Jake Medcalf didn’t set out to be an inner city urban church planter. But four years, a non-profit and a worshipping community later, that’s where he has found himself.
As the youth pastor at La Jolla Presbyterian Church, located in one of the wealthier neighborhoods of San Diego ― one of the wealthier areas of the country ― Medcalf was simply trying to be faithful in his ministry role.
In addition to being a youth pastor at La Jolla Church, Medcalf was also on Young Life staff.
“The model is that once you’ve started Young Life at one school, you go to the next school,” Medcalf said. The next school, in neighboring Pacific Beach, was Mission Bay High School, where 85 percent of students were bused in from the inner city.
That first summer, 2007, Medcalf took nine of the inner city students from Mission Bay to Young Life camp.
“When they came back from camp, the students said, ‘We wanted to give something positive to our school,’” Medcalf said.
So they started an after-school program.
“It was essentially like doing youth group with about 65 kids from Mission Bay, all of them from the inner city,” Medcalf said, adding that driving the kids back home to the city at night became a massive effort.
“We started to realize that God was up to something,” Medcalf said.
During this time, he and his wife were sensing that God was calling them deeper into this ministry. Believing that a key marker of incarnational life is to live where the people are, they moved to the inner city.
“You can’t just fly in and fly out to do ministry,” Medcalf said.
Though Medcalf and his wife were now living in the city, and though the outreach programs had expanded to include a contemporary service at La Jolla and a tutoring program, they were still limited by the transportation issue between La Jolla and the city.
“About two years in, the students in the neighborhood looked at me and said, ‘Jake, we love coming to church here, but aren’t you a pastor? Why don’t we start a worship service in our own neighborhood so our friends and families can go too?’” Medcalf said.
So they did.
“You realize pretty soon that the white guy is not the answer here — we’ve really got to train the young people of the neighborhood to take leadership,” said Medcalf.
The worship service at Orange Avenue Community Church/Urban Life began with about 25 students and leaders and has grown to 60-100 a week, with more than 80 percent of those attending having met Jesus within the last two years.
Though worship is a crucial component of the community, it’s not the only piece.
“Our kids have never been in a church environment. So we say, once you decide to follow Jesus, the next place you go is service and using your gifts — worship is the fuel for that journey,” Medcalf said.
Rather than charter as a traditional new church development, Urban Life has recently become a non-profit. As such, they can apply for grants and fundraising in addition to the support they receive from La Jolla Presbyterian.
Orange Avenue Church and Urban Life are housed in a symbol of gentrification — the building used to be East Presbyterian Church, but white flight changed the neighborhood. Half the property was sold to build apartments, with the other half demolished to build a small church building, the very building Orange Ave/Urban Life is now using.
“It’s amazing to watch it come back to life when you begin to live missionally within your community,” said Medcalf. “I’m having the most fun that I’ve had in my life — I’m no hero, no martyr. I’m enjoying my life and wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”
Erin Dunigan is a freelance writer, photographer, and pastor who lives in a small coastal community in Baja California, Mexico when she is not following her wanderlust out into the world.