What Are You Doing Here?
Originally published Nov. 12, 2018
This is a longer transcript of a talk I gave on Nov. 17, 2018, to United Methodist pastors and church leaders from central(ish) New Jersey. But it works pretty well as a general introduction to the Maker's Place.
I’d like to tell you about something new. It’s a vision for a new place for the city of Trenton -- a United Methodist neighborhood resource center, that can respond to the hopes and dreams of people living in poverty. And a new place for us as United Methodists -- a hub for local mission and ministry for churches in the central region.
I’ve been appointed as a pastor to the city of Trenton. For the last four months, I’ve been meeting with people -- people like Sharon, who you saw in the video. I had over a hundred conversations like that in my first hundred days.
As I talked with people, I got to ask them all these questions -- questions about themselves, and about their city. The funny thing was, no matter who I was talking to, I almost always got the same question asked about me. People would look me up and down, pause for a minute, and then ask, “What are you doing in Trenton?” That question always brings me back to a moment some years ago, when somebody asked me that question and changed my life.
You see, there was a time in my life when I felt the version of faith I had been living just wasn’t working -- you know that feeling, when faith just isn't working? I’d been studying the teachings of Jesus in graduate school, especially the call that Jesus gives his disciples to be in ministry with the poor and the marginalized.
So I decided to take a risk. I had heard that there was a church -- a United Methodist Church -- that did what a church was supposed to do. They were thousands of miles away, and I didn’t know a soul, but I called them up anyway, and Pastor John, the pastor of the church and director of the church’s Community Development Corporation, he said I could come, but they couldn’t pay me anything. I put the last of my savings into a plane ticket and first month's rent, and I moved to Columbus, Ohio. They weren't quite sure what to do with me, so they put me to work. I started folding clothes, answering phones, sorting and stacking, and getting to know people who lived with poverty every day.
And after a time, Pastor John finally sits me down, this kid who’s landed on his doorstep, and he asks me that question: “Michael, what are you doing here?”
And I said, “Pastor John, I’m here to serve the poor.”
And he said, “Michael, that’s a really wonderful thing to want to do. But I’ve got to be honest: We find that people who come to serve the poor don’t last very long.”
And then he gently began to explain to me the deep truth that all of us already know: that any change worth having comes through relationships, relationships built on trust and mutuality. He said, “Michael, if you think it’s your job to serve the poor, you may accidentally see yourself as superior to them. You’d do much better if you could see that these people have something to give you -- that they are the ones who can help you discover the peaceable kingdom of God, and that your main job is simply to join with them in what God is already doing all around you.”
And that changed everything. I began to recognize the rich gifts and resources all around me, in this supposedly poor community. I’ve come to believe that when we begin to listen and respond to the dreams of those around us, we find that their good is bound up in ours. And I saw first-hand how this little church has transformed their community. They did it by inviting in partners, and by using the principles of Asset-Based Community Development.
So when people ask me what I’m doing in Trenton, the first thing I say is that I’m here to look and to listen. Sometimes I’ll even say, “Well, I’m here because I’ve got an idea, a dream, an aspiration. But tell me about yours. What's your dream for Trenton?” I’ll hear the dreams of Sharon, who has a vision for close-knit community, like she knew when she was a child. Or people like Teri, who “upcycles” worn out fabric in a downtown Starbucks, to make clothes for the homeless, because Teri wants to live in a place where nothing and no one is disposable. My barber Joe has preaches joy and self-discipline for the 20 minutes he’s got someone strapped in his chair. He thinks people need God in their lives. Lately he’s been giving out my phone number -- I think because he’s trying to tag-team the altar call.
Over and over, I hear about how Trenton used to be a city of Makers -- it's right there on that iconic bridge, built during Trenton’s industrial boom: “Trenton Makes, the World Takes.”
So when people inevitable ask me about my vision, my dream, I say: the God I worship is a Maker. God made the world, and God made it abundant. I believe that when we share what we have, the assets and aspirations all around us, God can multiply them for God’s purposes.
And I say, there should be place just for that. We could call it, “The Maker’s Place.” A place that lives into the truth that God is a Maker -- and God is the one who makes a way, even when others say there is no way. A place that works with the poor and the marginalized, that empowers people to be the makers of own lives and community, and the lead actors in their own life story. And a place that celebrates the rich diverse in the inclusive body of Christ -- because all people are made in the image of God.
I’ve got to tell you: as I share that vision, God is already making a way. I’ve started gathering with our Methodist pastors and leaders in Trenton -- leaders from Turning Point, Wesley, African, and Trinity UMC. We talk about where we see God at work, and we talk about new ministry for Trenton. Time after time as we gather in homes, they say: we believe in the city of Trenton, we’re here because we know that when our churches move outside our own walls and get out in the community, we’re the ones who experience the abundant life of God. Our Trenton churches support this vision. They’re partnering with the Maker’s Place. They’re ready to do new things.
So I’m here to ask you to do the same. I’m here to invite you to partner with us, and with the Maker's Place. Our vision is for a neighborhood resource center, that can be a premier hub for local mission and ministry. Not because we want serve in way that are condescending or one-sided. But because we believe that God is at already at work, and all of us will be blessed when we join in.
I've got three key was that you can do right now, to respond and join in with the Maker's Place as we try new things:
#1. Stay connected. If you provide us with your contact information, we'll make sure you stay connected. You can do that by clicking here. We'll send you regular email updates, so that you can hear more, ask questions, and pray for us. I want to keep you informed. I think this could be a great way to share what we’re learning -- so that no matter where you are, the Maker’s Place can be a resource for you.
#2. Try a project. Right now, the Makers’ Place is focused on a mission of food and families. And this Advent seasons, we’re inviting churches to try a Diaper Drive.
As our Trenton pastors and leaders gathered together, we realized that we had a lot of passion, and even some professional expertise, related to families and children. We know that over 25% of all Trenton residents live at or below the poverty line. Many of them are already having to choose between paying the rent and the grocery bill. We also know that 50% of all parents are single parents, mostly single moms. We’ve got stories of moms who are who have to ration their baby to one or two diapers a day. The gift of diapers can mean the difference in a child’s health -- and the gift of diapers allows mom to put her child in a Head Start program, so that she can go to work.
We said that every child in our community deserves to be healthy, clean, and dry. We’d like to give away 10,000 diapers to low-income moms and babies in Trenton. And we’ve made it easy: we’ve made free resources for you and your church, so that you can run a diaper drive between now and Dec. 16th. You can think about the meaning of Christ’s birth at Christmas time, even as you make a change for families in Trenton. To learn more, simply click here, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
#3. Join the Maker’s Place Team. I started by telling you about how Pastor John invited me to learn the truth of the gospel from the people all around me. That’s exactly what I found -- and somehow or other, for all the months to come, the rent was always paid on time.
Maybe like me, you know you can’t stay comfortable much longer. You know the faith you have isn’t working, so you want to put your faith to work. You want to connect -- to build, reach, embrace, partner, heal. Maybe you’re a creator, you’ve got gifts in graphic design and social media. Maybe you’re good with people, or maybe you’re best with details. Maybe you’re a worker: you know how to roll up your sleeves, and stay till the work gets done. If that’s you, I want to talk to you: we’re building a core team of people to make the Maker’s Place a reality. Whether you’ve got a lot of time to give or just a little, this is an your opportunity to do something new. Send me an email to get in touch: contact me at email@example.com.
We believe that when we partner with others to share what we have, God will multiply it for God’s purposes. Join us in working so that everyone can be the makers of better lives and communities.