Positioning the Local Church to Be the Hope of the Community

Twenty-five years ago, Northminster Church faced a reality common to many urban churches: the neighborhood around it was changing. The mainly white congregation was now neighbors to a mainly black community. It was a challenging situation for Senior Minister Sammy Williams. While he was in favor of trying new things to engage and welcome the changing community, some of his members were not.

“Northminster Church was going to die if it didn’t change.”

Change takes time, and it took a long time at Northminster. But eventually the congregation got on board with their pastor’s heart for outreach in the Ginter Park community. Williams also decided to move the church towards a more contemporary worship style. That’s not his personal style, but he recognized that with a congregation composed of 80 percent retirees, Northminster was going to die if it didn’t change and begin to better connect with younger members.

The strategy proved effective, as did the church’s efforts to be more welcoming to its neighbors. Eventually, Williams was leading a church that had gone from 100 percent white to 20 percent black, with roughly a quarter of members coming right from the surrounding neighborhood.

Williams admits that the congregation’s heart for outreach was insufficient, though. They didn’t have a good handle on how to effectively enact their mission. That changed when he met Wendy McCaig of Embrace Richmond, a nonprofit dedicated to building local capacity for community betterment. Wendy was schooled in “Asset Based Community Development” (ABCD) and eager to help churches like Northminster.
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Launching a Listening Campaign

They began with a listening campaign. And they heard an earful. Despite its attempts to serve the community—through its longtime food pantry, for instance—the church still hadn’t achieved the reputation it wanted among its neighbors. There was distrust and suspicion to overcome. That was daunting, but the church decided to simply keep moving forward, seeking to earn the community’s affection.

The breakthrough happened when Wendy suggested that congregants ask neighborhood residents who were regulars at the food pantry what they’d think of converting it into a Food Coop that neighbors would own and help to run.

The idea was popular. The response of one older gentleman seemed to sum up the general feeling. He was grateful for the help the pantry had offered him over the years. As a senior on a fixed income, he often found himself with too much month at the end of the money. As a former military man, though, receiving a hand-out was a distasteful necessity. He couldn’t wait for the opportunity to give back.
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From Food Pantry to Food Co-op

What Northminster heard is common. Many churches and nonprofits have made the journey from food pantry to food co-op. At Home Sweet Home Ministries in Bloomington, IL for example, leaders found that “people want to be given the opportunity to provide for themselves and will jump at the chance to do so,” COO Matt Burgess says. He adds, “We thought we’d see a significant drop off in households when we made the switch, but we’ve seen the opposite!” 

“In addition to meeting physical needs of our neighbors, a food co-op provides an opportunity for community building,” says Joy Fisher, a congregational consultant with the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta. And food co-ops “are more empowering to the recipients than a food pantry.”

Bob Lupton, veteran Christian community development practitioner and author of Toxic Charity, agrees. He actually argues that food pantries are among the best examples of toxic charity:

The food pantry idea has led to some fairly ugly relationships. The church or group sets up rules to govern how the food is distributed; the recipients figure out ways to circumvent those rules; and they become upset when they don’t get the food they wanted. There’s a kind of a built-in antagonism that grows between the dispensers and the recipients.

With some training from Embrace Richmond, a team of church volunteers and community residents launched the Better Together Food Co-op. Members pay a monthly fee and provide a few hours of “sweat equity” labor each month. Some help in gleaning the food from local restaurants, others in picking up goods from the Food Bank, others in repackaging and shelving.

“Being involved in the Food Co-op has given me the opportunity to get involved in one-on-one relationships in the community,” says Claudia Jackson, a church member on the Coop team. “Working in the Coop, in meetings, in planning, you get a much fuller appreciation for them, learning about them and their families. It’s helped me understand the community better.”

Kenny, a Ginter Park resident, is head of the Co-op’s shopping team. He says that his involvement in the Co-op has “changed my way of seeing this church. In the past, I only knew that they existed here. Now I see them as part of the community because they have really embraced the community and invested in the community.”

In recent years, the Food Co-op team has taken the ministry to new heights. When members decided that the ministry should provide more fresh, healthy produce, they started a Community Garden. When members mentioned that the Food Coop wasn’t reaching community residents who lived outside of walking distance, the team partnered with Northminister’s regional denominational agency to acquire a truck. They remodeled it into a mobile grocery that could reach more families in the “food deserts” of Ginter Park.
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Jobs Ministry

The more the church listened their neighbors, the more they heard the same refrain: so many people needed jobs. So, the church launched NOW Jobs. They empowered their building manager, Charles Fitzgerald, to hire neighborhood residents to do work around the church, such as cleaning and landscaping. Although it could only pay minimum wage, NOW Jobs helped unemployed neighbors get back on their feet. Additionally, the program matched job-seekers with church members looking to hire individual for tasks around their homes, such as errands, repairs, and home and lawn maintenance. For Charles, the program was deeply rewarding. As a former drug addict, he knew the harshness of the streets and the dearth of opportunities. “We’re helping people get their lives back together by eliminating some of the obstacles,” Fitzgerald says.

Community residents also voiced concerns about the youth, and their need for positive opportunities. So, in keeping with the church’s ABCD strategy, a team was formed, co-chaired by a church member and a community member. This “youth vocational development” team developed a summer youth employment program. The youth minister at the time, Tiont Williams, led the teens in conducting house-to-house “asset mapping” interviews.

Northminster continued its journey in ABCD with a special conference in 2012 featuring Bob Lupton. The following spring the church partnered with Youth Life Foundation to launch LC Remix, a middle and high school ministry for youth inside and outside the church. It features academic enrichment programs and one-on-one mentoring.
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The Merger

In 2014, Northminster Church merged with Atlee Community Church and Sammy Williams passed the baton to Pastor Nelson Parker. Parker was highly impressed with all that the church was doing in the community and desired to continue that work. But as a novice in urban ministry, he knew he needed help. So, in keeping with the spirit of ABCD, Parker deliberately befriended Charles Fitzgerald so that he could listen to and learn from this long-time neighborhood servant.

Today, the Better Together Food Co-op still operates on the third Saturday of each month, supported by eight core members and several occasional volunteers. Atlee Church-Northminster continues to live into its vision of being a vibrant, racially mixed congregation that welcomes newcomers—as witnessed by its three-day rally for racial harmony, called “Undivided,” in summer 2016. Pastor Parker sums up the church’s outreach goal as living out the notion that “the local church is the hope of the community.”

Related Resources

Amy L. Sherman is a Senior Fellow at the Sagamore Institute and author of Kingdom Calling: Vocational Stewardship for the Common Good (IVP).