Church Needs Better Infrastructure to Expand Ministry in Low Income Neighborhood. Really?

Part 1 of a series of blogs on Messy Ministry

A well-heeled congregation began an outreach to a low income neighborhood.  They started a food pantry and began meeting other physical needs for that community.  They started well.  Working with two local churches they were able to provide things that were truly needed instead of just guessing.  Their assistance provides families enough food to get through the month, and if they do nothing else, they are making a difference.

I was talking with a leader in the church about whether they planned to expand their involvement in that low income community.  Do they have any plans to get involved with people on a personal level? The answer was a “Yes, but…”

“Yes, but we’re not sure which way to go. There is no infrastructure for more involved ministry.”

The answer struck me as odd, but I didn’t have a response to it during the meeting.  As I drove home I pondered that phrase, “no infrastructure”.  What kind of infrastructure does it take to get to know people?  The first step in relational ministry is to get to know the people you are serving. Address their perceived needs.  Don’t assume you know what they’re hungry for.

Is there a place where people hang out in that community?  A park or playground?  If so, you have the infrastructure you need to get started.  Take a cooler of cold drinks there on a warm day and hang out with them.  Make friends.  That’s a great start.

The church in ministry works with two churches in the community. Do those churches have sanctuaries, parking lots or lawns?  If so, you have the infrastructure you need to get started. If there are no options with the local churches, is there a vacant lot in the neighborhood or a parking lot for a business you can use on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon?  If so, you have the infrastructure you need to get started.

Begin with a community gathering.  A block party is a great way to open doors.  To register for a door prize, a person has to fill out a survey.  From that survey and the conversations you have with people, you can assess where to move next in ministry.

Transformational ministry doesn’t need great infrastructure.  It needs people who are willing to make unlikely friends. It needs people who are willing to spend time with other people.  It needs people who are willing to risk broken hearts and disappointments in order to experience the shared joy of transformed lives.  It needs people who are willing to be transformed themselves.

God’s grace to you,

Steve Jennings, Executive Director

A Lesson in Agape

Garland Strosnider with TOP Volunteer Tobi Rouse
Garland Strosnider with TOP Volunteer Tobi Rouse

The message on Facebook came from Robert Strosnider. His brother, Garland, had passed away unexpectedly.  I was shocked. Garland was still in his 50s.  I had just seen him a couple of weeks before.

Robert’s wife, Melissa, called me seconds after I read the message.  As soon as I answered, she handed her phone to Robert.  He was overwhelmed with grief and uncertainty over making arrangements for Garland.  Our conversation on the phone was punctuated by his sobs. He and Garland argued a lot, but they were still very close. 

I couldn’t sort out all the details of why the police were called to Garland’s house, but they found him in the bathroom. Apparently he had hemorrhaged to death. His body was sent off for autopsy, but police didn’t seem to suspect foul play.

As I listened to Robert, my mind reached back over the last four years that our youth and adult volunteers had been working on Garland’s house.  Through Impact the Valley, Teens Opposing Poverty’s summer mission camp, we painted the outside, demolished a garage that had fallen apart, gave him water, heat, a kitchen and a useable bathroom. He lived in the family home on a monthly disability check he received due to cerebral palsy and couldn’t afford to do any of the work himself.  We weren’t finished, but we had given him a livable home.

But instead of the work, I thought about the beautiful relationships that came from our time with him.  Some of our youth (now young adults) became Garland’s favorite people and he became one of theirs.  I rarely had a conversation with him where he didn’t mention them. It was a powerful, close connection that impacted everybody involved.

I used to love to watch Garland light up when any of us came to his house and to see smiles on the faces of our volunteers, his friends, when they saw him.  They were often like kids playing together.

These four years with Garland and our volunteers gave me a wonderful view of agape, that unconditional love God has for us and wants us to have for each other.  It’s a love that crosses the boundaries of race, economic status, background, education and all the other fences that we put up around ourselves. Agape is beautiful, big and possesses an energy that can be experienced, but never explained.

We will never forget Garland and our special relationship that broke down the walls. It brought true joy into the hearts of lots of people.  We will all miss you, Garland. May you find rest in the arms of Jesus.

Steve Jennings, Executive Director

How Long Will You Hide?

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? Psalm 13:1 (NIV)

David, the King of Israel and psalmist,  penned these words about 3,000 years ago, but some things never change. If you live long enough, chances are you will go through at least one time of trouble that will leave you feeling the same way.

You know what it’s like, don’t you? You feel stuck in a hole with no way out. It beats you down. It takes a toll on your mind, body and soul. You feel overwhelmed, frustrated, drained, desperate and angry all at the same time.

It’s awful.

For most of us this pain, and the situation that causes it, will pass. But others get no reprieve.  Broken relationships, addiction, chronic sickness, long-term unemployment and poverty can drive people into the dark pit of despair for a lifetime.

How do they respond? They adapt. Their tough situation in life becomes the “new normal” and they learn how to live in their dark place. They try and fail to “get over the hump” so often that they give up. Once they reach this state of mind, any efforts they make to improve their lives are tainted by the expectation that they will fail again. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I can’t count how many homeless people I have worked with over the last 25 years who have given up trying to get out of their situations. They have embraced the belief that God has hidden His face from them and will forget them forever. For them, it takes a bonfire instead of a spark to light the fire of hope.

And yet that fire can still be lit, even in the heart of someone who has been homeless for 10, 20 or 30 years. I have had the unspeakable joy of seeing it happen.

That is where you and I come in. We can light the fire through friendship, exploring possibilities, re-igniting dreams and showing them that maybe- just maybe- God hasn’t forgotten them after all.

God’s grace to you,

Steve Jennings, Executive Director