I was blessed to spend some time this week with Cassie, the founder of “Hands Up Ministries” (www.huministires.org ) which grew out of the food pantry of Northminster Church. I was struck as I spoke with Cassie how her ministry and my own had taken parallel tracks and had arrived at many of the same conclusions. Below is a brief summary of Cassie’s journey and the formation of Hands Up Ministries.
“I originally got involved with the food pantry at Northminster Church because my friend Terry asked me to help her out. I not a member of Northminster but I have always had a heart for the urban church. I have been blessed to go to Haiti on numerous missions trips and loved working with the people there and welcomed the opportunity to take what I learned in Haiti into the inner city of Richmond.
What became the “Free Market” actually grew out of a request from a friend who was dying of cancer. She asked me to help her get her house in order. I decided to give all the belongings she no longer wanted to the guests of the food pantry as a way of honoring my friend and her giving heart. I realized that having these additional goods for the food pantry recipients not only met a need, but also provided an additional opportunity to connect.
Almost overnight we went from a one-time Christmas season event to an every Saturday “Free Market.” In the beginning there was an “us” and “them” divide between my team of volunteers and the residents of the community. They were used to coming and taking whatever we had to hand out. I had done enough missions work that I knew this was not the right way to go about things. I also knew that the “stuff” was not the real need. However, the “free market” had grown so much that I found I had little time for the important things like building relationships. I knew I needed to give the ministry away to those who were benefiting from it so that I could get at the root issues facing the community.
This required that we scale back our “Free Market” from every Saturday, which we had been doing for three years, to one Saturday a month. I began my season of discernment in the fall of 201o. On the Saturday’s we were not doing the “Free Market” I just started listening to the food pantry recipients. I took in-depth survey’s out every Saturday to find out what the real needs of the people were and I quickly realized that employment and affordable housing were the top two issues.
In the early part of 2011 after spending months listening, I clearly heard from God a call to help people overcome barriers to employment and to find some way of creating affordable housing. The housing part was relatively easy. The cost of housing has dropped so low that my husband and I have been able to purchase four homes and have leased them to our urban friends for a price well below market but at a rate that covers our mortgage. We are hoping to add more homes in the future and would encourage more people to invest in these distressed communities and in these wonderful people.
The harder issue has been employment. I realized rather quickly that any attempt to address employment would require me to address the multitude of barriers faced by my friends. From a lack of identification, transportation, education, childcare, and internet access; the barriers are numerous and different for every person who walks in my door. I have been on a steep learning curve since February of this year as I have walked with my friends and helped them overcome these barriers. I realized that only through one-on-one mentoring and encouragement could I meet each of my friends where they were and help them overcome the obstacles that stood between them and employment.
I realized that I could not run the “Free Market” and work one on one with my friends. So I began giving the “free market” away. We are finally at a place where my team, make up primarily of community residents, really does not need me. I am basically just an encourager to the wonderful “volunteer staff” who keep the “free market” in operation.
I have also been blessed with a number of college students and congregational volunteers who are coming alongside my friends and helping them overcome the challenges they face. These volunteers help prepare resumes, help people fill out job applications or tutor them for the GED. I think it is important that people understand, I am not alone in all I do. God sends me people at every corner. I have had fabulous support from Rhonda Schwartz & Eureka Pendleton along with many others whom I cherish.
I am driven because I feel it is what God is calling me to. I never feel like there is enough time. I want to love as many people as God puts before me. That love looks different with each person.
The greatest need right now is for churches and Christians who are willing to give people jobs. They don’t have to be long-term jobs. My friends just need a chance to earn a little money and prove both to themselves and future employers that they are willing and able to work.”
I am sure anyone who has read my book or who is familiar with the journey of Embrace Richmond can see the parallels between my ministry and that of Cassie. I think many Christian’s start off like Cassie and I – simply meeting emergency needs. However, if you do “relief” work for any period of time you realize it is not a long-term solution. The only long-term solution to poverty is finding ways of helping people stand on their own two feet without being dependent on others. This requires both a reasonable cost of living and an opportunity to work. Many of our urban friends have neither.
I don’t know why God drew me to Northminster but I do hope that I have the blessing of working more closely with Cassie and the Hands Up Ministries team.
I think what has most inspired me about Northminster Church is its willingness to give itself away. Cassie is not a member of the church and Hands Up Ministries is a stand alone 501c3 non-profit. From everything I have learned so far, Northminister truly is a “Kingdom Church” and is striving to meet all four of the criteria I set out to find in my original post “A Search for Kingdom Churches”;
- Seek to release their people and resources out into the world instead of consuming them for their own needs.
- Are truly investing in the kingdom for the long-haul as a way of life, not simply doing missions events.
- Are doing more than giving money or stuff, but are building relationships that are transforming not only our city, but also the church.
- Are supporting Kingdom work without getting the credit or having some other ulterior motive like trying to recruit church members.
There are a few other key players in the Northminister story that I hope to introduce you to in the coming weeks.