Category Archives: Community Development

A Wider Net – Insights from Courtney Allen

Fishing Netsphoto © 2009 Garry Knight | more info (via: Wylio)Since moving into our new home at Baptist Theological Seminary, I have been blessed to meet a number of young pastors who are either in seminary or who have recently graduated and are looking for opportunities to do urban community based ministry.  One of these impressive young pastors is Courtney Allen, a 2011 graduate of Wake Forest University with a Masters in Divinity.

As a part of Courtney’s senior project, she wrote a paper titled, “A Wider Net: Beyond the Walls and the Possibilities that Lie Before Us.” In this paper she studies her affluent home church located in Jackson, Mississippi, ironically named Northminister Baptist Church.  Courtney writes, “I was interested in how a congregation initially interested in expanding their own physical facilities was formed by context, sermons, as well as ministerial and lay leadership to make a significant commitment to an inner-city ministry.” Courtney has granted me permission to share her insights, which appear below, as a part of my series on Kingdom Churches.

Northminster Baptist church of Jackson Mississippi was formed in 1967.  In 1998, as the church was contemplating a building project, Senior Pastor Chuck Poole issued a challenge – a dollar for dollar mission’s commitment.  Courtney writes, “For Poole, it was difficult to see how “in light of the Gospel” the congregation should make themselves more comfortable for one hour per week in a city where “there are people who are never comfortable.”  Can I get an “Amen!”?

The planning committee accepted the challenge and appointed an ad hoc “Special Missions Project Committee” whose proposal would be presented as a part of the combined recommendations of the Building Committee “in recognition that the expansion of the church facilities and a mission effort were theologically connected.” Another “Amen!”

In June 2001, the joint recommendation of these committees were approved and named “A Wider Net.”  The vision was “a wider place to gather within our walls as well as a wider embrace of others beyond our walls.”  The proposal from the Missions Committee included the desire to focus the church ministry efforts on a neighborhood called Mid-City .  It also called the church to commit to, “A Person. A Place. A Ministry.”, within Mid-City.

In its commitment to “a person” the church wisely understood that real transformative ministry requires relationship building.  The church committed to funding a “Community Minister” to serve as a bridge between the Mid-City and the church.   The church affirmed the importance of physical presence by committing to “a place” within the community where relational ministry could happen.  By supporting “a ministry”, the congregation used its financial and volunteer base to expand the capacity of work that was already happening in the community through various other organizations.  This commitment to “a person, a place and a ministry” is absolutely brilliant and consistent with ever successful example of community transformation I have ever seen.  However, I have never seen it stated so simply.

Courtney’s historical account details how the church faithfully carried out its commitment by hiring a community pastor who began listening to and visiting the residents regularly.  Community ministries were identified and the church became an important strategic partner for many.  Most importantly, the people of Northminster began to volunteer and through their presence brought about positive neighborhood change.  Volunteers got involved in community safety projects, housing rehabilitation, summer kids camps, care for the elderly, and community building events. Courtney shares in her paper that important transformation happened at both a community level and a church level as transformative relationships formed.

In her assessment, Courtney points to the importance of theological education in this process. She writes, “On Sunday mornings at Northminster Baptist Church, the idea that reading the gospels and following Jesus would necessitate radical and demanding change was frequently heard. The language of “no longer protecting oneself from the steepest demands of the gospel” was used with some frequency.  Courtney shares this excerpt from one of Poole’s sermons:

“We must not let the gospel lose its edge, even if it is an edge we find impossible to live up to. We must keep the gospel’s hardest edge out there in front of us all the time, because if it is always out there before us we will occasionally live up to it. We will have our moments, however rare, when we actually deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Jesus. There is no better way to live than that. Even if it should cause us to lose ourselves, that is where we would finally find ourselves. Nothing could be better than that.”

Courtney also noted the importance of theological teaching that reminded the congregation that, “Northminster ‘needed’ to be in relationship with those beyond their walls just as much as those beyond their walls ‘needed’ them. Northminster needed a wider circle of friends, where people could be engaged in meaningful relationships with people who did not look or think the same way they did.” She notes that Pastor Poole frequently said, “There is a big world out there and we need it more than it needs us.”

The truth of this mutual need is beautifully illustrated in Courtney’s capturing of the relationships that grew out of the congregation’s commitment to the Mid-City community.  Not only was the community revitalized but the church was transformed.  Courtney writes, “It feels different now than it did before Wider Net. Northminster thinks, acts, and speaks differently because of the relationship with friends in Mid-City.  As one interviewee noted, “A Wider Net is at the heart of what we do [at Northminster]…it is not just going ‘down there to help poor people.’” Language and understanding of community has shifted to include a broader swatch of the world, beyond previously understood boundaries and institutions.”

Most importantly Courtney noted that, “Institutionally, Northminster understands its function to equip congregants to serve the world rather than to serve the institution of the church. The wider circle of friends that formed is a part of the “two-way street” of need which runs between Mid-City and Northminster.”

Imagine this. Every church in Richmond committing one dollar to missions for every dollar it raises for buildings!  Just imagine dozens of community ministers funded by affluent churches bridging the wealthiest communities in Richmond to the most distressed.  That is a vision I am willing to give my life for.

