In 2005 I met Pastor Mike Kelly, who at that time was pastor of the newest Mennonite Church in the US – Grace Community Church . You begin to believe in miracles after you visit with Mike and the community of Grace. When God told Mike Kelly to leave his lucrative job as vice president at Elder-Beerman Department stores to go into ministry, he thought maybe he was losing his mind. When Kelly was attending First Mennonite Church in Morton , Ill. , he felt a call to ministry, but was hesitant to leave his job. Then, in June 1981, on a business trip in New York , he felt the Lord telling him that it was time to leave his job and pursue ministry. Again, Kelly was skeptical, but he decided to follow the calling. He wasn’t sure if he was fit for the job, since being a pastor took lots of compassion and grace. “You don’t become vice president at age 32 if you’re a nice guy,” Kelly said. “I had all the things of the North-American dream. Why would I want to leave a huge income to do pastoral work?”
Months later, Kelly spoke with his pastor who had sensed that God was calling Kelly and that his parishioner would be gone by the end of the year. After that, Kelly was convinced. The next day he resigned, effective Jan. 31, 1982.
Unsure of where to go from there, Kelly and his wife went to Tulsa to spend the week between Christmas and the New Year. He sensed God telling him to go to the Graduate School of Theology at Oral Roberts University . After graduating with his Masters, Mike eventually ended up in Bryan , Ohio and that’s where the basement sessions began, out of which Grace Community grew. Soon the church moved to a storefront and eventually grew to three storefronts. Today the church has its own 12,000 square-foot building. It also owns the downtown building where it first began, which houses the thrift store and homeless shelter.
Grace Community began as a non-denominational church, but resolved to become affiliated with a denomination. “The Mennonites always opened the door to us,” Kelly said. “They invited us to everything they were doing. It was like we dated for 10 years, and it seemed like it was time to ‘get married,'” Grace Community decided to become affiliated with Mennonite Church USA.
Even though God is the primary focus, the “guy in the pew” is what makes Grace Community thriving. When the nearby welfare office first referred people to Grace in 1991, the small congregation couldn’t have dreamed of where their ministries would be today. It is sometimes called a “church of misfits” because of the diverse group of people that it brings to its doorstep. Homeless people, single mothers, ex-drug addicts and the poor all find security at Grace Community Church.
Grace Community has about 20 community service ministries, including a thrift store (which beyond its local sales sends 125 tonnes of clean, used clothing sent to Mexico and Eastern Europe each year), lawn care, food pantry, counseling, cash assistance, toy distribution and a homeless shelter.
“(People) are not going to come to us, we’ve got to go to them; we do it through practical ministries,” Kelly said.
“You don’t have to be big to start a ministry,” Kelly said. “We had 50 people when we started the homeless shelter. It’s a testament of God’s ability to take a group of people with no resources and make something happen. It’s truly a loaves and fishes thing, other churches hear and wonder how to get on board. I see doors opening around me and churches asking ‘how can we help?’ There’s a hunger to do real work and we will be one of those lights that other churches look to.”
Ever since the first basement services 13 years ago, Grace Community has tithed 10 percent of their weekly offering to the benevolence fund, which helps to pay for people’s rent, electricity, gas and medicine bills, as well as other needs. Grace Community and the support provided by other churches, the United Way and individuals in the community, allow the church to give out $60,000 a year from the benevolence fund.
There is very little about Grace Community that is typical of any Mennonite Church I have seen, but I am grateful for their example. Pastor Mike feels that Grace’s gift to the Mennonite Church is to help us see what is beyond all this talk about being ‘missional’ – to what it can look like.
To that end…the thing that impressed me most – is the Face of God that Grace Church reflects to the community.
