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talent 246Roving listening

Following on from the recent blog about the book, 'Having Nothing, Possessing Everything: Finding Abundant Communities in Unexpected Places', some further insights have been given in another article.

Rev. Mike Mather leads Broadway United Methodist Church in Indianapolis. The church has closed many of its traditional helping ministries and created new ways to connect and support the community surrounding it. Its food pantry, clothing ministry and after-school programme have been buried with honours.

Broadway UMC's leaders have changed the way they view their neighbours -- as people with gifts, not just needs. In what ways does this view reframe the conversation? What difference does reframing the relationship make in the outcomes achieved?

“The church, and me in particular,” Mather said, “has done a lot of work where we have treated the people around us as if, at worst, they are a different species and, at best, as if they are people to be pitied and helped by us.

"The church decided its call was to be good neighbours. And that we should listen and see people as children of God,” said De’Amon Harges, a church member who Mather hired to be Broadway’s first “roving listener,” a position that is exactly what it sounds like. Harges’ job was to rove the neighbourhood, block by block at first, spending time with the neighbours, not to gauge their needs but to understand what talents lay there.

Harges wound up spending hours sitting on people’s porches and hovering near them as they worked in their backyard gardens. He began listening for hints about their gifts. “I started paying attention” he said, “to what they really cared about.”

Mather, meanwhile, was drawing deeply from the philosophical well of “asset-based community development” -- the notion of capitalizing on what’s good and working in a place rather than merely addressing its deficiencies.

Broadway was once a thriving 2300 member church 90 years ago. As the neighbourhood declined, church attendance dropped to 75 in the 1990s. Amid the surrounding decay, the church assumed a new role: caregiver and saw the neighbourhood for its problems; poverty and abandoned houses, drugs and the related violence, high teen pregnancy and dropout rates.

Having hired Harges as the roving listener, Mather then started closing ministries from the charity era.

For 30 years, Broadway had tutored neighbourhood kids after school. And for 30 years, the neighbourhood dropout rate kept climbing higher. So Broadway stopped tutoring. For decades, the church had been feeding people out of its pantry. But local health officials were telling Mather that the No. 1 health problem facing the neighbourhood wasn’t starvation - it was obesity. “We’re not only not helping,” he concluded having given out boxes full of carbs, “We’re actively making people sicker.”

The church’s governing council stopped rehashing committee reports at its quarterly meetings and instead began inviting people from the neighbourhood and the congregation to come in and tell them about the work they’d been up to.

Harges began connecting people with common interests. Within four blocks of the church, Harges found 45 backyard gardeners. He brought them together around a meal. With no agenda. The gardeners liked it enough that they began to meet monthly. None of them individually had seen their green thumbs as a gift. Together, they began to realize that they had something valuable. In a neighbourhood that’s part of an urban food desert, they’ve begun planning their own farmer’s market.

In each of the last six years, the church has hired 15 to 20 kids from the neighbourhood to learn from Harges and then head out into the neighbourhood as part-time roving listeners. The information they’ve been bringing back has enabled other interest groups to form in areas such as art, poetry, music, law and education. From these gatherings, people have found jobs, collaborators and friends. There are still hungry people who need a meal. They just find it now among friends.

“The whole idea is that we extend beyond the physical structure of our church and that we grow community - and that we know community - in real ways,” said Seana Murphy, who lives near the church.

Neighbours see Broadway as a place where you can go and ask for help. Not for goods or services - you go there for connections.

Change also is evident in what’s going on in Sunday school classrooms that sat dark for decades. Today, they are filled with an unusual collection of small businesses that rent space, together with fledgling organizations that get space for free. Meeting in the church now is a metropolitan youth orchestra and an eclectic mix of artists and, on Sunday nights, 50 or more gamers. There’s a dance studio and a pottery shop and an office for a small architectural firm. The church acquired a commercial kitchen license, and now people from the neighbourhood use it for catering startups.

Hundreds of people now pass under the church's roof each week and Sunday morning attendance has climbed past 200. But in the Broadway economy, that’s almost an afterthought.

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From an article by Ministry with the Poor, 22/01/2019

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