by Rev. Mike Mather, Pastor at Broadway UMC in Indianapolis, IN
At the beginning of 1992 I moved to a very small congregation in South Bend that known as the “social-service church” in a low-income neighborhood. When people came to our food pantry, they were required to fill out a government form, because we received government surplus food. The form asked for their name, address, income, and expenses.
In worship one Sunday, we read the passage from Acts 2 where Joel (through Peter) shares this word from God: “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.” After worship, an insightful woman asked me, “If what Joel said is true, why don’t we treat people like that? When people come to the food pantry, we ask people how poor they are rather than how rich they are. Peter is saying all people have God’s Spirit poured into them.”
I stopped. I didn’t know what to say. Shamed, I whispered, “You’re right.” We were actually working against our beliefs. We say in worship that “God’s Spirit flows down on everyone,” and then we act like it isn’t true.
I began thinking about something called Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD). John McKnight and Jody Kretzmann, cofounders of ABCD, proposed that when working with low-income citizens, you ought to begin by focusing on the gifts of the community rather than starting with what the community lacks. This led to an important change in how we interacted with the people who came to our food pantry.
We began asking them different questions. We asked whether folks took care of children or elders, and whether they did it with their family or as part of a job or to help out a neighbor. We asked whether people could put up drywall or fix a toaster or knew how to drive a car. “Do you play a musical instrument?” we asked. “Do you garden?” And each interviewer asked three more questions at the end of the survey: