Category Archives: Urban Ministry

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

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Filed under Community Development, missional church, Theology, Unity Works Reading, Urban Ministry

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

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Filed under Community Development, missional church, Urban Ministry

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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Filed under Community Development, Stories from the Street, Urban Ministry

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

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Filed under Community Development, Urban Ministry

Is it Safe?

Lion of the Dublin zoophoto © 2004 Tambako The Jaguar | more info (via: Wylio)


Do you remember this scene from the movie “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe?”

“Is he a man?”, asked Lucy.

“Aslan, a man?”, said Mr.Beaver sternly. “Certainly not. I tell you, He is the King of the wood and the son of the Great Emperor Beyond the Sea. Don’t you know who is the King of Beasts? Aslan is a lion – The lion. The Great Lion.”

“Ooh”, said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he…quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion!”

“That you will deary and no mistake”, said Mrs.Beaver. “If there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”

“Then he isn’t safe?”, said Lucy.

“Safe?”, said Mr.Beaver. “Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? Course he isn’t safe…..but he’s good. He’s the King I tell you.” – The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.

I did not get the profound significance of this statement until the second or third time I watched The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.  I meet many Lucy’s in the work that I do.  When I go out to Churches and invite Christians to venture into the inner city to spend time with Christ among the homeless population, the first question is always, “Is it safe?”  I never know how to answer this question because following Christ is always a dangerous proposition.

You do not have to spend much time in the Apostle Paul’s letters to realize just how dangerous being a Christ follower is. One of the best examples is 2 Corinthians 11:24-26 where the Apostle Paul writes

“Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea,I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers.”

I love this passage because no matter how bad things get for me; I have it good compared to Paul!  So why is it that we as Christians today think that we can follow Christ and still play it safe at the same time? There is certainly much biblical evidence to the contrary.

However, I cannot judge the Lucy’s of the world.  “Is it safe?” was my first question when I heard God calling me into the city to spend time with a young homeless mother named Stephanie who had just exited the local shelter.  I knew in my first encounter with this woman in the safe comfortable confines of my local church that Christ was present as she and I shared our stories.  I knew that the call to visit her at her home was of God and yet I almost allowed fear to keep me from choosing the good over the safe.  I almost allowed the enemy to steal the tremendous blessings that grew out of that first act of faithfulness by convincing me that my safety was more important than my obedience.

I will never forget my heart pounding as I drove into the city and the ominous words of my husband who urged me not to go because “this city is a dangerous place”.  I had him on the cell phone the entire time I was searching for Stephanies’s apartment.  Like Mrs. Beaver pointed out, there are few who can go before the King without their knees knocking.  But the minute Stephanie opened that apartment door and embraced me as her sister in Christ, all my fear vanished.  God does not remove our fear, but if we are faithful to persevere in spite of the fear, God will reward our faithfulness.

I think the larger question is “Is it safe to ignore the call of God?”  I am not big into the use of “fear of God” as a reason for people getting involved.  Instead, I see the real risk not in God zapping us for being disobedient but the greater risk is in us missing out on the blessings that God has in store for us.

Do you remember the scene in Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian where Lucy after looking for Aslan throughout the movie, goes alone into the forest and finally finds him.  She throws herself, arms stretched wide around his enormous neck, and embraces him with such love and devotion.  Can you imagine all the blessings Lucy would have missed out on had she been too scared to approach Aslan?

In Matthew 25:40, Jesus said

“The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’”

When we choose to seek Christ among the least, we are assured to find him there and while he is not safe, he is always good.

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Filed under Leadership, Unity Works Reading, Urban Ministry

Ministry on the Move

If you have read my book, you know Embrace Richmond started with me asking my neighbors the question, “If you could do anything for God and knew you would not fail, what would you do?”  At that time, I drew a picture of a bus with a cross on top.  It was mobile ministry bus taking the dreams of my suburban community into the city and connecting it with the dreams of our urban sisters and brothers.  In hindsight, I kind of wish I would have drawn a stationary building instead of something with wheels!  Since its inception, Embrace Richmond has been a ministry on the move – both literally and figuratively.  We have been housed five locations in seven years and we are not done yet.

