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Through ministries with the poor, receivers become givers

"I used to hear 'the poor' and picture some rundown streets in some inner-city areas, far from the small town ... where I live," the Rev. Lee Schott wrote in a blog. "'The poor' were nameless, faceless and distant. People for whom we'd leave food at the local food pantry. I was pretty OK with that."

Schott's appointment to Women at the Well United Methodist Church at the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women in Mitchellville changed her perspective of ministry from "to" to "with."

Today "With*" is a campaign to raise awareness, educate and inspire people around ministry with the poor, one of the denomination's four areas of focus. The General Board of Church and Society and the General Board of Global Ministries lead the way.

Continuing learning opportunities introduced in 2013, nearly 300 United Methodists last year participated in five regional "Ministry With*" training events for people interested in transformational, relationship-based ministries with people living in poverty. Host congregations – each with thriving ministries with the poor – included:

  • Better Community Development and Theressa Hoover Memorial United Methodist Church, Little Rock, Arkansas
  • Cass Community United Methodist Church and Cass Community Social Services, Detroit 
  • Church for All People United Methodist Church and Community Development for All People, Columbus, Ohio
  • Glide Memorial United Methodist Church, San Francisco
  • and St. John's Downtown United Methodist Church and St. John's Northwest Campus, Houston

Training in 2016 will kick off at The Haywood Street Congregation in Asheville, North Carolina, followed by events in Detroit, Little Rock and Columbus. Find details of the training events at

The Haywood Street Congregation

"We like to think of ourselves as a mission with a church community rather than a church community with a mission," says the Rev. Brian Combs, founding pastor. "People in poverty run, manage and are stewards of all of our ministries."

Located in the homeless corridor of Asheville's West Side, Haywood Street defines itself as a transformative open community of Christ, creating opportunities to serve and be served. All who participate are empowered to claim their identity as children of God.

"Worship is the heart of where we are," Combs says. About 100 people attend services on Wednesdays from 12:30 to 1:15 p.m. The church offers several core programs.

  • The Downtown Welcome Table serves a free, sit-down, family-style luncheon for up to 400 people each Wednesday. Free haircuts are also available.
  • The God's Outfitters Clothing Closet offers free items to about 150 people on Wednesdays.
  • The Love and Fishes Bountiful Garden produces fresh, organic produce, grown by and for the community.
  • The Haywood Street Respite, a transitional living and healing space, accommodates up to eight adults in need of rest and recovery after discharge from inpatient hospital stays.

The core programs provide a platform for the ministry of relationship, which contrasts with "doing for" and requires spending time together, talking and listening, giving and receiving. Those who often feel unwelcome in church experience grace and a seat at the table. When people come face to face with the stereotypes – the poor, the mentally ill, the addicted – they encounter the holy in ways they never expected, Combs adds.

A congregational development grant from the Western North Carolina Conference provided initial support. Today, the Haywood Street congregation is a teaching parish, guiding others who want to start or improve their ministries with the poor.

Cass Community UMC and Cass Community Social Services

Cass Community United Methodist Church (founded in 1881) is in a changing community, explains the Rev. Faith Fowler, who has served the congregation more than 20 years. First, it was home to Detroit's well-to-do families. Next, it accommodated migrants from the South who moved north for assembly work in the automobile factories. In the 1960s and 1970s, it was associated with widespread use of illegal drugs, crime, prostitution and poverty.

Ministry with the poor, then, has a long history at Cass Community.

"Cass Church established a soup kitchen during the Great Depression by gleaning from what were rural areas and are now Detroit suburbs," Fowler says. "The food program has never been interrupted. Today Cass makes and serves 1 million meals annually."

Over time, other programs were added as unmet needs were identified, including day programs "with and for individuals who had mental illnesses, developmental disabilities, as well as poor seniors and youth." In 2002, a separate but linked nonprofit – Cass Community Social Services – expanded to include residential and employment programs. More than 300 men, women and children experiencing homelessness stay in a Cass facility each night, and 85 formerly unemployed adults have permanent jobs in Cass Community's Green Industries.

At Cass Community, Christ-centered ministries offer balm for the hungry, the sick, the homeless, the unemployed and others in crisis.

"We have eight community gardens and a greenhouse," Fowler says, "so we grow most of our own vegetables in the summer. The program cooks and serves meals for people in the community and homeless individuals living at Cass."

Cass operates two free medical clinics staffed by volunteer doctors and medical students from Wayne State University. The agency also has Michigan's only residential program for homeless men with HIV/AIDS and housing for homeless men with mental illnesses. Finally, Cass operates a five-day-a-week program for 125 adults with developmental disabilities.

Two other Cass programs assist homeless people with mental illnesses. Teams of staff members go out seven days a week to engage people living on the streets or in abandoned structures. The church operates an overnight warming center November through March, two emergency 90-day shelters, transitional housing and permanent supportive housing. This year, Cass will build 25 no-interest, rent-to-own tiny homes.

Since the 2007 recession, Cass has created jobs by employing people to recycle wood, tires, glass and other items. Eighty-five adults currently work in Green Industries, making products sold in the United States and six other countries. A publishing house and Cass Communi-tea (herbal, organic teas) also provide employment. Interest-free microloans benefit individuals starting a business or struggling with a personal crisis.

Theressa Hoover Memorial UMC and Better Community Development Inc.

Before Theressa Hoover Memorial United Methodist Church began, the building housed Highland Methodist Church, says Deborah Bell, director of programs for Better Community Development. During the Central High School desegregation crisis of 1957 in Little Rock, Arkansas, the church was a meeting place for citizens. Highland became a temporary school for white children during the closing of area high schools in 1957-58.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the neighborhood experienced a transition in racial composition. Highland and Pride United Methodist churches merged into Highland Valley United Methodist Church, now located in west Little Rock.

In 1980, the Rev. William H. Robinson Jr. was assigned to the vacant building in the heart of this transitional community. "Rev. Robinson, in the midst of the bare building and lack of members, began to envision what this new appointment would mean for him and the community he planned to serve," Bell says.

Initially, Black Community Developers Inc. and Better Community Development Inc. grew out of the outreach program of Hoover Memorial United Methodist Church. Bell says, "We started providing childcare services and expanded to include youth-oriented programs. These programs were set up to provide a safe haven for community youth and gang interventions for the Midtown. Other initiatives include a certified substance-abuse program, housing, women's programs, homeless shelter, job training and a HIV/AIDS ministry."

In 2013, the adult programs relocated from the church to a new facility, the Empowerment Center.

"Hoover is committed to be a spiritual home, where all people are unconditionally accepted, needs are met, lives are nurtured and recovery and healing can take place," Bell says.

Barbara Dunlap-Berg is general church content editor for United Methodist Communications, Nashville, Tennessee.

Ministry WITH*

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