Yesterday I had the honor of speaking at the Unitarian Universalists General Assembly, which is gathered in Columbus, Ohio. Below, are the notes from my talk. In this presentation, I emphasize the potential of what can you happen when you are in relationship WITH people. However, while I talked about it, I witnessed the power of WITH on our way to the conference room.
Outside the convention center, a dozen people from Westboro Baptist gathered to protest. As we walked out of the main exhibit hall, our path was blocked by a choir singing “I’ve Got Peace Like a River”. It was one of the most sacred sounds I have ever heard. Led by people adorned with angel wings, their voices echoed through the convention center. I could not believe such beauty could come from the human voice. It didn’t come from one voice, but came from hundreds of voices singing together, WITH one another.
As I went to my appointed room, the choir went outside. There, they countered the hatred of the protest with the compassion of singing. They did not return anger for anger or shouts for shouts, instead they flooded the area with their voices. The drowned out hatred with love.
While I hope that this presentation encouraged people to form relationships WITH their neighbors, the practice of the Unitarian Universalists more powerfully made my point. It is when we stand WITH each other that we can bring peace, love, and inclusion in to the world.
Good afternoon and thank you for the honor of this invitation to speak with you today.
I would like to talk with you about the power of a simple word, “with”.
With is a short preposition that goes almost unnoticed in a sentence, but is a word that has changed my life.
I am a United Methodist pastor and the United Methodist Church, as a denomination, has four focus areas: renewing churches, developing leaders, global health, and ministry WITH the poor. In that final area, the word with is easily ignored. We are more likely to hear the words ministry and poor and think of WITH as something that ties them together. But, WITH makes all the difference.
In 2009, I began to serve as an associate pastor at Cental United Methodist Church in Albuquerque, New Mexico. When I attended the first staff meeting at Central, I learned about two programs the church already had going on. The first was a program that met the immediate, short-term needs of the homeless community called Helping Hands. The second is a long-term program that provided housing and education for families to break the cycle of homelessness called Saranam.
While I was there, we added to the depth of these existing programs and created additional ministries. For example, in Helping Hands, we began to have the people who received sack lunches and bus passes and clothing and toiletries serve on the other side of the counter and we had at least one church person each day who sat and talked with people experiencing homelessness.
From these already existing relationships, I began to look for opportunities to build greater depth. Not only to hand people something to help them get through the day, but to form networks of support and mutuality.
What began as informal conversations, turned in to the formation of a planning group, and in January of 2012, an outdoor worshiping community came together called Community of Hope.
Community of Hope was created very much with this WITH mindset. As we planned for what this service would be, about half the planning team was homeless people, about half traditional church people. The committee that continues to provide oversight is the same mix of homeless and housed people. Doing ministry with people does not only involve allowing people to serve on the other side of the table, but sharing power and decision making and ownership.
Being willing to share power WITH people who are often categorized as marginalized makes all the difference. Quickly, Community of Hope grew in to a service that I hosted but the community ran. Without any work on my part, tables and chairs were setup, sound systems running, and food served. I became little more than a host who offered prayer, communion, and facilitation of shared conversation. The community saw this as their service and that made all the difference.
It didn’t only make a difference in how a worship service functioned, but empowered people in their lives. People who had been excluded saw themselves differently when they were included. People who felt that their life had little purpose now had a role. With this new found sense of dignity and worth, over and over again I saw unemployed people find jobs, homeless people find shelter, lost people find meaning.
If you are willing to listen to the community around you and be humble enough to share the table of ideas with them, lives can be changed. Not only their lives, but ours.
The life that was most changed through this concept of ministry WITH people was my own. I experienced the presence of God more clearly and distinctly by being involved with people who were homeless that I could not spend a career in a traditional, white, middle class church. It was through the voice of the marginalized that I experienced a second calling to dedicate my life to ministry with the poor.
So, a year and a half ago I dragged my family across the country and we moved from Albuquerque to the Church for All People here in Columbus, Ohio. At the Church for All People I serve as the Director of the Healthy Eating and Living program. Last year we shared 600,000 pounds of free produce with a food insecure community, every week we empower dozens of kids and adults in cooking classes, in a neighborhood with a disproportionate amount of violence and broken sidewalks we have exercise programs and yoga classes, and in order for people to live in to their own wellness we offer health coaching.
But like I experienced in New Mexico, this work is done WITH people. This work begins by hearing the hopes and dreams and aspirations of the community. It doesn’t start with well-intentioned middle class people creating a program to go do for them, it starts with hearing a community’s dreams. From there, it takes root by involving the community. Every Tuesday morning a truck shows up in our parking lot with 12 to 15,000 pounds of produce, and every week, rain or shine, there are people from the community there to help unload it. They aren’t paid, they aren’t all scheduled, they aren’t even asked. But they participate because this is their program.
So many churches I have been a part of really struggle with the question, how do we connect with our neighbors? Health is an easy answer. No matter what type of neighborhood you are located in, Americans are unhealthy. While we have the greatest medical technology in the history of the world, at the same time we have the highest rates of obesity, diabetes, and cancer. We live in a country where the quality of health care varies significantly based on your ability to pay. We live in a country where the number one indicator of what your health will be is your zip code.
What if your church offered one program that was health related which could connect WITH your community? It could be something simple around food and nutrition, activity and exercise, addiction and recovery, or mental health.
A few months ago I was teaching a health and wellness class and as we talked about the lack of opportunities for exercise in our community. A class members said, why don’t we start a walking club? This last week, as we walked and bemoaned the amount of trash on the streets and sidewalks, another person said, why don’t we do neighborhood cleanup while we walk? So, starting on Monday our walking club will pick up trash.
This is the power of doing ministry with people. It isn’t complicated. It begins simply by listening to your neighbors and going on a journey with them.
I want to challenge you to adopt this type of mindset in your work. Ministry with people is not about changing the other, it is not a church growth strategy. I can’t promise you that if you adopt it you will have more money or more people, but I can promise you that the life that will be most powerfully changed will be your own.