It is time again for us to say farewell to one home and embrace the next phase of our journey.  On March 1st, we will say good-by to our home off Commerce Road which we have been privileged to share with the CARITAS Furniture Bank, Homeward and The Healing Place for the past two and a half years.  While we are sad to leave our friends and partners, we are very excited about our new home at Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond.  In some ways, we have come full circle.  As I shared in my convocation message at BTSR in the fall, Embrace Richmond grew out of the rich theological foundations laid by my seminary experience.  While BTSR will be the sixth physical address for Embrace Richmond it was the first spiritual home for the ministry.

This move is both a physical change but also reflective of what God has done over the past year.  We believe that this move will do far more than provide a roof over our head but will set us on a new course:  A course that more fully aligns us with our goal of strengthening communities by mobilizing people of faith in works of service.

One of the greatest privileges I have had over the past year is the opportunity to teach Christians solid, biblically grounded practices around “neighboring.”  As my CFA coach, Jay Van Gronigan, pointed out so much of our training as Christians both in seminaries and sanctuaries focuses on the first portion of the great commandment – loving God with all our heart, mind and soul.  There is almost no training available for people of faith around the second portion of the great commandment –  loving our neighbors as ourselves.  So much of what goes on under the title of “missions” is more about the needs of the church and the giver than it is about truly loving those in need as ourselves.  As I have had a chance to visit with pastors, particularly those who are planting new churches, it is this kind of learning that they are hungry for.

So how will this move impact us?  It has forced us to make a firm commitment to our Hillside friends.  Effective March 1st, we will open up a satellite location in the Hillside Court community which will be staffed by Embrace team members from 11:00-2:00, Tuesday through Thursdays.  During the increased hours, we will be offering new projects focused on health, employment and youth.   More information about this program expansion will soon appear on the Embrace Richmond website.  Our goal is that by September 2011, this Hillside portion of our ministry will be fully operated by Hillside residents and that it will serve as a connecting place for at least half the Hillside households.

At our BTSR headquarters we will focus on recruiting and training the next generation of pastoral leaders and laity.  Having such close proximity to BTSR, Union Presbyterian Seminary, J Sargent Renalds Brook Road Campus as well as Virginia Union University will significantly increase our ability to recruit and train mentors to serve in our community based programs as well as help prepare individuals to serve in other parts of our city and through other ministries.  We will be conducting future Unity Works sessions at this new location and are hoping to offer a class on community development at some point in the future through BTSR or one of the other schools who are a part of the theological consortium.

With the successes in connecting with the residents of Hillside using an Asset Based Community Development model,  we are hoping we can help other individuals and congregations develop their own ABCD based ministries in other communities across the city and ultimately across the state of Virginia. We are planning to have an ABCD training in the month of May.  This training will be conducted by Jay Van Gronigan the founder and Executive Director of Communities First Association, an organization dedicated to equipping churches for community based ministry across the country using ABCD principals.

Through our affiliation with Communities First Association, we have been blessed to catch a glimpse of what God is doing across this country as Christians learn to be good neighbors and learn to walk in solidarity with the materially poor.  We have seen God doing the same work here in our own city and hope that we can play a small role in fueling this exciting movement of God.


Filed under Community Development, Urban Ministry

Presencing: The Role of the Suburban Church


In an article titled The Church – A ‘Presencing’ Body For Advancing Sustainably?, Gail Plowman states “that actions don’t create relationships, but relationships often create actions.”  In my post “The Power of We”, I shared my belief that the core of any effective effort to change a community or an individual is grounded in relationships.  In this article, Gail makes a strong argument for what she terms “Presencing.”  Gail writes:

Presencing is a combination of being truly present in the moment – knowing the direction in which you want to go, ‘observing, observing, observing’ – and reflecting with an open mind, an open heart and an open will, sensing the emerging possibilities so that the next step is apparent, can be trialled and feedback gathered in the innovation process. On the way judgement, cynicism and fear will, hopefully, be bypassed.

