realized that we spent extended time in prayer. We didn’t just pray over the spaghetti and meatballs; we had honest conversations with God.

Every week I walked across the street to the bar. Otis, or whoever was behind the bar, turned off the music so I could speak. Usually after the announcement a few people would come over, but the numbers became less and less.

On January 20, 2016, Otis told me that he would close the bar during our Prayer and Pasta Night to allow his bar patrons to come and pray. That night I watched as more than 40 people walked from the bar to church.

An Unlikely Partnership
Prayer and Pasta Night

We prayed and talked past our allotted time. Otis didn’t seem bothered that the bar remained closed for longer than expected. At the night’s end, we prayed with six people to receive Christ. More than 15 people prayed for deliverance from hatred and anger.

A few weeks later, as we ended one of our Prayer and Pasta Nights, I saw a guy walking toward me. It was Sean. A couple of months had passed since I had seen him or talked with him. It turns out that Sean had returned to rehab, and he has been working to stay clean.

Sean now calls or texts me at least once a week. Over the past few months he has returned to church. I’ve discipled him and prayed with him. On Easter I baptized Sean in the presence of our congregation.

It’s true urban ministry is hard, and church planting in Allison Hill is extremely challenging. But seeing God at work in the lives of people like Sean, I know I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be.

While we may not be seeing the crowd I had once envisioned, I know that God is up to something. I get a front row seat as He transforms people in Allison Hill and throughout Harrisburg.

10 responses to An Unlikely Partnership

  1. Praise Him! Keep up with the great job you are doing in Harrisburg. Pastor, I had chills in this heat reading your article. Sometimes it may be discouraging, but it seems like you are staying on top of it! Will pray for you everyday, I promise!

  2. Last night I got to show the young girl on the front cover her picture on the front cover of our magazine. Her mother was so excited, she took a picture so that her father could see it.

  3. Thank you very much for all the encouragements, support and prayers. I love what God is doing among us. Pray that God will not only bring a harvest, but would also provide committed and faithful workers for the field. Our task is challenging and our needs are tremendous, but “our God will supply [a]all your needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus”. @heartofhbg #hearofhbg

  4. Pastor Ricardo, You are an amazing man of God. I have followed your move to Pa. I will continue to pray for strength, wisdom and the fire of the Holy Spirit to fill you so your spirit pours out to all those you and yours touch.

  5. Truly inspiring. It is hard to minister in an urban area. I need to find my niche in ministry so the Lord can be lifted up and glorified. Thank you.

  6. I strongly support your ministry to the people as they are. This is the church of today. I was raised in the CMA in Mars, PA and then in Pittsburgh, PA. Continue to touch and teach the Word. I and my friends will pray with you.

  7. I love this! May God’s grace and blessings abound on this ministry! Thank you for believing God’s power to transform lives in Jesus’ name.

  8. I want to encourage you to not grow weary. You are plowing hard ground, but the earth and everything in it is His. You will reap the harvest God provided in advance. Be blessed as you choose to stand in the center of God’s will. He will more than match your faithfulness to His people.

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