As a side note, I can’t afford to hire Courtney to serve with us in Richmond but I feel certain at least one church here in Richmond can see the blessing that a “Courtney Allen, Community Pastor,” would bring to their staff.  Courtney is just one of many young pastors I have met recently with this call upon their lives.  Interested in funding in full or partially a community minister to serve as a bridge to your congregation?  Please let me know via email at wendy@embracerichmond.org.

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A Church Resurrected: Interview with Pastor Sammy Williams (Northminister- Part 3)

Over the past few months, I have been writing a series of blog posts about Northminister Church.  This series grew out of a post I wrote titled, “A Search for Kingdom Churches.”  My definition of a Kingdom Churches are churches that:

  1. Seek to release their people and resources out into the world instead of consuming them for their own needs.
  2. Are truly investing in the kingdom for the long-haul as a way of life, not simply doing missions events.
  3. Do more than give money or stuff, but that build relationships that are transforming not only the city, but also the church.
  4. Support Kingdom work without getting the credit or having some other ulterior motive like recruitment of church members.

My series about Northminister started with a brief conversation with Pastor Sammy Williams. As Sammy shared stories with me about how his church is loving its neighbors, he continually gave the credit to others like Jeanne Murdock, Cassie Matthews, Karel Harris and Terry Smith.  However, I have been around church life long enough to know that leaders such as these, do not spontaneously emerge.  It is only through pastoral leadership that individuals with such great passion and heart are empowered to do what these amazing ladies have done.  You can learn more about Jeanne Murdock’s and Cassie Matthew’s ministries by reading my interviews with them from earlier this year.

I decided to interview Pastor Sammy Williams to try to understand why God was drawing all these leaders to this one church and why these leaders had been able to flourish in the culture of this congregation.  Sammy gave me the answer in the first two minutes of our interview.  He shared that for many years, he had been mentored by Gordon Cosby, founder of Church of the Savior in Washington DC.  I have written about Church of the Savior many times and have shared insights gleaned from their printed materials but I have never had the privilege of meeting Gordon Cosby.  I knew right away that the relationship between Sammy and Gordon was the key to why this ordinary urban church that was on a path to death was experiencing an extraordinary movement of God.

Sammy shared the history of the church with me:

When I came to Northminister in 1986, the congregation was  80% retired.  But there was this small group of people in their 20’s who were just alive and who just knew that God wanted to do something with this church.

Northminister was referred to at the time as an “ex-neighborhood church.”  Northminister started out as the Barton Heights Baptist church and was located on North Avenue in the heart of Barton Heights.  They were looking to move in the 1940’s because they had outgrown their building.  Everyone also knew that African American’s were beginning to move north in the city. The thinking of the white community was that black families would never move north of Brookland Park Boulevard.  The church purchased what is now the whole subdivision around Northminster.  They formed a corporation, subdivided the property, and sold lots to members.   They spent 10 years developing the subdivision and building the church.

When they moved into the building in 1956, the Pastor had a parsonage across the street from the church.  Every Saturday after lunch he would leave his house and walk the neighborhood and get home in time for supper.  He said he would have spoken to 2/3 of his members in that short walk.  At their height, the church had 1400 people in Sunday school.

The sanctuary was completed in 1963.  Shortly thereafter, the first African American family moved north of Brookland Park Boulevard.  All the white families began to leave.  So what I inherited in 1986 was the remnant.  It was roughly a 300–member church. While the church started to attract new people, I was doing 30 funerals a year. So we were basically staying level.

We did some strategic planning in 1997.  That task force came back with their report and the first line of that report was – the family secret.  The family secret was that if something radical did not change this church would not survive the deaths of the present members most of whom were retired.

For several months thereafter we facilitated listening sessions.  This was radical for us.  We would come and worship at 9:00 and then break into small groups of 50.  We talked about selling the property and moving to Hanover.  We looked at the cost and the value of selling our building.  When the congregation looked at our beautiful building and the reality of what we could afford to build, the question became, “Are we really called to leave this neighborhood?” There really was a sense that we should stay.

The final proposal we adopted was that we start a new church in the present location. We realized that we were missing two generations and we knew we really needed to reach folks 25-35 years of age to stay alive.  We realized that to attract that demographic we needed a more contemporary worship experience.

I had never been to a contemporary service and had no desire to go to a contemporary service back in 1997.  I remember walking by a contemporary service at a CBF conference and thinking, “Why would anyone want to do that!”  One summer I went to 7 contemporary worship services.  Everything was contemporary but the sermon was the same.  I started asking, “How can we get the sermon to match the culture of the rest of the service?”  Over time I learned to preach in a whole new way.  We started attracting adults who had never been to church.  I taught the new member class and these new members were like blank slates.  They were hungry and I found that they energized me. After doing this new worship service for a year, I realized that I had a “new church” that I really loved and that really energized me.

When we decided to start the contemporary worship service none of us had a clue how to do that.  We put out a call to anyone interested in helping with a contemporary service and God sent eight people.  We had guitar players, drummers, keyboard players and vocalist and I was shocked – they were really good.  They were sitting in our sanctuary and their gifts were going unused.

One of the difficulties I have as a Pastor is that we are taught to compare. The models that are out there all focus on church growth.  One summer I visited 10 of the top churches in Richmond.  They were all excelling in what the world defines as success.  However, only one of them was truly racially integrated.

After that summer, I realized I much prefer what we have at Northminister.  It is not the model for church growth. I have been there 24 years and we have about the same number of people as we did 24 years ago.  The big difference is that we are less than 20% retired.  When I came to the church less than 5% of the members lived in the neighborhoods surrounding the church, today roughly 25% live around the church.  When I came to the church the congregation consisted entirely of European American’s and today roughly 20% of our congregation is African American.

