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By a unanimous vote in 1994, the Tennessee Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church declared that ministry with those who are impoverished and marginalized would be the conference priority. It was a priority deeply rooted in the Bible and in our Wesleyan heritage. It led us to undertake ministry with people rather than ministry to or for them.
The church is very good at doing things for people, but we are not very good at proximity and partnership. There is a big difference between dragging folks into your soup kitchen and simply hanging out with them on the street corner. There is a difference between bringing others into the church so that they can be like you and becoming immersed in someone else's struggle.
Things change for you when you hang out with people and become partners with them. Suppose you are tutoring children in a low-income neighborhood. When you begin to see that your pupils are gifted, bright, talented children, yet realize that many of them are flunking out of school, it pushes you to challenge and change the public-school system. When you begin to know people's hopes and fears, dreams and struggles, you move into the fight for justice.
If you redefine everything in light of this new prioritybeing present with people and in partnership with them, being concerned with justice rather than just charityeverything changes. Children's ministry becomes redefined as ministry with all God's childrenthe children hanging out on the streets, not just those that an adult brings to church. Trustees begin to ask: In a world where so many people are homeless and on the streets, what does it mean for churches to own all these buildings, keeping them clean and in good repairbut closed most of the time? As a result, new church development ceases to be about building new buildings for existing congregations. It begins to be about building community with people who are often outside the churchabout hanging out in housing projects, in jails or prisons, in battered women's shelterswherever the people are.
Why do we keep sending out pastors who have never been inside a jail to minister in the name of the One who was "sent...to proclaim release to the captives...to let the oppressed go free" (Luke 4:18)? How is it that, in the name of the One who had "nowhere to lay his head" (Matt. 8:20), we ordain people who have never even had a conversation with a homeless person?
When I came to the Hobson UMC in 1993, the church was on the verge of closing. As was true of many urban, White, middle-income congregations, its membership had dwindled from a peak of 1700 in the 1950s to a worshiping congregation of only 30 people, all of them Caucasian and all but one over 65. There were no children who were members of our congregation. Two other United Methodist congregations in our part of townunable or unwilling to cross the lines of race and classhad been closed.
If you want to transform any church community, I recommend beginning with Bible study. The Bible has some wonderfully disruptive stories in it that make claims upon our lives. Once we started Bible study, we were discontent with being open only a short time on Sunday mornings. Our first church building had been erected in 1851, before the Civil War. Even 100 years later, during the Civil Rights Movement, we were known for being an elitist congregation. We had a long way to go in understanding any kind of inclusivity and a lot of work to do just to get new people inside the front door.
So we invited community groups to come and be partners with us: the Black Children's Institute; Uhuru, an African dance group; Habitat for Humanity; an organization doing advocacy for low-income health care; and the two largest 12-step narcotics anonymous groups in middle Tennessee. Suddenly there were hundreds of people hanging out on the grass in the churchyard. It was plain to see that this was no longer an all-White congregation only for the affluent.
Then, working with 30 organizations and 500 volunteers, we built five Habitat for Humanity homes on land we owned next to the church, adding a shared playground between our sanctuary and the homes we had built.
Our experience was transforming because it required us to let go. People drove by and saw that God was doing something in this neighborhood.
I remember the first time I had a response from the congregation during my sermon. At a dramatic moment, I asked rhetorically: "For what do we wait?" A 10-year-old child answered: "I don't know about you, but Santa Claus and Christmas are what I'm waiting for!" This unexpected reply did what it was meant to do; it startled people and provoked us to change.
I used to ask the congregation: "For what are we thankful?" The adults sat in silence, but the children went on and on: "Thank you for sunshine"... "for rain"... "for lollipops"... "for spaghetti"... "for my sister...sometimes." It altered our worship life together.
We have prayer cards during worship. Each person writes or draws a joy or a concern, and someone else takes the card home to pray for whatever is on it. One day, 7-year-old LaPortia drew a body with blood coming out and a little girl standing next to it with tears running down her face. She said: "I want you to pray for my friend who died, and for me who almost died, and for all the kids who aren't dead yet." She was staying in a housing project when a friend of hers was gunned down in a drug deal. She brought to us her hardest hurts and deepest hopes, expecting prayer to change us and the world around us. This experience transformed prayer life at Hobson United Methodist Church.
Before children came to our church, we didn't even have an evangelism committee. One Sunday, I briefly mentioned evangelism during a worship service. The next Sunday, the population of children in church doubled because the children took the idea of evangelism seriously; they went out and invited others to come.
Our kids struggle with hard stuffwith poverty, with racism, with violence, with a school system that writes them off, with adults who are more often a source of hurt than hope. And yet they comedancing and dreaming, laughing and loving, singing and hoping and delighting in little things. Along the way, they are teaching us to be the church, teaching us to pray "thy kingdom come." The goal is not our kingdom, which consigns these little ones to the edges of life, but God's kingdom, where they are cherished, and held safe, and loved.
Understanding people as full partners is helping us discover who God is and how God works. Listening to and learning from people on the margins pushes you to do justice: to work for affordable housing, to create mediation as an alternative to jail, and to work for a health-care system where folks with money aren't the only ones who can afford what they need.
At the end of every worship service, we standnow about 150 to 200 of usholding hands in a circle and singing "Christ be your Shalom." We are black and white and red and yellow and brown. We are rich and poor, old and young, female and male, gay and lesbian and straight. We are folks who are conservative and folks who are liberal, folks who have been in church forever and folks who have never sung a hymn before. We are retired military folks and retiring prostitutes and drug dealers. We are folks who can't read and write and people with Ph.D.s, folks with positions of power and folks who hang out on the streets. In a world where differences dividewhere the walls of race, class, and sexual identity are so high and solidly builtwe are learning to dance on the common ground of God's amazing, wondrous, world-transforming, and life-giving grace. We are learning to pray, with God's help, for God's kingdom to come on earth. We are learning to be the church along the way.
"Evangelization in the Midst of Poverty: Being Present With God's People" is a major conference to be held at Scarritt-Bennett Center in Nashville, TN, November 29-December 1, 2000, sponsored by the Evangelization and Church Growth (ECG) program area of the GBGM. Nashville Area Bishop Kenneth L. Carder will be the keynote speaker, and the Rev. Janet Wolf will lead Bible study and worship.
Workshop topics include racism and classism; welfare reform and perspectives on the poor; and congregational development ministries with the poor in urban, rural, racial-ethnic minority, immigrant, and multicultural communities. The event will offer focused tracks for local church leaders, district superintendents, and conference leaders and will feature visits to relevant ministry sites.
For more information, contact the Evangelization and Church Growth program area of the GBGM at 212-870-3860.