I ran into this thoughtful review of Tribal Church by Clare Barry, an Anglican Priest in New Zealand. Basically, she liked the book, agreed with what I said, but she found herself scribbling “YBH” in the margins: “Yes, but how?” She wasn’t interested in a broad array of case studies, she was more interested in how we did it at Western—how we went from a tiny, dying church that was seventy percent over the age of seventy, to a vital intergenerational congregation. She wanted a more in-depth insight into the steps that we took in particular.
I appreciate that. Of course, what worked in D.C. may not work everywhere, context is a key factor. And, most of what happened at Western happened before I got there. I use “we” because I’m a part of the history now, but this is all information that I have gleaned from the community, particularly my colleague, John Wimberly.
I’m writing this in a hotel lobby in Los Angeles, so I can’t fact-check here. But, John, if you’re reading, please feel free to correct me on any details.
Since it’s always fun to hear what other churches have done and are doing, I’ll try to answer YBH. It will probably take a couple of posts, but here goes….
In the book, I talk about connection to the world. In the churchy-talk of the moment, I’m referring to being missional. In the parlance of D.C., it’s social justice. All in all, it’s encouraging your church to get out of itself, and connect with the problems of the world around them.
All of our congregations have energy and a whole lot of it goes back into the church itself. But, if we can stop putting a bunch of passion into fighting over whether the communion bread should be cut into squares or circles, and try to think about the people who are starving outside of our doors, then we’ve gone a long way to become the hands and feet of Jesus.
At Western, we began a homeless ministry. It was just a short time into John Wimberly’s pastorate when someone came to him with a bit of money and said he wanted to start a feeding program in our neighborhood. There was no way that he thought that the church would do it. They were older, conservative, and very fastidious about keeping the property in pristine condition.
John began to preach every week about how the Bible says that we should feed the hungry, and take care of those in need. And even though the congregation knew that the building could not handle the ministry, when it came down to a congregational vote, they accepted the ministry, because the Bible said that they should do it.
He gathered some other leaders in the neighborhood, like the GW’s ecumenical campus ministry, the Jewish students at Hillel, and United Church (a UMC/UCC church down the street) and started Miriam’s Kitchen. They began by feeding people in the mornings, so that they could make it back to work in time.
The outreach grew over the years, from a totally volunteer-run organization to hiring a director (we hired a homeless guy… and I think I recall that he slept in the church and ended up dying on the stage in the fellowship hall…).
Now, it’s a wonderful organization, with a staff of social workers, an amazing chef, and an executive director who is nothing short of well… unbelievable. These are my colleagues who work down the hall from me. They are all quiet, unassuming. The oldest one is forty. They are self-motivated and they work very, very hard. The burn-out rate is low. And they’re always looking for ways to expand their services.
They offer the clients a place to relieve themselves in the morning, a place to wash up and shave, a chance to get out of the cold, one of the best breakfasts in town (seriously, it’s been written up in the Post food section), Yoga classes, poetry writing classes, art classes. They have transitional housing. And they want to expand their housing and begin a dinner program.
There are so many resurrection stories here. We often say at Western that “we worked to save the homeless, and the homeless saved us.” And it’s true. The ministry gave the church a sense of purpose, a chance to get outside of themselves, an opportunity to follow the words of Jesus in a concrete way. It always attracts people to our congregation.
And what happened to the building, the one that could not possibly handle the wear and tear of feeding 250 homeless people? Well… that’s a resurrection story as well. I won’t go into the details… but I will say we have a new building. With the plumbing, kitchen facilities, and everything that we need for our ministry.
You know… it’s true what they say. You can’t out-give God.