Today I have two very distinct churches.  The early service consists of the remnant of the church I inherited and the later service represents the church God has birthed within the original church.

I recently had a conversation with my staff about a church I heard about in town and their response was “They are the cool church.”  So I asked my staff, “What one word would you use to describe us?” They decided the word “peculiar” fit us best.  However, the one word I pray we become known for is the word “authentic.”

The model that I would like to pattern Northminster after is Church of the Savior. Gordon Cosby is my pastor and has been mentoring me for many years.  Gordon is the most deeply connected-to-God person I have ever met. I go up to spend time with him about once a month.  When I asked him how he got to be the person he is, he said “All my life I have been in small groups with my people and they have taught me the most important things I know.”

I would say that Sammy has clearly been shaped by his mentor Gordon Cosby.  While Sammy would say that Northminister has a long way to go to even come close to being in the same category as Church of the Savior, he has seen what very few pastors ever see.  He has witnessed the resurrection of a church.  He credits this new life to all the leaders like Jeanne, Cassie, Terry and Carol and the compassionate ministries they have birthed for bringing the spirit of unity, hospitality and welcome that permeates this church.  However, none of this would have happened had Sammy not been willing to let go, release control and trust that these women were responding to a clear call from God.

I want to thank Sammy and the folks from Northminster for restoring my faith in the institutional church.  While many of my blogs focus on my perceived short comings of the inherited church models, Northminister is a beautiful example of how God is birthing fresh expressions of the church even within the walls of the existing institutional structures.

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Style Weekly Interview

Thought you all might enjoy reading this interview in the latest edition of Style Weekly:  Just click the image below to get to the article

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Dream Releasers

I know why the caged birds sing?photo © 2007 bradleyolin | more info (via: Wylio)Telling people about Embrace Richmond in a way that captures the spirit of what we are all about is one of the hardest things I have to do as an Executive Director.  We are not a social services agency, we are not program driven and we are not cause focused.  We are a community focused, relationally driven, community of faith.  I was reading through some of the early writing that I had done back in 2003 before I entered seminary and started Embrace. I ran across this story taken from Wayne Cordeiro’s book titled Doing Church as a Team.   This story was one of the early inspirations for what became Embrace Richmond and I think it captures the spirit of the work we are doing in a beautiful way.  This is Wayne’s story;

Wayne was a child growing up on an army base in Japan.  One day his family went for a ride outside the base.  When they stopped for lunch an old man at a booth caught his attention.  He was selling tiny birds that resembled a finch, in bamboo cages.

He asked the man how much and was shocked to learn they were only 100 yen each, about 36 cents.  It was too good a deal to pass up so he bought one.  As he walking back to show off the purchase to his family the old men called out to him in Japanese “Don’t forget to bring the cage back when you’re done!”  “Bring back the cage when I’m done?  I’m not planning to eat the thing.  I just want to take it home as a pet.”, Wayne replied. “Oh no,” said the old man  “You don’t understand!  The 100 yen is to take the bird to the edge of the valley and release it, so it will be able to fly freely!”

This was the last thing this young boy wanted to do.  He felt that was the dumbest thing he had ever heard of.  But he did not have much of a choice, the old man was keeping close watch to make sure he got his cage back.  So he walked over to the edge of the ravine overlooking the valley below, opened the cage door and gave the bird a couple of nudges.  Edging it’s way suspiciously toward the door of the cage, it suddenly launched into flight with a jubilant chorus of tweets and whistles. 

Cordeiro writes “looking back on the experience now, I would have paid 100 times more if I knew how important that moment would be to me years later.  That day I learned the precious lesson of being a dream releaser.”  He goes on to say

“The Church is laden with treasures, dreams and precious gifts, yet too many precious souls are going to their graves with songs left unsung, gifts yet unwrapped and dreams unreleased.  We all have dreams in our hearts just waiting to be released.”

I think this story is an excellent metaphor for what Embrace Richmond strives to do.  We encounter a lot of beautiful caged birds.  Birds caged by addiction, mental illness, poverty, unemployment, depression and loneliness.  I used to think it was our job to open the doors to the cages and let people out but after years of doing this kind of work, I have come to realize that they already have the keys.  They just need someone to remind them of that fact and encourage them to unlock the door.

That last sentence sounds like an easy task but it has proven to be a very painful process for many who have grown so accustomed to living in a cage that freedom appears threatening or unattainable.  While the little finch in Cordeiro’s story soared through the air, many of my friend’s wings are so underused that they often fall to the ground several times before they learn to fly.  Our role as dream releasers is to be there when they fall and encourage them to keep on trying.

The first time I read this story, I dreamed of being a dream releaser.  Today I am truly blessed to work with the most amazing team of “dream releasers” imaginable.  So thank you Janie, Qasarah, Susan, Sylvia, Vanessa, Chinary, Antionette, John, Charles, Josh, Brian, and Ashlee.  Thanks for helping my early dream of creating a dream releasing community come true.

If you are interested in being a “dream releaser”, please email me at wendy@embracerichmond.org.

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From Believers to Followers

My friend Lee made a good point on my blog about Christian Unity.  He quoted Jesus story of the Good Samaritan as an example of Christ call to live our faith, not just believe or say the right words.  I think if Christians put more emphasis on “following Jesus” and less on “believing in Jesus” there would far greater Christian Unity.

