Pastor Shares How Connection Blueprint is Helping to Build Stronger Relationships in Church and Community

Connection Blueprint is continuing to have an enduring impact upon the life of the Marion Epworth congregation and the Marion Community. Connection Blueprint is a learning experience that affirmed and acknowledged our congregation's context of ministry, our gifts and resources, and our on-going outreach efforts; and then challenged us to take further steps. The program met us where we were, not by offering some sort of one-size-fits-all solution but by providing us opportunities to take what we were learning and adapt it to our own ministry setting.

One of the most important lessons we learned was to see the assets and resources that exist all around us. For example, what first started out as a discussion about the existence and problems posed by a rarely used and nearly abandoned parking lot grew into the realization that this parking lot is a crucial asset -- a resource that can be used in reaching and getting to know our neighbors. This seldom-used parking lot became a launchpad for mission and ministry including a summer lunch program which is now in its third year and has become one of the most popular sites in the county. The summer lunch program has become a place of intersection where we share the love of Christ by providing lunch, leading games and activities, providing opportunities for relationship, and getting to know the names and stories of those who live in our surrounding neighborhood.

Another realization that took place as we were participating in Connection Blueprint involved yet another parking lot. Over 100 neighborhood pedestrians cross our main parking lot daily, and we had no idea where they were coming from and where they were going. We decided to begin offering lunch to those crossing our parking lot on Wednesdays during May as an opportunity to build relationships with our neighbors. We discovered that some folks were heading to work, others were participants at an addiction recovery program down the street, others were heading to the public library because the homeless shelter is closed during the afternoon, and others were hungry and hadn't eaten in days. Hot Dog Wednesdays have become an annual outreach to our neighbors.

Connection Blueprint provided us with the opportunity to take time to listen and hear the dreams and desires of our neighbors. In doing so, we have come to discover that we and our parking lots are a part of a broader neighborhood known as the North Vine Street Neighborhood. Getting to know our neighbors has led to discussions and partnerships that one day may lead to creating a corridor of affordable housing, the rehabilitation of abandoned houses, the razing of burnt and decaying buildings, and opportunities to help our neighbors who are trapped by the cycle of poverty. Connection Blueprint has enabled us to identify that it is essential that we form partnerships not only with our neighbors but also with others who have assets within our community and our local and regional government. As a congregation, we are becoming recognized as a valuable community partner.

While taking time getting to know our neighbors, we have found that some are already connected to a faith community while others are not. By offering invitations, our neighbors have worshiped with us, have served with us, and we have helped connect our neighbors with programs in our community.

One such story is that of "Rose." Rose was a familiar presence at Wednesday lunch. She lived just a street away from the church and was always taking extra meals to share with her housemates. She lived in a rooming house with ten others that we didn't even know existed. In getting to know Rose, we found out that she was confined to her bedroom and had limited access to the bathroom down the hall in the rooming house. Through a series of events, we discovered that Rose was cut off from public assistance and wasn't always sure that she would have adequate resources. By getting to know her story, we were able to work with Rose to get her connected to public assistance, obtain access to healthcare, and find affordable housing. Rose is now an active presence in the life of our congregation.

What started out as a discussion about a rarely used parking lot has led to the realization that through working together with our neighbors and those in our community, the love of Christ can be shared and lives can be transformed.  (Rev. David Hoffman is pastor of Marion Epworth United Methodist Church).