- Grace was participating in a great giveaway campaign…cars, furniture, clothes, food, cash – you need it you got it. As Grace Church releases the resources that God has entrusted to them, they are aware that not everyone comes to them with honest intentions – just like all of us have sought God’s help out of our self interest. So when someone is found to be shop-lifting at the thrift store, they give that person a bag and invite them to fill it with what they need. Then they point that person to the church, whatever your problem, whatever your issue – God wants to shower that same grace on you, and Grace church wants to be a part of your path out of the mess. The people that Grace Church met in the various settings of ministry, were not kept at arms length…but always, relentlessly, lovingly invited into a ‘community of misfits’ whose effort went into praising God with their whole lives, and supporting and caring for one another along that way. Authentic and honest acknowledgement of their brokenness and need was not hidden under a veneer of silence and secrecy – and people were empowered to extend the love they had experienced in their vulnerable condition – to the crowds of people in their community who long to experience that same warm, generous, embrace of God.
I believe that Western Society generally, and our cities and towns specifically – suffer from a lack of congregations that are attracted, intrigued or interested in the kinds of messy engagement that Grace exemplifies. Moreover – the church – a key player in the revealing of God’s Loving Face in the world – has a shrinking presence in those city neighbourhoods that are home to people on the low end of the economic food chain. Stuart Murray, an Anabaptist urban church planter describes the situation in our cities this way…
Imagine the city as a target – with three rings:
- In the center – we have the downtown. Churches in the downtown vary – they can be very large and quite small in size. They are normally well-staffed and well-organized, they often have a long of history and offer an important witness to the power-centres of cities.
- The third ring is the suburban ring. Most suburbs have plenty of churches for the religious consumer to choose from. Many are prosperous, and have great facilities, adequate staff and healthy budgets. With people moving to the suburbs, and new housing developments – there is always the prospect of steady growth.
- Between the downtown and the suburbs is the inner city. The inner city has many large imposing church buildings, but they are on the empty side, they are under-staffed, and have inadequate facilities or huge unsuitable ones. Fewer Christians live in these neighbourhoods, as many participants in these churches commute from outer ring areas.
The boundaries are never as neat as a target – as highways, rivers, city planning strategies – can cut up cities any number of ways. Yet in North America today – it is still true that most urban Christians live and worship in the suburban Bible belt that rings the city. Therefore the investment of time, money and gifts that pour into a neighbourhood from congregations and their ministry – is unequally distributed amongst neighbourhoods. Not that suburban communities are to be abandoned, but what is before us is a question of equal distribution. If we couple that with the example of Jesus, who demonstrated a preference for the communities and people who were poor and suffering – we have a pattern that has developed in cities (large and small) – that churches are moving in the opposite direction from God’s missional vision.
Christians have for centuries had a love/hate relationship with the city – this feeling like we want to be here, but we don’t want to be here. The truth is – the Bible also reflects this love/hate dialogue – and rather than resolving the conversation by declaring cities good or bad, the Bible seems comfortable with the tension, embracing both perspectives.
- From the very first time a city is mentioned in the Bible, cities are representative of alienation from the earth, from other people and from God. Cain, after it was revealed that he killed his brother Abel, is sent away by God to wander the earth – but God also promises to protect him, promising him that no one will ever hurt him. What does Cain do? He further acts in a defiant manner by building a city – and naming it after his own son Enoch. Refusing to accept his punishment and rejecting God’s offer of security, Cain builds his city as a sign of his self-sufficiency and independence. Cities were born out of humanities desire to blow God off – the militarism of Ninevah, the sexual perversion of Sodom, the gross affluence of Tyre…cities don’t come off looking too good.
- Cities are fundamentally unjust entities – by definition cities are a concentration of people which feeds off resources gathered from beyond its borders. Cities in that way are a refusal to live in a sacred balance with the environment; planting and harvesting what you eat, living in time with the seasons. The history of interaction between wealthy urban dwellers (consumers) and peasant farmers (producers) has been one of violence and oppression.
