A front porch is where new encounters occur, strangers meet and become friends, relationships are nurtured, challenges met, and the warmth and laughter of the hearth inside invite people to enter. The front porch is the entryway to loving, nurturing, and transformative households.
The United Methodist Church for All People is building a “front porch to the Kingdom of God” in Columbus, Ohio. It is an inclusive community in which all people are received with radical hospitality, engage in holy relationships of mutuality, trust the divine economy of abundance, ignore social barriers, and transform their communities through Jesus Christ.
In the beginning…
Lots of United Methodist congregations want to be in relationship with their neighbors, to help-out via various ministries, and to invite people into their worship services. Sometimes these efforts do work out, but many end in frustration and bewilderment: “We frequently tell people that we are welcoming, so why won’t they come in and worship with us?”
People who hang-out at the Church for All People – the “front porch to the Kingdom” in Columbus – would have two responses to those well-intentioned Christians. First, actions speak louder than words; just declaring a church to be welcoming does not make it so, and words by themselves are not convincing. Second, they might say that they are putting the cart before the horse: they start-out with a worshipping body, and then try to build relationships to fill the pews.
The Church for All People (C4AP) did not start out to be a church at all. It began with a response to God’s call to be in relationship. And the kind of relationships that Jesus commanded us to have are non-judgmental, service-oriented, and flaunt imaginary social barriers like class and race. And above all, holy relationships are about mutuality more than mere charity; mutual responsibility, mutual asset-sharing, and mutual transformation.
In Ohio, God’s call to be in holy relationship gave birth not a church, but to a ministry: The United Methodist Free Store for All People. It was that ministry that then gave rise to dozens of other ministries, thousands of personal transformations, and a vital worshipping body.
What follows is the first of four windows into the ministries of the Church for All People. Part 1 describes the development of the ministries, and focuses on the relational ethic of mutuality. Future installments will describe the radical hospitality approach to non-judgmental relationship-building, faith in the “divine economy of abundance,” and community collaborations to create “third spaces” for holy relationships to occur.
From a Store to a Church
In 1999 a small group of lay and clergy – themselves diverse in terms of class and race – felt a call to bring together privileged people from suburban United Methodist congregations, with those who were struggling for survival on the Southside. They dreamed of bridging the barriers of race and class difference, for reciprocal learning and ministry.
They knew just where to go to find racially diverse communities struggling to survive: Parsons Avenue, an axis that geographically organizes difference and inequality in Columbus. In the census tract of the C4AP buildings, an appalling 40% of the population live below the poverty line. Yet immediately across the street, less than 5% are poor. Other blocks in the C4AP mission field also demonstrate sharp distinctions in wealth and poverty, though poverty does not follow a clear racial line as in much of the rest of the country. That is, in that neighborhood both Black and White Ohioans struggle economically. North of the church buildings there are blocks that are majority Black and majority poor. South of the church is a neighborhood with the highest number of households living in poverty, a staggering 72%, most of whom are White.
Social scientists tell us that that poverty alone is less violent and despairing than is poverty in the face of inequality. Thus, it was not only the poverty of the Southside, but also the enormous wealth in certain gentrified pockets, that make it a perfect place of ministries of relations. People in the neighborhood endure enormous survival difficulties, but they also have wisdom and insight to share. Recall that the mission was not to give charity to the poor, but rather to form relationships between the poor and the privileged for teaching, learning, and transformation.
Pastor of C4AP, Rev. Edgar, explains the genesis of the Free Store:
We created the United Methodist Free Store for these two purposes: first, for my own well-being, I wanted to place to hang out with poor people. The other reason was that we were looking to create a focus for mission within the district…to get folks from our churches out of their middle class enclaves, out of their comfort zones. So we had the idea of a store front here on Parsons Avenue. We would invite people from UMC congregations to not only donate clothing or household items, but to follow their donations into this neighborhood and experiment with forming relationships with mutuality.
The thing took off. It simply worked. People in the neighborhood loved shopping in a store where everything was free. From the volunteer side, it worked for a sub-section of the people in our congregations who were hungry for the opportunity to get beyond the traditional boundaries. Folks who were volunteering found that it was pretty easy to begin to establish conversation and then relationships. What we had actually done worked.
It worked so well, in fact, that the model has been copied in dozens of other cities, and it has spawned the birth of many other local ministries, not least the worshiping community. The premise is simple but profound: create a space that nurtures relationships across lines of race and class. The ministries engaged – like healthy cooking classes, pre-natal health discussion groups, free bicycle repair – do perform the essential life-giving work that Christians are called to do.
But it did much more than that; it focused on relationships rather than merely the outward instruments of the ministry, and it refused to accept the charity model, in which people who have more give something away to those who have less.
From the beginning, those who received clothes – ‘shoppers’, not ‘recipients’ were also those who volunteered and helped their neighbors feel welcome and important. And those who donated clothes worked right alongside them. Finally, all those who volunteered at the store also had to be shoppers. The line between givers and recipients was intentionally blurred. And the relational assumption was (and still is) that those who receive a ministry such as clothing also have much to offer those who donate the clothing.
Key to the success of Church for All People is that from the beginning the mission was not about charity, but rather relationships. And it worked! The Free Store was the kitchen in which powerful, holy relationships were birthed and nurtured. These relationships then gave birth to an array of new ministries, including the worshiping body that conducts six weekly services.
Two aspects of holy relationships have been absolutely essential for the success of Church for All People and its development arm, Community Development for All People. The first crucial relational element is mutuality. The church and its members take quite seriously the Reformation ideas of the “priesthood and prophethood of all believers.” All people involved in any Christian ministry have much to give and teach those on the other side. And in fact, the roles are blurred and then dissolved.
Those with class privilege and the ‘hard-living’ folks who may be homeless and hungry sit next to each other in worship, they share their stories, and participate in each other’s spiritual transformation. Everyone becomes the angels whom God sends to shake us up and teach us something new about the Kingdom. As Stephanie, one of the wealthier members, explained:
I used to come down and bring fruits and vegetables from our garden. I felt blessed every time I came down here, because this place is so real. It’s what life is about right now. It’s all different walks of life coming in here, all different races, all different economic backgrounds, and it just seems so real to me to be able to help more and be able to serve. Then you know what, in the midst of all that, you’re getting blessed too because that’s just the way it works! You do things for others, and then somehow it comes back to being such a blessing for us. It’s a package deal.
Most of those whose souls and lives are saved at Church for All People also serve others; “it’s just the way it works.’ So the ministry model tells those who have struggled to survive they are are wanted and needed, that their ministry to others is vital and holy. So they volunteer as lay servants in dozens of ways, and this re-engagement then furthers their own spiritual transformation. Reverend Greg Henneman, director of the Health Eating and Living program, explains:
It’s not a group of white middle-class people going and doing something to, at, or for somebody else. It’s all of us doing it together. All the work we do is with one another. We might have somebody serving as a volunteer who’s been in jail, who’s battling with an addiction, who is homeless. [And yet we are ministered to by those people.] That very much changes the model ‘I’m not giving this to you, but we’re doing this together.’
And so, there are various aspects of mutuality that have made Church for All People such a powerful witness for the love of God. Those who shop at the store also volunteer. Those who have received also give. Those who are financially stable say that they receive more benefit from the hard-living folks than they give in financial contributions. And everyone – laity and clergy, wealthy and homeless, Black, White and Latinx – everyone has a unique experience of God which they share and teach to the others.
This case study is part of GCORR’s Church to Community with Church for All People.