Name, Bless, Connect

What happened when a Midwestern church stopped “helping” their community and started listening instead.

by Mike Mather

The county health department in my Midwestern city invited me to a press conference releasing the results of a five-year study. The study revealed that people who don’t have money are less healthy than people who have money. Except for two of us, everyone in the room was a health care professional. One by one, people offered different ideas about programs their institutions could provide to improve the health of people who don’t have much money.

But that wasn’t how the problem was described. The report didn’t say people who have fewer programs than people with more programs are less healthy. The study said the issue was money. The professionals in the room proposed programs that paid those same professionals to deliver services to people they said didn’t have money. At least one of the potential answers should have been to find a way for poor people to get more money.

This challenged me more than any question I struggled with before. I could hear my mother say to me (as she did often), “Just use a little common sense, Mike.” If more money means better health, what can I do about it?

Exploding the Model

I was a Matthew 25 Christian. I wanted to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and those in prison—all of which I did a lot. But there was a problem. I saw the hungry as, well, only hungry. I saw those who needed clothing as, well, only naked. This gospel passage, my training, and my experience growing up in the church gave me a specific way of thinking about my work with the poor. I thought, some were needy, some had more, and those with more were called to give. That was my model of ministry.

So at the urban United Methodist congregation I serve as pastor, we had a food pantry, a clothing ministry, and an after-school program. We tutored kids in the neighborhood and ran a summer program for 250 kids a day. Yet we weren’t doing much. We had a food pantry, but the food was unhealthy. We tutored children, but the neighborhood school declined. So we decided to take another path.

Today, all those programs are gone—by intention. We exploded those Matthew 25 categories and pushed ourselves to see the people in our neighborhood differently.

We stopped providing services and we began experimenting. I hired someone to be a “roving listener” in the neighborhood, to discover what gifts and talents were right there, waiting to be used to strengthen the community. Instead of focusing on what the neighborhood didn’t have, we wanted to uncover what it did have. Gardeners. Quilters. Painters. Cooks. People who could repair a car. The list went on.

Instead of programs or services church members would provide, we began to foster connections within the neighborhood that had the potential for more significant and long-lasting change. We helped people find each other and work together on solutions to community challenges, including ways to support better health. We hired young people from our neighborhood and paid them to learn from our roving listener and meet their neighbors. Those young people do three things: first, name the gifts of their neighbors; second, lay hands on them and bless them; and, third, connect them with others who care about the same thing. Name, bless, connect. Over and over again.

A Model of Health

Two years after we began this work, a woman from the state department of health called me. She asked, “Could your staff meet with our staff this afternoon?

When the department of health requests a meeting, you worry about it a little.

I asked, “Why do you want to meet with us?”

She explained: “Our job is to make the people of this state healthier, and we haven’t been doing a good job. We believe what you are doing is actually making communities healthier. We have a grant to make communities healthier and we’d like to give it to you to build on your work.” That was unexpected!

With the grant, we hired more young people and expanded their hours over the summer. A small percentage of the money went to a local research university to evaluate the work, and we paid our neighbors to work alongside the professors and students. At the end of the summer, the students selected 60 of their neighbors to come together for a two-day conversation. We paid the neighbors for their time.

We gathered in the Community Room at our church. This was the site where, in the past, we had lines and lines of Christmas bags that we handed out to people, filled with toys and underwear and food. Now, a new model was taking shape. At this gathering, people didn’t simply receive things in a transactional manner. Instead, they spoke of transformation. They told stories about their lives and talked about what was meaningful to them.

One of our neighbors, a poet named Mari Evans, was the keynote speaker. She inaugurated the event by telling those gathered of the death of her two adult sons. Other neighbors shared their experiences of pregnancy, birth, and supporting young mothers and fathers. They discussed finances, abortion, parenting and more. People listened to each other, laughed, cried and got angry, but mainly they just shared stories from their lives.

People were meeting each other at the places their lives crossed and touched. They were seeing each other. And the sense of commonality—people recognizing each other as sisters and brothers—was moving across the face of the gathering. Power was rising. This was health care.

Institutions that provide child and maternal health services also attended. However, they didn’t set up a table or spend time describing their services. Instead, we asked them to stand outside the conversation and listen. When the larger group broke into smaller conversations, representatives from the institutions went to a separate space with discussion leaders from both inside and outside of the neighborhood. They reflected on the content of what they heard people talking about: what insight people shared, what gifts the people in the room brought, and what people were going to be doing. The institutions then worked to answer the question: “What does it mean for my institution to be a servant to these folks, what they are doing now and what they are going to be doing?”

As with any experiment, the gathering gave way to both the expected and the unexpected. The researchers planned to hear people talk about things they wanted to see happen, and they did. But they also learned that the people were already taking action themselves. Since the gathering, young and older women started an organization that connects them together—the younger women teach about technology and social media, the older women teach social graces and dealing with the practical issues of growing up.

What began as an effort to put money in the hands of our neighbors became much more. Now, the local university’s school of public health is researching the work we do and helping all of us learn more—about agency, about community, and about health. What once was a neighborhood that was constantly reminded of its need is now a neighborhood that knows its strength, power, and imagination. It notices the healers among the neighbors and it supports them. We are witness to God’s good news in the lives of the poor. It’s true right here and right now.

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