Meet Our Contributing Editors: This month, in our ongoing series of interviews with CHRISTIAN STANDARD’s contributing editors, we speak with one who is leading a dynamic urban ministry.
Interview by Jennifer Johnson
A lot has happened since the last time we talked about your ministry. Fill me in on the latest.
Anaheim [California] First Christian Church started My Safe Harbor in 2008. We discovered that 70 percent of kids who join gangs, drop out of high school, commit suicide, run away, and get pregnant are from single-mother homes, so our goal is to make a difference now and in future generations by empowering and equipping the single mothers in our area.
The majority are Latina women who don’t speak English, and I speak halting Spanish, so that’s been interesting! But we’re far enough along now that some of the graduates of our programs have also become mentors and teachers, and many of them are bilingual. For instance, we’re now in the third year of the Strong Families Institute, a yearlong program teaching life skills and personal development, and graduates from the first year are helping to facilitate the new cohorts.
We also have a Mother’s Club and Enrichment Electives, weekly gatherings for moms to learn and make friends. During the school year dozens of volunteers participate in Our Kids, Our Schools, lunchtime activities at our local elementary schools, and two Sundays each year we offer Revolution, when 150 people from the church share hobbies and games with underprivileged kids in the area.
Our highest profile is with GRIP (Gang Reduction Intervention and Partnership). We were part of the original grant writing process and remain on the board and we’re very involved in their programs.
When we think urban, we think New York or some other big city. But the issues you’re working on are the same ones present in much larger places.
Urban is defined by the density of population in a metropolitan environment. Anaheim is not a city with a downtown like New York or Philly or Chicago, but we have a huge population from around the world. There are more than 60 languages represented in the public school district. We have large Korean, Vietnamese, Ethiopian, and Middle Eastern populations, and the Hispanic population is now 53 percent. So our city fits the definition of urban, even if it doesn’t fit the stereotype.
One of the reasons I think you’ve been so successful—congrats, by the way, on being a finalist for WORLD magazine’s 2013 Hope Awards—is you ask the community and its leaders what they need, instead of just telling them how you’re going to “help.”
We started by inviting representatives from 75 community agencies (more than 40 came!) to our church, made them lunch, and said, “Our church wants to make a bigger difference in this community. What’s on your wish list? What would you want us to do?” And here we are, eight years later, with really positive, collaborative relationships in the schools, the police department, and city government.
The funny thing is, we’re not doing anything radically innovative. We’re mothering mothers who haven’t been mothered and don’t know how to mother their own children. We’re spending some time with their kids. We’re getting to know them as individuals.
But it’s all embarrassingly not earthshaking. Any church can ask its local agencies and residents what they need and begin meeting those needs with small steps. The first thing we ever did was make homemade cookies for GRIP parent meetings (we’re still doing that!). People were amazed that we offered to do it, that we made it look nice with tablecloths and serving dishes, that we baked the cookies from scratch. This little thing opened doors for us to get more connected, and any church can make cookies. I mean—food is what churches do best!
I totally get the point of short-term mission trips to other places, but I wish people realized that besides sending people to Nairobi to make a difference, you can significantly impact people in your own backyard.
Of course, you can’t do the two-week “surgical strike,” serve-and-go-home-to-the-fortress thing, when you’re talking about your own neighborhood. You have to take the long view.
It’s really about figuring out who you are as a church and what you can do. It’s a DNA issue. I think sometimes we all want to be the megachurch, and if we’re not, we think we can’t do anything. It’s like looking at my son, who’s 6 feet 7 inches and plays football, and thinking, If your son isn’t a big athlete he’s not good enough. Crazy! No, it’s about being faithful with what you have. If you’re maximizing your DNA as a church, God will bless it.
I don’t know that we could ever be a megachurch. The irony is that at 250, we’re one of the healthiest churches in downtown Anaheim.
You were kind of doing “missional” before it was cool.
We’re one of the oldest Christian churches in the West, with a debt-free facility in Southern California. We had to make a decision as a church whether we were going to shut our doors, like so many of the other churches in changing neighborhoods, or whether we were going to reinvent ourselves to be relevant to this city.
So, yes, when we made the commitment to stay here instead of fleeing to the suburbs, it meant church members weren’t trying only to make a difference here, they were also shopping here, and their kids were playing ball together, and they were trying to improve the schools their own kids attended. We want to make our community better because it’s our community.
How has this work changed the church?
At one time, we were one of the “glory churches”—we helped start Knott Avenue, Eastside, and Church Development Fund, and our membership was a “Who’s Who” in the city of Anaheim.
So this process has been something of an identity crisis for us, and it didn’t happen quickly. But what kept me going was the commitment to the change, even if we didn’t understand initially what it meant or what it would cost us.
And it continues to evolve. Since relationships are dynamic and always changing, if we’re serious about relationships with our neighbors, they will keep changing us, and we don’t know how.
We’re learning that, ultimately, we can’t “fix” the neighborhood—we can only change ourselves. But if we change ourselves, it will change the neighborhood.
And how has this journey changed you?
In our culture, my age means I’m near the end of my ministry. But there’s no way I could have had the experience or credibility to do this before now. The women we work with know I raised my three kids and a bunch of other peoples’ kids, and that I know what it’s like to bounce a check and wonder where the money’s coming from, and how it feels to hear from the school about a misbehaving kid.
And the only difference between these women and me is I have resources and relationships they don’t have. It would have never crossed my mind growing up that I didn’t matter and wasn’t valued. My support system is immense compared to theirs. But the self-doubt, the questions, the fears are the same. We all need Jesus.
And I love working with the leaders in our community, partly because so many of them are just so competent and caring. But it also keeps me sharp. You can’t assume anything when it comes to faith, and they’re not shy about expressing their attitudes. You get to have some really amazing spiritual conversations if you take the time to build the relationships and earn the trust.
None of this is easy.
In my 43 years of ministry, the last 10 years have been the most difficult, by far. I believe I’m supposed to be doing this, and I believe God is opening doors and using me. But it’s hard to show up for work so many days saying, “I don’t know what to do.”
I don’t speak the language, literally or figuratively. There is nothing in my background on paper that could have prepared me for this. I wouldn’t get hired for this based on my résumé. But I was willing to step up to what needed to happen.
You are an example to me in several ways, and one is your faithfulness to stay in a ministry even when it goes way outside of your comfort zone.
One of my guiding principles is you should go someplace because you’re called there, not because you’re running away from unpleasant stuff in your current situation—because there will be trouble in the new place, too. It’s like leaving your marriage. You’ve already figured out all that person’s junk—why would you start all over?
We think ministry will always be great. Nope. You will make huge mistakes, people will question your motives, and it will be dirty and ugly and hard work. And you have to just keep showing up, asking “What can I do today?”
That doesn’t mean I don’t have dreams—I have big dreams for this place. But it’s about Christ’s legacy, not mine. What sustains me is the unexplainable thing that happens when you pour your life into somebody else and God uses it in ways you couldn’t dream of.
Jennifer Johnson, herself one of CHRISTIAN STANDARD’s contributing editors, is a writer living in Levittown, Pennsylvania.
My Safe Harbor a Finalist
My Safe Harbor is the West Regional Winner of World magazine’s annual Hope Award for Effective Compassion and a finalist for the award’s top prize, $25,000. Winners will be determined by readers’ votes in October. To learn more, go to www.worldmag.com/compassion/2013.php.