The fourth Thursday of every month, our Hillside team hosts a community fellowship event.  It is generally some sort of pot luck with Embrace providing the main course.  We celebrate birthdays, play games and just have fun with the team of Hillside residents who volunteer with us throughout the month.  However, the highlight of these fellowship events is always welcoming new leaders onto our leadership team.  In February, it was Windell’s turn to be inducted onto the team.  I have never seen anyone smile as big as Windell did when Janie pulled his official Embrace Richmond t-shirt over his head and he got a big embrace from both Janie and I.  He then went to his neighbor Debra, and gave her a big hug and said, “Thank you for telling me about Embrace Richmond.  This has been such a blessing to me!”

I sat and listened as Debra sang Windell’s praises.  She shared how she had been ill recently and how Windell came to her house every day to check on her.  How he went to the pharmacy and got her some medicine and went to the grocery store for her and how he came by regularly to lift her spirits.  She also shared that Windell did this for many people in the community.  In a community where most residents have been taught to stay to themselves, Windell is going against the cultural tide and breaking down walls of isolation that separate neighbors from one another.

While most people have images of gun wielding thugs when they think about Hillside Court, I have images of all the Windell’s who are just trying to make their community the best it can be.  In the nearly two years we have been walking the streets of Hillside, praying for the community, gathering the residents, and helping them tackle some of the challenges they face as a community, I have met a number of people like Windell.  They are people who choose to do the right thing, not for money, not for fame or glory, but just because it is the right thing to do.  They are people who simply want to be a “good neighbor.”

When asked, “Which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40)

We spend a lot of time in the church talking about and learning practices to help us live the first part of Jesus reply, “loving God.”  However, we spend very little time learning how to be good neighbors.  You might recall that Jesus was asked in Luke 10:29, “Who is my neighbor?”  Rather than give a simple answer to this question, Jesus replied

“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.  But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denariiand gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’”

The part of this story that always speaks to me is that it was not the religious leaders who actually lived the religious teachings, but someone who was not even a part of the Jewish faith.  When I look at Windell, I see the good Samaritan.  I have no idea what Windell’s religious beliefs are, but he obviously lives out the second half of the Great Commandment better than most of us.

This month, Patrice officially joined the team.  Patrice is featured in the picture above standing next to me.  You may remember Patrice’s name from my post a few months back.  She is the one who stepped up during our listening meeting on safety to lead a team dedicated to supporting Hillside families.  Since that day, Patrice has worked hard to fulfill the commitment she made that day.  Like Windell, Patrice simply seeks to be a good neighbor and honestly she puts me to shame.

If asked, “What is the role of the suburban church when it comes to under-resourced urban communities?”  I think Jesus would answer, “to be a good neighbor.”  The Samaritan addressed the emergency need of the man on the road and then insured that he would be well cared for by the innkeeper.  In the same way, we are to help people in crisis but also to support the innkeepers who can provide ongoing care and support to those in need.  In other words, we are to help insure people like Patrice and Windell have what they need to be successful in caring for those who have been deeply wounded in their community.

Windell and Patrice both serve as “Care Leaders.”  Care Leader’s are kind of like “innkeepers.”  They look out for the people in their part of the Hillside community and they basically model for the rest of the community what it looks like to be a good neighbor.  We are honored to have such an amazing care team.

A few weeks ago, two more young people were gunned down in Hillside court.  For the first time, I actually knew the families of both the victims.  Among the first people to visit the families were members of the care team.  In a community with so much pain and heart break, there are these “Samaritans/innkeepers” in the mix and it makes my heart rejoice. I can’t wait to see who God raises up next!

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The Virus is Spreading and I Hope You Catch it

masque anti virusphoto © 2009 ZYG_ZAG | more info (via: Wylio)The one thing I brought back from my cruise that I would have liked to leave on the boat is a nasty little virus that has left me with a sore throat, runny nose and overall yucky feeling.   My husband caught it on Friday, I came down with it on Saturday and then the girls got it on Sunday.  I probably infected my entire staff on Monday and all of Hillside court on Tuesday.  If you are one of my victims, please forgive me!

Viruses are rather amazing organisms.  You can’t see them because they are so tiny but they can infect grown healthy men and bring them to their knees.

Today, I witnessed another type of virus.  It started during our morning meditation when Antionette shared that she had been dreaming of this day for two years.  You see today, we launched our first mobile food pantry.  For those of you who do not know, the mobile food pantry is basically a food pantry on wheels.  For two years, we have been working with the Hillside tenant council, RRHA and local churches to try to address food scarcity in Hillside Court, but a lack of secure space and a lack of funds prevented us from moving forward.  The cool thing about the mobile food pantry is that you don’t need space.  The truck rolls in, you distribute the food on the sidewalk and the truck takes everything that is left over away.  It is an amazing site to see.  The other cool thing is that it is fully funded by the Central Virginia Food Bank which is such a gift to a community like Hillside court where there are no organizations who could afford that much food.

The virus then spread from Antionette to our  volunteer team as we reflected on the story of Jesus feeding the multitude in John 6 with the lunch of one small boy.  We got to be the disciples and distribute this gift which was truly direct from the hand of God.  As we reflected upon how this miracle arrived in our community and all the prayers we had prayed for food resources over the years, Vanessa helped us see that miracles are times like this.  No one on the outside would see the miracle but we all knew that is what we were witnessing.  I believe it was that time of praising God for this miraculous gift that infected the team with an attitude of gratitude.