I met with a Senior Pastor from a large suburban congregation this week who asked me, “What is the role of the suburban church?”  At the time of the meeting I had not read Gail’s article but as I was reading it I realized the answer to that question is “presencing.”  The church is not called to be successful, we are not called to create programs, committees, or to build structures to house all the above.  We are called to be present with a hurting world.  It is our need for quick fixes and measurable outcomes that is undermining the long-term power of  tranformative power of being present with people, looking for where God is already at work, and participating with people in the unfolding of new possibilities.

As a very action oriented person who likes to see outcomes, this article was a reminder that it is not about me, my program, or my ministry.  The power to transform the old into something new  lies in allowing God to move through us and become the presence of Christ in the world.


Filed under Community Development, Unity Works Reading, Urban Ministry

Putting the Pieces Together: Affordable Housing

Every time we teach Unity Works, I think I learn more than the participants.  For those of you who do not know, Unity Works is an 8 week interactive workshop series designed to address some of the most challenging issues facing our city. Our goal in facilitating these workshops is to help congregational groups be more intentional, innovative, and thoughtful regarding how they engage in missions activities locally.  This particular workshop series is focused on the issue of homelessness in our city and we were invited to facilitate this series by members of Commonwealth Chapel.

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Filed under Community Development, missional church, Unity Works Reading, Urban Ministry

When Helping Hurts – Post #4

Over the past few weeks I have been blogging through the book When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert.  The authors point out that how you go about alleviating poverty is the result of how you define your end goal.  If you define poverty purely as a lack of material things, you will develop strategies that focus on material provision.  If however, you define poverty as the authors do

“Poverty is the result of relationships that do not work, that are not just, that are not for life, that are not harmonious or enjoyable.”

Then you will approach poverty alleviation differently.  The authors provide this definition

“Material poverty alleviation is working to reconcile relationships with God, self, others and creation so that people can fulfill their calling of glorifying God by working and supporting themselves and their families with the fruit of their work.”

The authors go on to say

“Poverty alleviation goes beyond insuring that people have sufficient material things; rather, it involves the much harder task of empowering people to earn sufficient material things through their own labor, for in so doing we move people closer to be what God created them to be. ”

I wanted to shout AMEN when I read the following statement which sums up the goal of the ministry of Embrace.  The author’s write

“The goal is to see people restored to being what God created them to be: people who understand that they are created in the image of God with gifts, abilities, and capacity to make decisions and to effect change in the world around them: and people who steward their lives, communities resources, and relationships in order to bring glory to God.  These things tend to happen in highly relational, process-focused ministries more than in impersonal, product-focused ministries.”

To emphasize this concept of “the goal as process not a product”, the authors tell the story of a ministry that purchased an abandoned building and rehabbed it in partnership with residents of the community with the vision being to use the house as affordable housing.  The project took five years and it only yielded one house.  However in those five years, those working on the house develop deep lasting friendships with their neighbors.  These relationships were life giving and would last long beyond the end of the project.  If the goal were to create affordable housing, it could have been done much faster.  However, the goal was community relationship building and the house was simply a project or a means to achieve that goal.

I am often frustrated with funding requirements because funders seem to want you to crank out “products”; food, employment solutions, shelter beds, meals, etc.  However, relationships are not products and can only be formed through a sustainable process of connecting with people around things they are passionate about.  Yes, Embrace Richmond does provide meals, food, furniture, financial resources, employment assistance and transportation services etc.    However, these “products” are not the goal.  The goal is to empower our community members to be a blessing to their neighbors and to bond with one another and outside volunteers as they are serving together and meeting these material needs.

