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Theology major immerses himself in urban, global and poverty ministries

Whitworth University student minors in ‘life experience’

April 11, 2011

Headshot of Josiah Brown

Josiah Brown

SPOKANE, Wash.

While deciding that he wants to do ministry with poor and marginalized people, Josiah Brown, 20, has experienced more urban ministry, house building and African poverty than many people experience in a lifetime.

The theology major at Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)-related Whitworth University says his minor is life experience. 

He’s inspired by a poem by a Chicago panhandler that asserts: “Dignity outlasts dollars.” He heard the poem in San Francisco on a mission trip to learn about inner city missions.

“The more I experience urban poverty, the more I realize charity is about more than giving food and money. It’s also about giving dignity, looking people in the eyes as equals. The least we can do is to treat the poor people we meet as human beings.

“To give money without giving dignity is worse than doing nothing,” he said. “It creates a cycle of dependency.”

Josiah would like to see more disciples emerge from the “plethora of believers” in churches.

“Many say they believe in Jesus and God, but do not take the next step to follow and live as Jesus lived. For many Christians, faith does not intersect with real life, except for giving charity, doing one or two acts of service or rallying behind a hot-button issue,” said Josiah, who is still discovering what it means to follow Jesus and live as he did.

“Christianity has become a religion compartmentalized to Sunday, not affecting how we live on Monday,” he said, recognizing that’s often true for him, too. “Christianity is more than belief.

“Part of it is to pray, read the Bible, worship and study perspectives of faith. Without connecting with God and being in relationship with Christ, it’s hard to go out and treat the least of these as Christ would,” said the Central Valley High School graduate.

This fall, he earned college credit in the Denver Urban Semester, run by Mile High Ministries.

For a sociology and theology of the city class, he visited neighborhoods of Denver to see gentrification of formerly poor areas, suburbanization of poverty and ways urban sociology connects to theology.

For a spiritual formation class, he arranged housing and furniture for refugees with the African Community Center.

Josiah said church youth activities opened his eyes to the world and “gave me a heart for poor and marginalized people.”

Growing up in First Presbyterian Church in Spokane, he went on two week-long summer junior high mission trips to San Francisco’s Center for Student Mission. Each day, they visited different ministries — sorting food or clothing at food or clothing banks, serving food to homeless people, and working with children’s programs. Evenings, the youth discussed the intersection of faith and world issues.

He returned to work at the center, arranging mission projects each week for junior and senior high groups in the summer after his first year at Whitworth. Evenings he helped them discuss their experiences.

“By the third day, stereotypes broke down, and youth began to see with God’s eyes and heart,” he said.

For three years in high school and one in college, Josiah participated in First Presbyterian’s 25-year-old spring break project, building houses related to an orphanage in Tijuana, Mexico. 

Each group of 10 — of 60 to 100 each year — worked with families to build a 12-by-24-foot wood house in five days, so they built six to 10 houses a year.

Knowing little Spanish, he had limited interaction with people, but learned about poverty in Mexico. 

Even though they had little money, the people were generous, buying youth food and soda.

As a student leader, Josiah helped his youth group raise money for materials, travel and living expenses there through letters, auctions and car washes. 

“These activities built community and commitment in our group,” he said. “The trips were fun, and strengthened our faith, because we talked with each other about what we were doing and why. It gave me a sense that this is what you do as a Christian.”

From elementary to high school years, he also went to the Presbytery of the Inland Northwest’s Camp Spalding, and then was a counselor with younger campers.

For another mission he did four times in high school, he led vacation Bible school for grade school children in Westport, WA, a low-income fishing community. 

Since starting at Whitworth in 2008, Josiah has been the junior high youth group leader at First Presbyterian.

In high school, he was part of the Blood Water Mission, a group started by a Whitworth graduate at his church. He raised funds for the program and mission trips.

His freshman year in college, he and friends started the Clean Blood Clean Water, now H2OPE for Kenya. In two years, the group raised $5,000 to build two wells in Sub-Saharan Africa. 

With En Cristo Club at Whitworth, he went with other students once a week to a low-income housing apartment complex downtown. Visiting the same floors each time, teams knock on doors and offer food for lunch. Some homebound residents invite students in to talk. They have built relationships over time. Some teams take lunches to and converse with people on the streets.

He volunteered to build and repair bikes at the Cool Water Bike Shop at Cup of Cool Water’s drop-in center during his sophomore year. 

For Jan term 2010, Josiah took a psychology class on “Poverty, Hope and Altruism” in Tanzania.

In a fall psychology of poverty class, he has learned how poverty affects people and how stereotypes psychologically reinforce it. In Tanzania, nine Whitworth students observed and discussed those concepts.

They worked at the Baobab Home for orphans, clearing land and planting crops five days on a farm they are developing to help the orphanage be self-sustaining.

They learned about the slave trade history and malaria.

Visiting a hospital one day, they were in the children’s ward when a child died of malaria. Then they went to the hospital’s research lab where they are working to develop a malaria vaccine.

“The research gave me hope,” he said.

They spent a day with a family and time at the orphanage, playing with children and doing repairs and painting.

“I connected with people, because we learned some Swahilli before going, and many speak English,” he said.

In the rural poverty there, Josiah saw a communal, slower culture. People identify more with their families than their jobs.

Because most Tanzanians are poor, they are in solidarity and joyful in worship, not impeded by psychological poverty, he said. 

The poor in America are more aware they are poor, because few around them are poor.  They experience psychological poverty, not meeting standards society has set for them to provide for themselves and their families. Many have lost hope in the system and themselves, he said.

Josiah is able to take off his junior year from Whitworth, because he has advanced-placement credits from high school. He will graduate next year on schedule.

Now he is a missionary apprentice, serving in Mission in Kaffrine, Senegal from January through July. He will have three months of cultural and language study, before working with a missionary and living part of the time with a family. He will explore another culture for a longer time, while he does evangelism and humanitarian work.

After Senegal, he will join a summer Christian Peacemaker Team in Palestine and Israel.

For information, call (509) 927-0948 or send Josiah an email.

Mary Stamp is editor and publisher of The Fig Tree, a monthly newspaper and Web site covering faith in action throughout the Inland Northwest.

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