It was then the team who infected everyone who walked in the door.  As Antionette greeted our guest with a smile and instructions, they felt welcomed and invited into the joy of the day.  As Sylvia and Vanessa processed applications and verified ID’s they extended dignity to our guests. As Chinary entertained those who were waiting with a game of charades, they could feel her positive energy and their frustration with having to wait in line turned into joy.  As Ann took their vouchers and John helped load their bags, they did so with a smile and cheerfulness.  All the way down that line, the spirit of joy translated into a spirit of gratitude from those who received.

By some miracle, we served every family and had a small amount left over to meet emergency food needs between now and the 1st of the month.

One of my favorite stories from today came from Janie.  There was a young single mom with a newborn baby and a toddler.  She was trying to hold the baby, the toddler, and two bags of groceries at the same time. There was a healthy, young man just standing around watching her struggle.  Janie went up to him and asked him to help her with her food.  He smugly said, “It will cost you .50 cents a bag.”  Janie looked him in the eye and said “You mean to tell me that you are not willing to help this woman and these kids out?  I am very disappointed that a young man as healthy and strong as you are would refuse to help this poor woman.”  Ashamed he grudgingly said “Oh, ok…I will help her.”  After he took the bags to her home, he returned to the food pantry, found Janie and said, “Thanks lady, that felt great.  Thanks for setting me straight and for making me help someone else.”  Janie then asked him if he had been through the line and he said, “No, I don’t live in Hillside.”  She said, “We have enough for everyone, grab a bag.”  He smiled at her and said, “Isn’t that just like God.  I finally help someone else and God has a blessing waiting for me.”

Viruses can infect grown men and turn them into grateful servants.

Throughout the day, the greatest blessing to me was the number of folks who came up to me and asked how they could get involved at Embrace.  They saw that the person greeting them was a resident of Hillside, the people behind the tables were residents of Hillside, the people unloading the trucks were residents of Hillside.  So many groups come into this community and “do for” the community but no one ever invites this community to “do for” themselves.  That spirit of gratitude quickly became a spirit of giving when they realized they could be on the other side of that table.  In a neighborhood where a culture of “taking” rules the streets, I know it was nothing short of a miracle that this virus of gratitude and giving is taking root.

On the applications for the mobile food bank, we asked folks if they would be willing to serve in the community and roughly 100 individuals said “yes.”  Watching people go from recipient to giver is one of the greatest joys in the world.  I can’t wait to see what God does with all these newly “infected” folks.  It is getting very exciting in Hillside Court!

Are you smiling?  Is your heart filled with joy?  I guess I should have warned you, I infected this post with the virus.  Now go and infect someone else!

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Shut Up, Listen, and Trust: My Translation of Psalm 43:10

The community of Hillside Court witnessed three shootings and three murders in the first three weeks of this year.  While Hillside has always been a rough community, this was over the top even for them.  As you can imagine, the community was gripped by fear of their neighbors and equally paralyzed by their distrust of the police.   As we did a community interest survey’s and asked the residents, “If you had a magic wand and could do anything for your community, what would you do?”, the unanimous response was “Make the neighborhood safer.”

We heard this cry and thought that the right answer was to have greater collaboration between the community and the police, so we invited the police to come and share information about a neighborhood watch program.  It became clear very quickly that this was not the right answer at this time for this community.  We heard things like “I am no snitch”, “I don’t ever want to be seen with the police”, and “The only way to stay alive in this place is if you see nothing and say nothing.”

I was baffled. In my neighborhood, if there is a safety issue, you call the police.  I quickly learned that Hillside Court has its own culture and it is a culture driven by fear.  We heard stories of police brutality and harassment and I quickly learned why there was such a high level of distrust by the community.  Most everyone I know in the community has a family member or close friend who is in jail and many have had their own run in with the law.

I thought I had the answer but I clearly heard God saying, “Shut up and listen!” at every turn.

I am thankful to Jay Van Groningen of Communities First Association for his skill and experience in doing community development work.  We decided to use Jay’s community listening approach to hear the community’s answer to this perplexing issue and I was astonished at what I learned.

Two weeks ago we conducted our first public “listening session” in which we gathered concerned citizens together and asked them these questions in this order.  We then recorded their responses on a flip chart.  More than 30 residents showed up to participate.

1.) What do you like best about your neighborhood?  This solicited responses like affordability, senior residents who care for the neighborhood, outside groups like Embrace and local churches that help the community.

2.) If you could wave a magic wand and make your community safer what would you do?  This is where it got really interesting.  It was apparent within a few minutes that the majority of the citizens were concerned, not for their own safety, but for the safety of the children who are often playing in the streets with no adult supervision.  As we listened, it became obvious that many of the older residents blamed the younger single mothers for not supervising the children.  Thankfully there were several younger single moms in the room who voiced their need for a break and the fact that they had babies and could not possibly care for the babies and watch the older children at the same time.

3.) What are you willing to do to help make the streets safer for the children? We had individuals volunteer to monitor the bus stops, others said they would help build more playgrounds so it would be easier for the moms to see the areas where the children were playing, but the most exciting outcome was a group of older moms and grandmothers who offered to support the young single moms, to help them with their children and to mentor and encourage them.  In total we had 10 people volunteered for specific tasks.

