Doing Ministry “Hand-In-Hand”

Dear Sisters and Brothers in Christ,

When it comes to doing ministry with people who are poor, there are a number of approaches that people can take. Some take a “hands off” approach, pretending that the struggle of poverty is not their problem. No one who reads the gospels and takes them seriously can adopt this approach. Others adopt a “hand out” approach by giving gifts and donations to charity. This is certainly a worthy endeavor, but insufficient in itself. What good is it to help the poor unless one investigates and addresses the causes of poverty? Keeping this in mind, many have moved to the “hand up” approach to programs of education, community development, and social justice. This too is a worthy endeavor, but something is still missing.

That’s why we at North Presbyterian Church have adopted our distinctive approach to ministry, which we like to call “hand in hand.” What this means, for us, is that the hands that give are also the hands that receive, and vice versa. Those who come to us in need of ministry are also ministers themselves. Likewise, those who come to us as donors and volunteers are people who have their own inner needs, even if they are not as visible as the needs of their neighbors. What we find is that our ministry in this congregation is always “ministry with”, never “ministry to”. In the words of the Irish rock band U2, “We get to carry each other.”

Here at North Presbyterian Church, we have a special calling to practice our ministry with people who live with chronic mental illness, developmental disabilities, and traumatic brain injuries. While people with these and other special needs would (hopefully) be welcome in any congregation, what makes North’s ministry different is that we invite people with disabilities to take an active role in worship leadership and church governance. We listen together for the ways that the Holy Spirit is ministering to our needs through our sisters and brothers. Often, this means that things are done more slowly or haphazardly than we would like, but we see these limitations as worthwhile next to the benefit we gain from radical openness to the ministry of the whole Body of Christ.

During the week, members of the church are joined by people from the outside community for Togetherness Group, a social activities program for adults who live with mental illness. We play bingo, have lunch, and go on outings to the zoo, the movies, the bowling alley, and the Star of Saugatuck ferry. Like the church itself, Togetherness Group is governed and operated by peers, with assistance from the pastor/coordinator and a handful of other volunteers.

The importance of this ministry becomes even more apparent as we learn that, for many of our ministry partners, participation in the life of our church is their only connection to the world outside group homes and hospitals.

Last year, one of our most profoundly disabled members passed away. She had lived in a group home for many years and had no family nearby. When I contacted her family to arrange the funeral, they politely declined the offer. They assumed their aunt didn’t know many people, since she was so isolated. I informed them that I would still like to host a memorial service, free of charge, since she was so known and loved by the people of this church. When the day arrived, the room was packed. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the family had come all the way from the other side of the state to attend. In lieu of a eulogy, I opened the floor for people to share their memories of this person. Friends lined up and spoke at great length. The family was shocked to learn that their aunt, who could barely speak, had touched so many lives during her time at North Church. This is “hand in hand” ministry at its finest.

Over the years, North Church has received national recognition for our distinctive approach to ministry with people who live with mental illness. In the year 2000, we were the very first recipients of the Presbyterian Church’s Florence Iversen Kraft Award, given to congregations pioneering new ministries alongside people who live with mental illness. Our ministry model has been highlighted in seminary textbooks and denominational reports on mental illness. This year, our church’s visibility was raised even further when Pastor Barrett was interviewed in the May 2016 issue of Sojourners, North America’s most well-known and widely-published magazine of Christian faith and social justice. The Rev. Dr.  J. Todd Billings, theologian and seminary professor, visited our church and wrote a profile on our work to be included in his forthcoming book on the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, to be published by Eerdman’s Press.

There are so many good things happening at North Presbyterian Church! But we can’t keep doing it without you.

Practicing ministry as we do, among some of the most marginalized people in contemporary society, we can never hope to be entirely self-supporting. Many of our members live in group homes or on Social Security/Disability. Our members’ budgets are so tight, we have to consider cancelling our monthly potluck supper whenever the state of Michigan makes cuts to the Food Stamp program. In the most affluent society in the world, vulnerable people should not have to choose between bringing a dish to the supper and eating for the rest of the week.

In 2016, the people of North Church made several significant sacrifices in order to streamline our church program and keep the focus where it belongs: on the ministry itself. We are doing everything possible to ensure that your donations are handled properly and used for the benefit of the people with whom we serve.

We are hoping to raise a balanced budget of $84,000 in 2017. In order to reach this goal, we are asking for $55,000 from our own members, $19,000 from the Presbytery of Lake Michigan, and $10,000 from other congregations and individuals. Your pledge makes this ministry possible. Please consider supporting North Presbyterian Church with your tithes and offerings this year. Members of our church, along with our pastor, will be happy to visit your congregation in person to share more about our unique ministry.

Grace and Peace to you in our Lord Jesus Christ,

The Reverend J. Barrett Lee

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North Presbyterian Church
P.O. Box 2185
Kalamazoo, MI 49003