Ministry with Poor Roundtable fosters friendships, ideas

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The Ministry with the Poor Roundtable here last month began on a blue note, with some pastors and ministry leaders saying they felt rather alone in their work and not as supported by The United Methodist Church as they should be.

By the end, after friendships had formed and ideas had been exchanged, the tone shifted to what might be called defiant optimism.

The Rev. John Edgar said he, for one, was grateful for the solidarity the meeting afforded and tired of hearing The United Methodist Church described as a sleeping giant in its potential for ministry with the poor.

“I’m much happier being an awake midget than a sleeping giant,” Edgar, pastor of the Church for All People in Columbus, Ohio, said to laughter, then applause. “And it’s good to be with a lot of midgets who are awakened….It’s just delightful to be with folks who are doing really good stuff.” 

This has been a season of meetings aimed at broadening and deepening ministry with the poor, one of the official Four Areas of Focus of the United Methodist Church.

First of two roundtables

The Dallas event, Nov. 6-7, was one of two roundtables. The second, in Chicago, will be Dec. 10-11 and follows a Dec. 8-9 meeting in Columbus, Ohio, of the Council of Bishops’ Urban Strategies Group.

Bishop Michael McKee of the North Texas Conference attended both days of the Dallas roundtable and has emerged as an episcopal leader on poverty issues, chairing the council’s Justice and Reconciliation Table.

“A focus on ministry with the poor has the capacity to connect United Methodists because it speaks deeply to people’s souls and hearts about what can happen with the transforming love of Christ,” he said.

In Dallas, the two dozen roundtable participants included Edgar and the Rev. Rudy Rasmus of St. John’s United Methodist Church of Houston pastors whose churches are well-known for their work, including in housing and health care for the poor.

The Rev. Lorenza Andrade Smith, who lives among the homeless, came to the Dallas roundtable, as did Colleen Wessel-McCoy, Fellows Program coordinator for the Poverty Initiative at Union Theological Seminary in New York, and a member of the North Georgia Annual (regional) Conference.

For the Rev. Monte Marshall, pastor of Travis Park United Methodist Church, the chance to meet others with a passion for ministry with the poor prompted him to attend. He particularly wanted to meet Rasmus, whose church has a high percentage of formerly homeless members.

“He ended up being my (roundtable) roommate,” Marshall said. “We’ve had some good conversations.”

"I'm an idealist"

But Marshall was among those who didn’t mind sharing frustrations with what he sees as insufficient attention by many within the denomination to poverty issues.

“I’m an idealist,” he said. “I’m still wondering why just being exposed to the gospel of Jesus Christ is not enough to motivate people and why it takes some kind of effort at the top of the top to break through the barriers.”

The discussion in Dallas dealt in part with expanding ministry with the poor. But more of the discussion, particularly in small groups, was about going deeper.

The Rev. Pamela Clark told how Lake Highlands United Methodist Church in Dallas, where she is associate pastor of community ministries, has built congregational support for its poverty ministries by devoting a Sunday worship service to those ministries each year.

Rasmus shared how St. John’s has been able to leverage public and private funds for its ministries. But he got even more specific in lessons learned about how to do ministry, including feeding the hungry.

“We serve all of our meals in the sanctuary, using the pews as the dining table,” he told one small group at the roundtable. “What that did immediately was it deconstructed the tension or the gap between the actual church and the mission.”

The steady emphasis was on ministry “with” the poor, as opposed to ministry “to” or “for” them.

The latter approach, however well-intentioned, leaves one party in control and often results in service that misses the mark, for lack of understanding, said the Rev. Wes Magruder.

“But in `with’ ministries, the poor are neighbors,” Magruder, who runs the Daraja refugee ministry in Dallas, wrote in a blog entry after attending the roundtable there. “They have names, families, and stories, which we get to know. Concerns, needs, and problems of our neighbors arise from authentic relationships. We decide what needs to be done together.”

Finding the churches

One idea broached at the Dallas roundtable was to identify 1,000 churches within the denomination that are candidates for taking a next step in poverty ministry and to help them by providing training in best practices.

“There are thousands of churches that provide social services, but how do you transform a food pantry into something that’s mutuality, so that the church is building relationship with those folks, so there’s intentional worship being offered and everyone is invited in?” asked George Howard, deputy general secretary of mission and evangelism at Global Ministries.

Mary Ellen Kris, who coordinates the Ministry with the Poor Area of Focus for Global Ministries, said the Dallas roundtable is forwarding to Chicago the draft of a mission statement, as well as ideas for further discussion.

“We’re hoping that when we leave Chicago, we leave with more specificity,” Kris said. “We want to end with some sort of vision of what the next steps are and who’s taking them.”

Rasmus left the Dallas gathering feeling upbeat and suggested there may be more “enlightened midgets” than people think.

“I tell people all the time, `You’d be surprised how many people do care about the poor and who would be connected to your church if they only knew your church cared.’”  

*Hodges, a United Methodist News Service writer, lives in Dallas. Contact him at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected].

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