4.) Who is willing to take a leadership role and insure this all happens?  I think I shocked everyone when I said that Embrace would support the community but that we had no intention of leading the initiative.  This community is so used to having outside groups come in and “do it for them” that though we never indicated that we would, that was the assumption.  There was a moment of tension as everyone looked around the room and then thankfully Patrice boldly raised her hand.  Joe and Debra soon followed and we had our leadership team.

5.) Will the rest of you commit to support and pray for this team and these leaders?  Throughout our time together the issue of prayer and the need for spiritual renewal had come up.  Everyone in that room knew that this small band of people had a momentous task ahead of them if they hoped to make the streets of Hillside safer for the children.  It was during this time of prayer that I heard God clearly say to us all, “Be still and know that I am God, psalm 43:10” Or, my translation, “Shut up, listen, and trust.”

I don’t know if this newly formed Community Action Team will succeed.  I honestly don’t think that is as important as the fact that we gave the power back to the community.  Walking into that meeting, they felt powerless over the criminal element that was terrorizing them and powerless over their own fear of the police.  They heard everyone telling them what to do and no one taking the time to listen to them.  They felt dependent on outsiders who come and go as funding streams change.  However, at the end of that meeting, I could feel a sense of ownership and pride in that room and it was a glorious thing to witness!

Long ago someone told me that if we do things for people that they can do for themselves, that we are “dis-empowering” them and creating dependency.  This community can do all the things they noted were important.  The key is to get out of the way and let them.   I honestly was shocked that a meeting about safety led to a support group for single moms, bus monitors and playgrounds.  However, the more I have reflected upon this conversation, the more I see the wisdom and Divine hand in it all.  I think we would all be better ministers if we learned to “shut up, listen, and trust” a bit more.

Please pray for our community leaders, the children of Hillside court and those who have historically terrorized our residents.  Pray for safety especially as we move into the summer months which historically have high crime rates.  Also pray for our Embrace team and I as we seek to “shut up, listen, and trust” more in the future.

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Just Get a Job!

Phoenix Downtown 9photo © 2010 Jonathan Wade | more info (via: Wylio)We have all heard –and perhaps spoken–the phrases, “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” “You get what you work for,” “Hard work pays off,” and “Live the American Dream.”  We have all driven past men and women in our city intersections holding signs that say “Will work for food” or “Homeless. Please help.”  Probably the sight of them has sparked in us some combination of pity, guilt, and disgust.  Many of us have thought or said, “Get a job!” as we speed past, avoiding the sign-bearers’ desperate eyes.  Most likely, we are not so much heartless or uncaring as confused and frustrated.

In a society where there is supposedly equal opportunity for all, why are some unable or unwilling to work for a living?  Why would anyone choose to beg on a street corner when there are homeless shelters, food pantries, and soup kitchens throughout our cities?  We are doing our part, we reckon, by giving to the local shelter, praying for these men and women, and serving in the local food pantry. Yet the problem persists.

I started out working with the homeless population in Richmond in 2004, and continue to provide economic opportunities to more than 15 homeless and at-risk individuals per year through our AmeriCorps program.  Through the years, I have come to realize that the only true way to end homelessness is for people to work.  I also came to realize that unemployment was not just a problem for homeless individuals but the infinitely larger population of those living in poverty in our city.

I spend much of my time these days with the folks who live in the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority (RRHA) public housing complex of Hillside Court.  Less than 25% of the 446 households report having any form of employment income.  For those who do report employment income, the average annual wage is roughly $13,000.  The average household income for all households in Hillside court is $8,600.  Hillside is not unique.  It has only slightly lower employment and income when compared to other RRHA communities. There are a total of 3,605 households living in the six RRHA public complexes in our city.  Only 831 of those households report employment as their primary source of income.  That means these communities have a 77% unemployment rate!

Of course this is not the whole picture.  71% of the households do have income from government funded programs.  14% receive public assistance largely in the form of TANF (temporary aid to needy families), 25% receive social security income for a disability, 17% receive social security income because of age, and an additional 14% receive other forms of social security income which I am assuming is for disabled children for a total of 57% of households receiving social security.  Only 54 households have no reported income.

Perhaps you are wondering how people live on $8,600 per year.  The answer is incredibly low rental rates.  The average rental rate in RRHA public housing is $177 per month which includes all utilities.  Basically, without RRHA public housing those living exclusively off of social security and public assistance would have no place to go and would likely find themselves on the street corner or in the homeless shelter.

There are a total of 8,959 “official” residents in RRHA housing complexes, 4,631 of which are children under the age of 18.  I say “official” because for every “official” adult resident there is a sister, son, cousin, boyfriend living in these apartments off the books.  My guess would be that there are well over 1,000 unofficial residents in who call RRHA public housing complexes home. Just for the purposes of comparison, the total estimated “homeless” population in our city at any given point in time is around 1,000 adults and roughly 150 children according to Homeward’s most recent point in time count. Compare this to the roughly 10,000 individuals who call RRHA home. So every time you see someone begging for money on the street or hear a plea to help the homeless, remember that there are more than 10 unseen individuals whose financial picture is only slightly brighter.

