Top photo: Highbridge Community Church, Bronx, NY – Pastor Cora Taitt
In 2020, Lilly Endowment Inc. awarded the seminary a one million dollar grant to fund Churches in Mission, a five-year project that aims to learn with and from congregations as they discern God’s movement in their neighborhoods.
In April, Churches in Mission kicked off a 15-month journey with a virtual training event. From a variety of contexts, traditions, and neighborhoods, seven congregations invited five team members to engage the process and attend the event. Their work begins with an ethnography-inspired listening and discovery process in their neighborhoods. Their goal is to more deeply hear, love, and care for their neighbors. They may also discover new local partnerships and ministry opportunities along the way.
At the April event, teams identified the boundaries of their neighborhoods; they received areas of exploration including transportation, school access, and local business; they practiced listening skills and conducted interviews. Each congregational team beautifully began the work of slowing down and seeing their neighborhood with new eyes.
The congregations participating in the Churches in Mission cohort are fostering curiosity around what it means to understand and appreciate the land from which they benefit. One congregation is seeing their neighborhood shift with the construction of 10,000 new apartments on their street. Another congregation recognizes that their neighborhood is becoming less accessible to lower income families. One church is curious about missed relational opportunities as their building houses two distinct worshipping communities comprised of members from different economic groups.
Faithfully engaging local mission will unfold uniquely in each of these contexts. These teams are on a journey to listen deeply, be abundantly grateful, and joyfully minister in the unique neighborhoods in which they dwell.
“Let me tell you about yesterday.”
Seth Kaper-Dale has been co-pastor with his wife, Stephanie Kaper-Dale, at Reformed Church of Highland Park (RCHP) for the last 19 years. When they first arrived, the church was a gathering of fewer than 50 people. It was not impacting the neighborhood and membership was in decline. Now, RCHP provides food for hungry families, employment for refugees, operates a farm and a farmer’s market, provides and manages affordable housing units, and advocates for their vulnerable neighbors. They are involved in refugee resettlement, working for racial justice, and caring for the environment.
RCHP has so much going on that it is difficult to boil it down to one story, but Pastor Seth says he can share about yesterday. It was not a neat, tidy day. It was a day that illustrates what it looks like to be fully invested in a hurting world.
First, the church received a call asking if they could house a man who was unexpectedly being released on bond in Georgia, over 700 miles away. They said yes. They have invested in affordable housing. They know how to do case management. Their commitment to their neighborhood made it possible to say yes.
Later in the day, there was another phone call. The call was about Emerson, a man whose family RCHP has been supporting through housing. Emerson has not been able to support his wife and three children this past year due to being detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for months and months. Counter to everyone’s hopes and prayers that he would be released, the call confirmed that Emerson was being deported to Guatemala.
19 years ago, RCHP would not have received either of these kinds of calls. Today, because the church chose to lean in, it is a daily witness to the pain of a broken world and an active participant in God’s plan to make all things new. Both of yesterday’s phone calls are a result of RCHP’s faithfulness. Both phone calls are an invitation to keep leaning in.
If your congregation is ready to engage in local mission and wants to learn from what churches like Reformed Church of Highland Park are doing, consider applying for the Churches in Mission Cohort hosted by Western Theological Seminary. Find more out more at bast.westernsem.edu/churches-in-mission
Ten years ago, Grace Fellowship Church (GFC) in Johnson City, TN started a partnership with a local elementary school. Members of the church became lunch buddies and home room helpers. They started a kick-ball league and an Arts Program.
Rod Barnett, one of the volunteers of the Arts Program, shares his experience with the school:
One of the great volunteer opportunities that has drawn my wife and me to GFC is the partnership with Mountain View Elementary School in Johnson City. Mountain View is a ‘Title I’ school, with many of the students coming from a challenging home environment. I decided to join the Arts club at Mountain View this year. The Arts Club is a partnership between Mountain View and GFC, where we get to participate with Mountain View children, their parents, and school officials in various Arts programs.
This year we had the opportunity to organize and put on the play called ‘Stone Soup.’ As part of the program, we worked for about six weeks every Thursday at 5:00, helping the kids learn their lines, make the sets, and get ready for the presentation. It was eye-opening and so much fun to watch the students rehearse and say their lines, interact with each other (and their parents!) positively, and grow through the process. I really enjoyed the experience! Bottom line – we had so much fun, grew a lot ourselves, made new friends, and enjoyed a dinner and fellowship with our participants and parents after each rehearsal.
If your congregation is ready to engage in local mission and wants to learn from what churches like Grace Fellowship Church are doing, consider applying for the Churches in Mission Cohort hosted by Western Theological Seminary. Find more out more at bast.westernsem.edu/churches-in-mission
What is a church when the building is closed? Emmanuel Reformed Church in Paramount, CA has multiple buildings and properties open 6 to 7 days a week. They use their buildings to provide spaces for worship, after school care, Celebrate Recovery, sports teams, food distribution, an art center, and to support families managing their finances. The buildings have been a significant part of their ministry but, due to the pandemic, they’ve had to close.
Victor Luse, his wife, and young children had never gone inside an Emmanuel Paramount building, but last year they met the church on the street. In late November the family saw a group of people outside lighting a Christmas tree. They were singing in English and in Spanish, the Luse Family’s first language. The family stopped and watched. They met the pastor, Ken Korver, and made their first connection to this group of people striving to love God and their neighbors.
Pastor Ken shared that people have been watching the outdoor services from their porches, alleyways, and even the car wash. A woman he’s never met posted on social media that listening to the choir music ringing through the neighborhood lifts her spirits.
