At Broadway United Methodist Church in Indianapolis, we understand the power of story—so much so that we have set up intentional structures for discovering and bringing meaningful stories to the congregation. This structure consists of a group of three people we call our Animators of the Spirit. One of these people is De’Amon Harges, our community organizer and the person we call our “Roving Listener.” DeAmon was given that title because it his job to go out into the community, knock on doors, and ask people to tell him their stories—particularly stories of their gifts, their dreams, and their sense of God’s call and claim upon their lives.
One day De’Amon came to me with a particularly inspiring story. On one of his door-to-door rounds in the community he had encountered Maya, a young woman who had lived there her whole life. During their conversation he learned that she had started her own tutoring program, teaching and encouraging reading among the children and youth who lived around her.
Impressed, I decided to give her a call. “Tell me,” I asked, “what do you teach?”
“Everything from phonics to Sophocles,” she answered.
I laughed out loud. Maya went on to explain that her work includes helping the young people find books they might be interested in, reading with them, and assigning them papers to write or presentations to make about what they have read. Every few weeks she invites the young people and their families to join her for a barbecue at her home, where she has the children present their papers before the gathered families. There they receive applause, answer questions, and talk about what they have been reading and thinking.
What an amazing woman! In addition to being impressed by what she was doing, I was also struck by a question her story inspired: What did her work have to communicate to a congregation that has run its own tutoring program for years, inviting volunteers from the Lilly Corporation, the United Way, and other agencies and institutions, but never seeking out tutors in the very neighborhood in which we were tutoring?
After a conversation about this with the congregation’s lay leaders and Animators of the Spirit, we decided to celebrate Maya’s tutoring work in worship, though she had never attended Broadway before. On the second Sunday of every month, as part of the liturgy, we celebrate ministries that have ended, ministries that are ongoing, and ministries that are beginning. We invited Maya to come to our church on the next such Sunday, along with several friends who assist her with her tutoring work. That day, the Animators briefly described what Maya was doing and then asked her to stand and tell the congregation about her work. After Maya had done so, they then asked for all those who would support Maya’s ministry with their prayers, their presence, their gifts, and their service to stand. Maya was sitting in the front row and facing the front of the room at this point, so she didn’t realize that the whole congregation was standing behind her. The Animators then asked, “Will all of you do everything in your power to uphold and care for these persons in this ministry? If so, please answer, ‘We will.’” When the congregation thundered “We will,” Maya gave a startled little jump and looked behind her to see the whole congregation standing there. After worship she was surrounded by people wanting to know how they could become involved in the good work she was doing.
Maya’s story gave us eyes to see beyond our walls. Her work was a clear and evident reminder that ministry doesn’t always happen through the agency of the church but that the church can see and recognize and be involved in God’s good work in the lives of people. Her work helped us see the truth that our neighborhood is full of gifted, bright people working to build on and upon the gifts of God in our neighbors. Instead of seeing our neighborhood as a place that needed our help it became a place where we could get involved in what God was doing.
Broadway no longer runs a summer program that provides classes to neighborhood children. Now we find the gifts of our neighbors and ways to join their good work for mutual delight and for bearing witness to God’s justice and love around us.
Michael Mather is the pastor of Broadway United Methodist Church in Indianapolis, Indiana. Mike has served urban churches in Indiana for the last 22 years, including an earlier tenure at Broadway United Methodist from 1986 to 1991, when he served as the church’s “pastor in the streets.” Mike is the author of “Sharing Stories, Shaping Community” in the Vital Ministry in the Small Membership Church series from Discipleship Resources.