When people find out about the work I do with the refugee community in the neighborhood surrounding my church, I’m often asked, “Can any church do this?”
My answer? Absolutely. Will the results be the same? No.
The reason for that is at the heart of our ministry. My work -- what we call the Fondren Apartment Ministry, or FAM -- involves living in solidarity and working with people in the neighborhood surrounding our church in Houston.
Many of these folks are refugees. But it’s not a “refugee ministry.” Instead, Westbury United Methodist Church, where I serve as associate pastor, embarked on a discernment process that led to my moving into the community and finding how God was working there already. The work with refugees grew from there.
What you find in your community is likely to be quite different; the details of your ministry will depend on what you find.
It won’t be easy. It involves taking risks and being scared and uncertain. It means facing barriers and challenges without a user manual or a blueprint showing what it looks like to move forward.
But I believe that it will be worth it.
I’d like to offer some guidelines for this kind of ministry. My suggestions are based on four years of working and living in intentional community here in Houston, as well as practicing a fourfold contemplative prayerful stance -- a way of living, moving and being -- as taught to me by one of my mentors, the Rev. Dr. Elaine A. Heath.
Heath is a theologian, speaker and teacher of evangelism. Her work is inspiring lay and clergy across the country and the world to lead the church into profound missional expressions of Christian community in the 21st century.
This practice guides what we do and how we do it. It has become a way -- a loop -- of discipleship, evangelism and mission, both individually and communally. It’s a way of opening ourselves to God and to others for deep transformation.
The first step is to …
I approached Nusura Mtendamema with a smile. I tried not to act like a totally-amped-and-naive-for-Jesus, brand-new seminary grad -- but that’s what I was. When we met at her apartment, we sat on her couch. We looked into each other’s eyes. We giggled nervously. We said a few phrases in our respective languages, but we mainly laughed and embraced the friendly silence.
Slowly, the sacred, gracious and powerful presence of God in Nusura’s home overwhelmed me. We had both shown up -- each with our own particular clothing, culture, language, expectations, personality and story. And we found ourselves present to God between us.
In showing up, we can see what it means to witness the kingdom of God at work in a community. It is a kingdom where prayer changes us, changes our surroundings, changes our neighborhood and changes the world.
Once we are present to God and to each other, we …
Three partners and I relocated to the Fondren neighborhood in March 2013 and began a practice of hospitality together as a community by inviting Nusura and her friends over for dinner. We also held a simple worship service in our new home. The gatherings grew until our neighbors threatened to call the police because we were singing so loudly!
We had expected to focus on small home gatherings for microcommunity worship, but we discovered God surprising us and inviting us to imagine more. First, we found that people wanted to meet in a larger space, which led to weekly gatherings in an apartment courtyard -- and eventually led back to our church.
By paying attention, we created holy friendships. To me, holy friendships are relationships that open us to God.
Christians in any context -- urban, rural or suburban -- can meet God where God is already working, says the Rev. Hannah Terry in this 2-minute video.
Because of holy friendships built among African and American mamas gathering in the kitchen, leaders gathering at church committee meetings now ask different questions.
Because of holy friendships built among young adults from Congo, Washington, D.C., and North Texas gathering for weekly Ultimate Frisbee, leaders gathering for prayer now make tearful, risky confessions to one another about their participation in systemic racism.
Because of holy friendships built over time among people of modest to wealthy means, members of Westbury UMC now ask how God would have us intentionally steward the unique gifts and resources offered by each member of the body.
When we pay attention to what’s happening around us, then we are able to …
Back in the early spring of 2012, an apartment complex manager called Westbury: “Hey, y’all are a church, will you send somebody down to start a Bible study?” God was already at work in the neighborhood, preparing openness to holy friendships and igniting the imagination of neighborhood leaders.
When we believe that God has already been at work long before we arrive somewhere, we are freed for joyful obedience. We are freed to join God there, freed from the pressure of blindly creating a blueprint for new ministry.
Without that blueprint, we can listen and follow. We can discern through multicultural dialogue how God is at work in the world and then communally join God wherever that is. Our task is to faithfully listen, perceive and join in actualizing and praying for the fullness of the kingdom of God here on earth as it is in heaven.
Finally, we ...
Release the results
On Easter Sunday 2015, young men from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda confirmed their faith in Jesus Christ and became members of Westbury UMC. As the waters of baptism spilled over their heads, I watched the faces of their younger siblings.
I wondered, What about these little ones? Who’s next? God, I know this baptism water is yours, but will we as a church be faithful enough to hold to the covenant? Will we be a space of grace and nourishment so they can continue to grow in the faith? And will they cling to Jesus when the powers of this world attempt to grasp their lives? God, is this really going to be enough?
These are the kinds of questions this pastor asks when she’s scared -- and honest. And yet being honest about my fear and my struggle to trust in the resurrection’s abundance is where God is healing me in Christian community so I might faithfully release the results of ministry.
Fruit belongs to God -- not pastors, not congregations, not leaders. Releasing the results is our faithful and joyful role in ministry with the God of abundance.
Over the last four years, I’ve discovered that God has been shaping and forming me as a disciple of Jesus Christ in Christian community. I, along with my partners in the Fondren Apartment Ministry, am gleaning wisdom from others who are innovating with the Holy Spirit within institutional structures and existing congregations where they serve.
We are leaning on what they have learned as we sit and dig through the soil of our own neighborhood. We are asking God to teach us here -- listening to and experiencing with the people in our context, listening to how our Creator has been sustaining life in this particular place.
So if you ask me whether any church can do this -- whether your church can do this -- the answer is yes. Our Creator and Redeemer and Sustainer invites us all to join God’s ministry by living resurrected life in this very place.