By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer

Rev. Efrem Smith
Rev. Efrem Smith is co-lead senior pastor of Midtown Church, which has locations in Sacramento and Elk Grove. The church’s website welcomes visitors with the message, “Come as you are. Midtown Church is a place where your past and your paycheck doesn’t matter.” Louis Bryant, OBSERVER

With deadly shootings taking place almost daily, widespread homelessness, economic woes, the continued impact of the coronavirus pandemic, and new threats to our health and well-being, some are wondering if we are indeed in “the last days.”

In looking for answers, ways to cope and a little hope, many are calling on the Lord and area faith-based leaders to help see them through. The OBSERVER spoke to several clergy members about their hopes for the region going into the new year and putting prayers to action to meet the changing needs of the community. They all say taking “church” beyond the four walls of their sanctuaries is a key part of their call to serve. This is the first of a three-part series.

Rev. Efrem Smith, Midtown Church

As Rev. Efrem Smith prepared to welcome parishioners to Midtown Church for Christmas and New Year’s services, he did a lot of reflection.

“As we get ready to close out 2022, in comparison to where we were two years ago, there’s a lot to be grateful for,” Rev. Smith said. “It was a couple years ago that we weren’t able to meet on site.”

Churches are still seeing parishioners dealing with the pandemic and its fallout. “People are still carrying trauma and are in need of healing, because people experienced loss in 2020,” Smith shared. “There are families that lost loved ones to COVID, lost loved ones to other complications.”

Racial unrest locally and nationally and political polarization have also caused folks anxiety, for which the church and its ministries offer spiritual salve, Rev. Smith said. “You’ve got a better chance at bearing and dealing with a burden if you’re not dealing with that burden alone.”

Midtown Church has partnered with therapists in its own congregation to provide mental health services. This includes certified life coaches and trauma-healing facilitators. “Sometimes people will trust the services more if they’re recommended to them by their pastor, by their faith community,” Rev. Smith said.

Those services came as a direct result of 2020 and 2021. While shelter-in-place orders and work-from-home realities brought some families closer together, others revealed that it also caused a multitude of problems with people being together around the clock.

“Hearing the stories in real time helped us understand that prayer is important, worship is important, but I’m a pastor that believes in, ’you can pray, you can read your Bible and you can take your medicine and see your therapist,’” Rev. Smith said.

Midtown Church was started by Pastor Bob Balion in 2010. Rev. Smith has been co-lead senior pastor with Balion for the last five years. “He and I, we have a similar heart and similar vision for the church looking like heaven and the church actually being a place that does what, I guess, the larger society is unable to do. I mean, larger societies are divided by race and polarized by racialized issues. We’re trying to be a place that is diverse, that is justice oriented and that resembles that beloved community that Martin Luther King, Jr. talked about.”

People must pray together, regardless of race and ethnicity, Smith said. “We can’t wait until a bad issue takes place, or there’s a shooting or there’s the Jan. 6 [insurrection] or there’s the death of George Floyd. Some people wait until there’s a tragedy to try to tackle the racial dilemmas in our nation. We’re saying, ’No, we’re not waiting for a tragedy.’ We’re actually trying to create a testimony.”

Smith also serves as president of Sacramento Area Congregations Together (Sacramento ACT), which works to identify and change conditions to create justice and equity.

The group, and the church, are seeing locals grapple with homelessness and economic disparities.

“We have to continue to wrestle with how we address affordable housing in our city, how we connect the unhoused to the mental health services and the other services they need, so that we’re not criminalizing the homeless, but we’re seeing the ways in which they are the children of God as well,” Rev. Smith said.

Education must also be addressed, he said, adding that it’s all connected. “When you’ve got a strong education and you address educational disparities, that opens the gateway to college, but it also opens the door to jobs,” Rev. Smith shared.

Sacramento ACT has been at the table as local activists call for police reform and more humane treatment and conditions at area jails and prisons.

“You can’t tackle all the issues at the same level, with the same kind of effectiveness, but Sacramento ACT has had a long commitment to trying to look at those social issues that are affecting those in the city of Sacramento and Sacramento County, with a special attention on trying to mobilize and give voice to empower the most vulnerable among us.”

Helping the least of those is in the Bible. 

“Matthew 25, I think it’s verses 31 to 40, comes to mind. In that text, Jesus says, ‘Hey, I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was naked and you clothed me, I was in prison and you came to see me. I was sick and you visited me.’ We really believe there’s a connection between communion with God, a deep connection to God, and justice. Doing justice doesn’t make you a Christian, but how can you be a Christian and not be about justice?”

Rev. Smith would like to see more collaboration in 2023.

“Sacramento is one of the most multicultural, multiethnic cities in America. It’s a very diverse city and what I hope is that we can see more people of faith and people of goodwill, public servants and business owners working together to address some of the major social challenges that we’ve had,” Rev. Smith said.

The work ahead requires more than preaching about it on Sundays, Rev. Smith said. Folks have to actually go out into the neighborhoods they serve. As Midtown area residents and visitors noticed more and more encampments of unhoused people, the church that bears the neighborhood’s name wanted to help.

“In partnership with some other churches here in Sacramento, we have provided private portable showers to the homeless. We’ve had portable mobile health clinics. Before the pandemic, once a month we would have about 100 unhoused people in our church and we had a free clothing store,” Rev. Smith said.

The church regularly hands out meals and has two portable shower trailers.

“We’re trying to meet needs where the unhoused are, which is why we move it around. But we also are trying to stay around the table with other organizations to figure out what a sustainable, affordable housing initiative looks like in our city. I can’t overemphasize the need for health services.”