It should be no surprise that the number one request we receive from the residents of Hillside is that we help them gain employment.  For the past month we have been doing a series of “listening” meetings around the topic of employment to try to figure out exactly how we can help our friends get jobs.  As you can imagine there are a number of barriers facing our friends.  These include – lack of education, lack of childcare, lack of transportation, lack of experience, lack of access to computers and on-line job resources, lack of phones, lack of knowledge about open positions, lack of interviewing skills,  lack of motivation, lack of a resumes, felony convictions, lack of identification documents, and the list goes on and on.

After listening long enough to get a clear picture as to why 77% of our residents did not work, we asked them to pick the two issues they felt were creating the greatest hindrance to them obtaining employment.   As I predicted transportation was the number on concern, but I was actually surprised when the group unanimously voted “lack of motivation” as equal important.

Over the last two weeks we have been unpacking these issues.   Our job seekers have convinced me that if we somehow overcame the transportation issue and we provided people with individual “encouragers” to help them navigate the employment systems and overcome their barriers, that the vast majority of the 77% unemployed residents of RRHA would be able to obtain and maintain employment.

Out of this conversation, we are starting an initiative to help our friends get jobs.   The central element of our approach will be to connect each of the job seekers with a “job coach” who will provide the motivation and accountability to help them overcome their individual barriers.  In addition, we are seeking individuals who will help our friends “navigate” the various employment related systems including on-line employment resources, employment centers, Department of Rehabilitative services, and other programs designed to help our friends.  In the past we have simply referred our friends to these resources and they tend not to find them helpful.  I believe if we teamed them up with a “navigator” who knows what questions to ask and how to advocate on their behalf we would be better able to tap into these resources.

As we unpacked the transportation issue, we found that in most cases it is a “gap” issue. The job seeker cannot get to the interview or to work for the period between the start date and the first pay check.  Once they receive their first paycheck, there will be the ability to hire a private transportation service or pay for bus tickets.  Of course the bus does not run out into the counties where the majority of the jobs are but we are hoping to find or create “pay as you go” options for those who have this kind of on-going need.

To address the front end “gap” issue, we are seeking volunteers who will help with the transportation needs of our friends to and from interviews.  In addition, we need donations of gas cards so that we can run our Embrace van to help those who secure employment in jobs not on the bus line.  We all know that transportation is a tough issue and we do not have all the answers so we welcome any ideas you may have. I would also love to know how other cities are addressing this issue.

The only thing I know is that employment is the only way to permanently end poverty and I also know that as Christians we are called to walk in solidarity with the poor.  We all want to see Congress balance the budget.  Many are in support of cutting federal entitlement programs.  But are we willing to be a part of the solution? Are we willing to literally walk with people on this journey?  Are we willing to use the assets we have, for example our cars, to help them do what we say they need to do – get a job?  Are we willing to move beyond charity and help people move away from dependence on public programs?

For those wondering how to respond to panhandlers, I suggest you read the post “Panhandlers: To Give or Not to Give.”

If you would like to help us address the issues noted above and help people get a job, please email me at wendy@embracerichmond.org.

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A Quiet Revolution

My post “Will Gandhi Burn” launched me on a journey – a journey toward understanding the bigger vision of Christ’s mission to reconcile all things. Last week I shared some of the biblical foundation for our call to be reconcilers.  However, that post did not go quite far enough in defining the practical realities of living our lives as “reconcilers” of a broken world.  This week I picked up Emmanuel Katongole and Chris Rice’s book, “Reconciling All Things: A Christian Vision for Justice, Peace and Healing” and was both challenged and encouraged by some of what they had to say.

“Reconciliation is an invitation into a long and fragile journey.  It is not a “solution” or an end product, but a process and an ongoing search.  We find ourselves pilgrims in search of something better in a divided world. Reconciliation flows from hope – hope that the way things are is not the way things have to be.

Recently Charles and I were invited to speak on the topic of racial reconciliation.  I actually found this topic to be somewhat uncomfortable because “racial reconciliation” is so often seen as a “goal” to be achieved verses a journey to be embarked on.  As I reflected on the topic, I realized that I did not set out to “reconcile” the racial divide.  I simply felt called to hang out with people who had a different story to tell.  In their stories I came face to face with the same Jesus I had come to know and love.  It was through our common identity as children of God that we connected across race and class.  It was through this shared identity that we began to see one another as sisters and brothers.

I have also learned that reconciliation is a two way street.  It was as difficult for Charles to cross over into a white middle class community as it was for me to feel at home in an African American inner city neighborhood.  However, we were both pilgrims called on the same journey through the hope that “the way things are is not the way things have to be.

“The journey of reconciliation begins with seeing that reconciliation is not the goal of human striving but is instead a gift God longs for us to accept.  God’s mission of reconciliation challenges, moves beyond, and even explodes the conventional distinctions. The more Christians are able to ground reconciliation as a journey with God from old toward new, the more we are able to recover the indispensible gifts that sustain that journey and make it possible.”

This past week we had a listening session around the topic of safety in Hillside court, one of the most violent neighborhood’s in our city.  There were black, white, rich and poor all present in that room.  My Hillside friends could have easily said, “You do not belong here!  What do you know about life in Hillside Court?” Honestly, that is what was running through my mind.  However, we were able to be reconciled in our willingness to go on a journey together with God as we move from the “old Hillside” to the vision of a “new Hillside.”  A vision where God’s people stand hand in hand and beseech God to bring peace to this wounded community.  On Wednesday there were no newspaper reporters, no fanfare, but I do believe we started a quiet revolution to reclaim the streets of Hillside Court and make them safe for the next generation.

