Is Disciple-Making United Methodist Style Relevant in Distressed Inner-City Neighborhoods?

Summer 2005, I was assigned to a church in a vibrant missional field; ripe for ministry on the east side of inner-city Cleveland in the north Broadway neighborhood. There had been a 138-year Methodist presence in this neighborhood but in fewer than 10 years, the Conference and North Coast District (NCD) of East Ohio considered it best to vacate the neighborhood, and shamefully, in hindsight, I helped! This 138-year history of service established in the north Broadway community by the Methodist Church was no longer relevant[1] by the definition of relevancy embraced by the conference at that time. The congregation could no longer thrive without acknowledging and responding to the actual needs of the people living in the neighborhood and then allocating resources to address those needs.

A 501c3, Enhancement Ministries, Inc. (EMI), was established by the church and it took on a deliverer attitude! EMI, working alongside the congregation, was attempting to champion what seemed to be opportunities to reshape (rethink) church in this eastside neighborhood. This required the congregation’s need to play a dual inspirational role. It meant maintaining some semblance of the traditional church tenets as we leaned into approaches to partially embrace the identified 21st Century mission field in meaningful ways for children and their families in this re-normalizing neighborhood. This glimmer of hope was witnessed by a ministry that reached beyond the walls of our facility and spilled over into the heart of the community. Inner city ministry must directly touch the lives of families, especially school-aged children in the community where they live![2]

I served alongside members of the last UM congregation representing this 138-year presence of the Methodist Church in this neighborhood. Many of the faithful few were committed to directly touching the lives of the inner-city families July 2005 – December 2010.  Their core Christian values were inspiring and energized my ability to advocate for them. They lacked an adequate combination of both human and financial resources. These are two main challenges to the quality of urban ministry.  People with means are quick to exercise their option to stay or leave these communities. They give financial support from a distance or not at all. Inner city ministry always gives its advocates a mixture of heartfelt reasons for pain and wonderful sparks of hope.

The faithful few seasoned members that remained until the final closing reverberated with an assessment of our collective responsibility in response to God’s call.  We felt called to support children needing a place to regain a sense of wholeness and spiritual stability[3] through programs that attempted to re-engage students suspended from K-8 schools. The church’s small pool of retired parishioners made a lasting impression on the lives of those students and on me about tackling needs in the city!

From January 2011 – June 2014, in my role as the North Coast District Associate, I continued to reload the toolbox with what would be helpful tools for working in Cleveland’s inner-city. Though no two neighborhoods are identical, the basic tenets of respect influenced by love are always appropriate. There were significant discussions, wisdom seeking, wisdom sharing, prayer and retracing my steps over those years. Should I stick with it because this is what I believe needs to happen as part of my call to ministry or move on because the administrative powers and decision makers in our conference had deemed this type of ministry social services and had no place in fruitful ministry for inner-city Cleveland? I have thought at times that maybe I should have walked away from this mission field and treat it as a rite of passage to something bigger and better.

My primary role began to shift with the appointment of a new District Superintendent (DS) in 2012.  With new management came a more intentional focus on aligning the NCD budget so that it was closer to other East Ohio Conference District budgets.  This led to phasing out the District Associate position and the bookkeeper, too. Then hiring a new Administrative Assistant and relocating the District office from the distressed north Broadway neighborhood were goals set and accomplished. Personal impact for me included shifting my duties from the role of a “go-to” mission-oriented person with multiple ministry touch points to a diminished role.  This was a time for examining my passion and call to inner-city ministry.  This included prayer, a mandatory dyad session arranged by my DS for me with two other District Superintendents; and ongoing discussion with my DS and the managing directors of Enhancement Ministries, Inc. (EMI)[4]. The only option offered by my superiors was to pack up my household, sale our underwater condo and move my marginally healthy aging husband and do another restart under the UMC banner in another city in Ohio. My final long-term response was a legal retirement. A really tough decision since I moved to Ohio from Michigan looking forward to serving in active ministry until mandatory retirement by the UMC Book of Discipline. The distasteful residue in my spiritual mouth resurfaces each time I see an NCD budget that has expanded back to its same dollar amount that was trimmed to set me on my current path in ministry. When I hear a sermon like that offered today by The Rev. Sarah Heath where among many takeaways offered, the ones I wrote down for further study are, a) learning to see suffering as a character builder (Viktor Frankl) and b) religion is what we do about pain (Sacred Wounds).

Nonetheless, my personal history with poverty as a child and matriculating in unequal and inequitable education systems in Mississippi as a child makes this inner-city type of mission field a core driver for my purpose and call to serve God’s people.  My desire to leave this world a better place keeps me grounded and humbled.  I remain focused on the least of these, especially children challenged by societal expectations with limited resources and circumstances at home beyond their control. I believe I still have a role in adding blocks of hope and bricks of security in a path that will move the children and others closer to experiencing God’s love than I can ever think or imagine (Ephesians 3:20).

[1] Maddox, Randy L. Rethinking Wesley’s Theology for Contemporary Methodism. Nashville: Kingswood Books, 1998.

[2] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK402020/

[3] Jones, W. Paul. Worlds Within a Congregation: Dealing with Theological Diversity. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000.

[4] Mohney, Nell W. Slaying Your Giants. Nashville: Dimensions for Living, 2007.

 

 

 

One thought on “Is Disciple-Making United Methodist Style Relevant in Distressed Inner-City Neighborhoods?

  1. Thank you Yvonne for sharing this review of our history and your insights to the events and the theology along the way!
    I am still deeply troubled by what has happened, and the church’s/ Conference’s practice of ministry in the city and our surrounding communities! You write well and I look forward to reading more! I would also like to dialogue with you so I can sort out a bit more, of how the future can go forward with insight and direction!

    Liked by 1 person

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