Which is all to say – that the Bible is honest about cities, and does not romanticize them at all. So to – we need to always participate in the naming, unmasking, not pretending that all is well in Seattle – because it is not. The fabric of our community is torn, stained, and has some huge holes in it…
Yet – that is no excuse to act like Jonah – and ran from Ninevah…because as we encounter Isaiah 61 we hear – “Israel is to rebuild the ancient ruins, repairing cities long ago destroyed. Israel will revive what has been empty, abandoned. ” God has a mission to the city. God is interested in taking that which was born in defiance, and redeeming it. God’s heart for the cities of the human race is not to destroy them, but rather to transform them – making the city the final description of the fulfilled kingdom of God.
“To all who mourn, God will give beauty for ashes, joy instead of mourning, praise instead of despair.” God’s vision for the city is a whole-life transformation for all people. A concern for humanity’s physical, financial, spiritual, and emotional well-being – their experience of SHALOM – the absence of tears, and the circumstances and systems that generate agony and sorrow. SHALOM “nothing missing, nothing broken.”
One of the tragedies of the Old Testament is that Jerusalem fails to fulfill God vision for it. All the elements of depravity, violence, and poverty that are used to describe ‘other’ cities…were present in Jerusalem too. Jerusalem was destroyed and the people were taken into slavery. Not that there weren’t righteous, faithful people in Jerusalem – there is no question that there were. But the God of Israel listens to those who are the least and listens to their groans of anguish. The concern of God for the poor – is written into the social laws and community outlines of Israel. ( Exodus 22) This community of faith is invited to collaborate with God, for they are called to secure the interests of those with the least political standing or economic wherewithal. The widows, the orphans, the guest-laborers, poor people are uniquely singled out as a reference point for God’s attitude toward the nation as a whole. God says that “when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry; my wrath will burn against you….” From the Biblical point of view – the existence of the community of faith is inseparable from the call to address the circumstances of physical, spiritual and emotional suffering in the lives of people.
There are many ways, some of them quite dramatic, that we can align the lives of our congregations with God’s mission to the suffering people and neighbourhoods in the city. I want to suggest that a place for us to start is choosing to be a community of the Good Samaritan. We heard the story earlier…the parable tells the story of a man who has been beaten and abandoned for dead on the road to Jericho. Two religious leaders pass by but do nothing; finally a Samaritan stops and tends to the man’s needs. The turning of the Samaritan towards the one lying beaten on the ground, is an act of Repentance. Not repentance in the sense of feeling guilty, or being apologetic…but metanoia the New Testament word for repentance, a turning in a different direction, seeking a new direction of obedience and new ways of living, planting ourselves where God is located – with those who suffer.
There is something else too – when the Samaritan came alongside the beaten man – bandaged his wounds and took him to a place where he could heal – I’ll bet they learned each other’s name. As long as the religious people passed by on their way to somewhere more important, the man at the side of the road remained that – just a man, homeless person, drug user, welfare recipient, street person, gang member – nameless, anonymous, categorized.
Grace Community Church had no idea when the nearby welfare office first referred people to them in 1991, where or what their ministries would be today. They had no idea what would happen to them as a church when they began to learn people’s name, listen to their story, and offer love and support. I suspect that SMC also had little idea about what would happen when you moved into this location, and began engaging the people who were looking for help and advocacy. It isn’t about knowing where we will end up as a congregation doing community ministry in this neighbourhood, it was about being open to new beginnings – a openness that I believe SMC has and is responding to.
We all started out in life as children…learning to crawl before we could walk, and walking before we could run. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said “If you can’t fly, run; if you can’t run, walk; if you can’t walk, crawl. But by all means, keep moving forward.” I believe that community ministry begins and is sustained as we embody repentance – which is more than locating a building in a community, but choosing to locate ourselves again and again in places and activities that provide the opportunity to get personal with people who just like us…learning their name. And if we’re lucky, we may even be welcomed to journey with people to an ‘inn’ – where Shalom healing and restoration awaits. God has a mission to the whole city – and we are invited to grow as a body of grace, joy and peace, so that God’s healing and hope might flow through us to Seattle. AMEN