“A Christian vision insists that reconciliation is ultimately about the transformation of the everyday- a quiet revolution that occurs over time in everyday people, everyday congregations, everyday communities, amid the most broken places on God’s earth.  God’s life-giving vision grows out of a story; and that story is about a quieter revolution.  We must gain the eyes to see this hope because this quiet revolution often happens under the radar screen.”

The picture above is of that quiet revolution.  It is a photo of my friend John cooking with a volunteer from Salisbury Presbyterian Church.  John is a resident of Hillside Court, one of the most economically disadvantaged communities in our city while Salisbury is one of the wealthiest communities in Metro Richmond.  Through the everyday act of cooking together, God’s mysterious spirit is reconciling our city and writing a new story.  This quiet revolution is being sparked by boundary crossers like John who believe that “the way things are is not the way things have to be.”

“We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted but not abandoned; struck down,  but not destroyed…therefore we do not lose heart (2 Cor 4:8-9,16). We’re able to not lose heart because we look beyond the now, beyond the visible, and remember the story of God. Without that story, we would be overwhelmed, crushed, destroyed.  That is why stepping back from relentless activism is essential in order to “fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen.  For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” “

As I shared in my post “A Voice Calling in the Wilderness”, I have developed a regular rhythm of stepping back and reflecting through my time in the wilderness.  We have also built into our Embrace team schedule times of reflecting on what God is doing in our midst and inviting God to ground us in truth as we seek to join God in the unfolding story of our city.  These times of meditation and reflection have radically transformed our team over the past year and have taught us to listen not only to one another but to that still small voice that is the power behind all we see and do.  It is only in remembering that the story the world sees, a story of murder and violence is not the only story unfolding.  This quiet revolution is tapping into the unseen story of God’s reconciling spirit that is changing Hillside Court from a community terrorized by fear to one triumphant through God’s power.

“The problem with individualistic Christianity is what we call “reconciliation without memory,” an approach that ignores wounds of the world and proclaims peace where there is no peace (see Jer 8:11).  This shallow kind of Christianity does not take local places and their history of trauma, division and oppression seriously.  It abandons the past too quickly and confidently in search of a new future.  This  insufficient version of Christian mission or reconciliation without memory,  jumps over the past too quickly by offering cheap grace to those who have done wrong and never repented.”

Over the past several months we have been listening deeply to our Hillside friends and trying to understand the fears they have that hold them in bondage to terrorist forces in their community.  When we had a conversation about neighborhood watch we heard, “I don’t want to be seen with police…I don’t want to be a snitch…I keep to myself and I stay safe that way.”  When we asked our team to pass out flyers, they expressed fear over being associated with any conversation about safety.  I realize now that we were seeking “reconciliation without memory.”

As we listened more deeply I discovered a very real fear of the police.  Many of the residents had been harassed by the police in the past and had little confidence in the police department’s ability to protect them from the criminal element.  I finally understood why my friends were so resistant to any safety solution that required them to collaborate with the police.  As we listened to their traumatic memories, we allowed space for a different means of reconciliation to take shape.

We discovered that the residents cared deeply for their children and felt called to create safer streets by simply providing more adult presence outside with the children and by also supporting the single mothers in the community.  This is not the direction I thought the conversation would go but it clearly a better starting place for the community.  We never would have found this path toward peace had we not listened to their experiences and pain.

“The Christian practice of reconciliation has to do with recovering a posture of receptivity and gratitude as a key virtue – the original virtue – for Christians living in a divided world.  The story of Scripture hangs on this theme of movement toward new creation. We must give ourselves and others time and space to become new people.  We need one another to become all that Christ has called us to be. This is work in which we learn to lay down our lives for the sake of a deeper hope breaking into the world. However weak it may seem to us, we are called to work on skills of forgiveness, self-giving service and costly love of the enemy.  Unless a Christian pursuit of peace and reconciliation constantly points to this story of “the battle is the Lord’s,“ it can never be sustained.”

I think developing a posture of openness is the key in everything we have done at Embrace.  As we remain open and receptive to the stories of people whose journey is very different than our own, we allow ourselves to be transformed into reconcilers.  As reconcilers we are able to usher in a new reality.  In the case of Hillside this reality would be a community where fear does not rule the streets.  I pray my Hillside friends grow in confidence knowing that “the battle is the Lord’s” as we all work on skills of forgiveness, self-giving service and costly love of our enemies.

I am only half way through this wonderful book but hope to share more insights next week.

Do you see God’s Kingdom breaking into our divided world?  Are you called to be an agent of reconciliation in your own city?  What challenges have you faced?  What breakthroughs are you seeing?

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A Search for Kingdom Churches: Northminster Part 2 – Cassie’s Story

Last week I shared with you Jeanne’s story and how God used her to spark a movement.  While Jeanne sparked a vision, it was Cassie Matthew who fanned that spark into a flame.

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”;

  1. Seek to release their people and resources out into the world instead of consuming them for their own needs.
  2. Are truly investing in the kingdom for the long-haul as a way of life, not simply doing missions events.
  3. Are doing more than giving money or stuff, but are building relationships that are transforming not only our city, but also the church.
  4. 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.

Is your church a Kingdom Church?  How does your church interact with those in need in your city?  Would your church welcome someone like Cassie from outside the church and see her work as Kingdom Building?

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