This is a very hard paradigm shift for some people to make.  For Embrace the goal is not more material stuff but more love, more support, more acceptance.  In the long run love, support and acceptance will break the bonds of poverty and people will achieve far more than you could ever provide for them.  The material items are simply a means to an end.  It is far easier to meet material needs than it is to empower people to meet their own needs but it is the only way to truly alleviate poverty over the long-haul.

I hope you have enjoyed the insights from this book.  As I mentioned in Post #2 the authors are far more theologically conservative than I am, but I agreed with the basic premise underlying the authors approach to the issue of poverty.

What roles can people of faith play in this vision of poverty alleviation?

What challenges do you see with this approach to alleviating poverty?

Do you know of any good ministries or other programs that are using this approach to poverty alleviation?

OK, my reading table is empty.  Any book suggestions for future blogging projects?


Filed under Community Development, missional church, Unity Works Reading, Urban Ministry

When Helping Hurts – Post #3

One of the basic premises of the book “When Helping Hurts”, which I have been blogging through this past month, is that poverty is really a breakdown in relationships; relationships with self, others, God and creation.  The authors state, “While poor people mention having a lack of material things, they tend to describe their condition in far more psychological and social terms…poor people typically talk in terms of shame, inferiority, powerlessness, humiliation, hopelessness, depression, fear, social isolation and voicelessness.”

Outsiders tend to emphasis a lack of material items such as food, clothing, shelter and employment.   The author’s emphasis that “this mismatch between the outsiders perceptions of poverty and the perceptions of poor people themselves can have devastating consequences on poverty alleviation efforts.

The authors give the example of someone who goes from church to church asking for money to pay their bills and ask “What if this person’s fundamental problem is not having the self-discipline to keep a stable job?  Simply giving this person money is treating the symptoms rather than addressing the underlying disease and will enable him to continue with his lack of self-disciple…A proper diagnosis is absolutely critical for helping people without hurting them.”

“Poverty is the result of relationships that do not work, that are not just, that are not for life, that are not harmonious or enjoyable.”

This much broader definition of poverty can help us all to see our own poverty, which is absolutely necessary if we hope to build authentic relationships with those we serve.  According to the authors, “Until we embrace our mutual brokenness, our work with low income people is likely to do more harm than good.”

The authors believe, “Low income people often feel inferior to others. This can paralyze the poor from taking initiative and from seizing opportunities to improve their situation, thereby locking them into material poverty. The economically rich often have “god-complexes, “ a subtle and unconscious sense of superiority in which they believe they have achieved their wealth through their own efforts and that they have been anointed to decide what is best for low-income people, whom they view as inferior to themselves. One of the biggest problems with many poverty alleviation efforts is that their design and implementation exacerbates the poverty of being of the economically rich – their god-complexes – and the poverty of being for the economically poor – their feelings of inferiority and shame.”

To summarize the author gives this formula:

A material definition of poverty

Plus: The god-complexes of the materially non-poor

Plus:  The feelings of inferiority of the materially poor

Equals: Harm to both the materially poor and non-poor

The authors suggests, “For many of us North Americans the first step in overcoming our god-complexes is to repent of the health and wealth gospel.  At its core, the health and wealth gospel teaches that God rewards increasing levels of faith with greater amounts of wealth.”  This kind of theology can lead people to argue that the poor are poor because they are less spiritual than the rest of us which is simply not true.

In my next and final post related to this book, we will look at how the authors of “When Helping Hurts” suggest we can help alleviate poverty without doing harm to ourselves or others.

What do you think of the author’s definition of poverty as being a breakdown in relationships?

Do you agree with the author’s assessment that the materially non-poor often suffer from god-complexes?

What do you think of the author’s formula for causing harm?


Filed under Community Development, Theology, Unity Works Reading, Urban Ministry