The buildings are not Emmanuel Paramount. What is a church when the building is closed? It is the people in the street who the Luse family and the rest of the neighborhood are now encountering right where they live.
If your congregation is ready to reimagine local mission, consider applying for the Churches in Mission Cohort hosted by Western Theological Seminary. Find more out more at westernsem.edu/churches-in-mission.
“If your church burned down today, would the neighborhood care?” This is the question Pastor Rafer Owens wrestled with shortly after Faith Inspirational Church was planted in 1995. He had lived his whole life in Compton, CA and Pastor Owens loved his neighborhood. At the time, his family name was most prominently linked to a gang created in the 1970s by his brother. Rafer hoped to change the legacy.
While his brother went to prison for murder, Pastor Owens became a Deputy Sheriff and, a decade later, a pastor as well. In 2006 his understanding of ministry shifted when Emmanuel Reformed Church, located nearby in Paramount, began service projects in Compton with a bold vision for the neighborhood. In his role as sheriff, Pastor Owens had the responsibility of showing up to Emmanuel Church’s first gathering in Compton. He didn’t anticipate the passion they shared for his neighborhood and the partnership between their congregations that would emerge.
Today, Pastor Owens and his church are working toward healing and redemption. After being released from prison, Rafer’s brother had a career as a bus driver and serves as an usher at Faith Inspirational Church.
When Pastor Owens reflects on whether the neighborhood would care if his church burned down, he says, “If the neighborhood doesn’t care that means you’re not present in the neighborhood.”
Now, they know every single person by name who lives on the six blocks that surround their church building. They regularly knock on doors and ask what people need. “Jesus met the need.” Pastor Owens reminds people, “Ninety percent of the time, Jesus was in the street. And then ten percent of the time he was in the synagogue. I tell people all the time, ‘We’re not Churchans. We’re Christians.’ We do what Christ did, that means ninety percent of the time we need to be outside.”
If your congregation is ready to reimagine local mission, consider applying for the Churches in Mission Cohort hosted by Western Theological Seminary. Find out more today.
(Johnson City, TN)
Two years after losing her husband, single mom Amy* heard about a local church offering free oil changes. She and her husband were in debt before he died, and now, the stack of unpaid bills continued to grow. The trailer where she lived needed repairs. She couldn’t afford an oil change, so she went to the church, First Christian in east Tennessee.
This is where she met Pastor Kathy Smith, the Community Outreach Director. Since then, widows and young moms like Amy have been energized by the now annual outreach event. Pastor Smith says the best part is the connections and conversations that take place between the women while their cars are given oil changes and looked over. They share a meal together and they share their stories.
When Pastor Smith considers the work that First Christian Church is called to do, she immediately thinks of Amy, showing up to that first oil change. Now, Amy is active in the congregation and frequently looking for ways to serve others. Through the relationships First Christian Church has built in local partnerships like these, the congregation continues to grow and be formed by the voices and presence of those they first set out to serve.
If your congregation is ready to reimagine local mission, consider applying for the Churches in Mission Cohort hosted by Western Theological Seminary. Find more out more today.
*name changed to protect privacy
Meet one of the congregations teaching us about Churches in Mission. Grace and Peace is a congregation located on the West Side of Chicago. Over the last decade, they have invested in local mission and provided food to 40 families a week through their partnership with the GAP Community Center. During the initial COVID-19 shutdowns in March, people in the surrounding neighborhoods of North Austin, Humboldt Park, Hermosa, Galewood, and Belmont Cragin quickly felt the impact of lost income and lack of resources.
Pastor John Zayas recognized the pressing needs and reached out to other churches and organizations. Utilizing their partnerships, Grace and Peace began to organize food donations in rising quantities. Through the GAP Community Center, they went from serving 40 families to 400 families in the spring of 2020. Over the summer months they increased their capacity to serve 800 families a week. Now, with the help of government and local partnerships, they are giving 2 to 5 boxes of food a week to 1,200 families.
Preston Hogue, an associate pastor at Grace and Peace, shares how providing food has defined their ministry this year. He notes that Grace and Peace has impacted tens of thousands of lives through the pantry. Grace and Peace was invested in their neighborhood and clear on their mission. It was never in question who they were called to be in this moment. There have been a variety of responses to the pandemic of 2020. In many places there has been an abundance of fear, shutdown, and retreat. At Grace and Peace, Hogue tells us, “We have responded by feeding people.”
If your congregation is ready to engage in local mission and wants to learn from what churches like Grace and Peace are doing, consider applying for the Churches in Mission Cohort hosted by Western Theological Seminary. Find more out more at bast.westernsem.edu/churches-in-mission
Western Theological Seminary (WTS) is pleased to announce it has received a $1 million grant from Lilly Endowment Inc. to fund Churches in Mission. The project aims to learn with and from congregations as they discern God’s movement in their neighborhoods.
Churches in Mission will extend the work of the Formation for Ministry office and will be led by Shari Oosting and Dr. Kyle Small. The seminary will deploy the $1 million grant to invite two cohorts of up to 15 churches each to discover the needs in their community, to clarify congregational mission, and to determine how to join the ongoing work of God in their neighborhoods.
Project Director Shari Oosting recognizes the timeliness of this opportunity, “The context of Christian ministry in the U.S. is changing quickly, and we’re thrilled to dedicate the next five years to listening, discerning, and celebrating local mission projects.” Kyle Small, Director of Research and Learning, sees this as an extension of WTS’s partnership with the church, “We love the church, and we desire to prepare leaders for the church in mission. This generous gift provided by Lilly Endowment is WTS’s opportunity to accompany congregations and prepare leaders to discover and join the Holy Spirit’s movement in and through local communities.”