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Sharing a building leads to a shared mission for an AME church and a Latino congregation

On a bright Sunday morning in September, the congregation of Turner Memorial AME Church gathers at its Hyattsville, Maryland, building. A pastor is delivering an impassioned message. Applause crackles through the space as worshippers lift their hands under the sanctuary’s vaulted ceiling.

But the person speaking from the pulpit is not the Rev. Dr. D.K. Kearney, Turner Memorial’s pastor since 2015. The preacher is the Rev. Cesar Moreno, a minister originally from Guatemala, who is sharing the day’s word — in Spanish.

Moreno preaches during the “Soul Saving September Revival.” 

For nearly two years, the pastors’ churches — one an African Methodist Episcopal (AME) congregation more than a century old, one a largely Latino nondenominational congregation established in 2010 — have been sharing the Turner Memorial building.

It’s more than just a transactional arrangement. Church members have worked carefully and intentionally to build the relationship between the two congregations, which includes regular shared services and, this fall, the “Soul Saving September Revival,” a four-week joint endeavor.

It involves the close friendship of the two pastors, as well as the efforts of 16-year-old interpreter Josary Moreno Mejia (a preacher in her own right and the granddaughter of Cesar Moreno).

Mejia, 16, interprets for Kearney and Moreno before the start of worship. Mejia is Moreno’s granddaughter and a preacher in her own right.

“In Christ, there is no Jew or Gentile. There is no race or color,” Kearney says later that Sunday from the pulpit, after Moreno’s message concludes.

The Turner Memorial pastor looks out on the congregation, which includes members of Iglesia Evangelica Horeb Asamblea de Dios (Mt. Horeb for short) — the church pastored by Moreno and his wife, first lady Loly Moreno.

“We cannot allow the world’s culture of division to separate us. We cannot allow the enemy who comes to steal, kill and destroy to separate us,” Kearney continues, getting louder. “We are one in Christ Jesus.”

It is this focus on unity that exemplifies Turner Memorial’s activities, efforts deeply rooted in the church’s traditions — including, for example, its long-standing relationship with a local synagogue. Kearney is now working to unify the Turner Memorial and Mt. Horeb congregations under one roof, as together they reach out to the surrounding community.

This work is important to both pastors.

Tent Revival
Worshippers gather to hear preaching and songs in both Spanish and English at the four Friday evening services.

“As followers of Christ, we are to follow Christ’s example. And the example which he laid out during his ministry here on earth centered, in my opinion, around community, and building community, and living in community,” Kearney said. “As a church, that which represents Christ, we are to serve our community with the hope [that] by serving the community we win persons over to the family of God.”

Moreno agreed. “Speaking spiritually, people need salvation. People need to be on a better path. This is the objective, to teach people the path of God, … so that new generations can have hope and live better,” he said.

A ‘God-ordained’ relationship

When Kearney became pastor of Turner Memorial in 2015, he was working on his doctorate of ministry with a focus on liberation theology at Payne Theological Seminary. He found, through his research, that the church’s surrounding community was in large part Latino.

He wanted to reach those community members and began considering different ways the church might connect beyond its walls. He also began leading the church in a series of workshops focused on deploying spiritual gifts to make an impact.

Time passed — Kearney calls it a period of “preparation” — and in 2017, Moreno and his granddaughter began attending Turner Memorial services while seeking a space for Mt. Horeb.

When the two pastors met, they realized they could create opportunities for their congregations — one English-speaking, one generally Spanish-speaking — to worship together. They began partnering in December 2017.

Are you open to opportunities that might come your way?

The two developed a friendship that Moreno’s granddaughter Mejia describes as “a brotherhood.”

“They both have said and shared that when one comes to preach to the other’s church, they speak and help lift the other’s spirit,” she said.

Kearney elaborated: “It never fails that every time when we are together, even when we are meeting, I cannot help but to feel the presence of God. … It gives me the confirmation that what is happening is God-ordained.”

Today, Mt. Horeb holds its own services in the Turner Memorial building. But on the second Sunday morning of each month, its members join Turner Memorial’s. There, Moreno preaches in Spanish while his granddaughter interprets.

And on the fourth Sunday evening of each month, Turner Memorial members go to Mt. Horeb’s service, where Kearney delivers a message that Mejia translates into Spanish.

Congregants greet one another
Worshippers greet each other during the service. Members of both congregations say the partnership has helped them grow as Christians.

For Kearney, the combined worship reflects a core value of intentionally building relationships. Turner Memorial also has a partnership with the historic Washington, D.C., synagogue Sixth & I — located in the building that housed Turner Memorial for 50 years before the congregation moved to Hyattsville.

Kearney and Senior Rabbi Shira Stutman speak at each other’s place of worship each year during the weekend of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

“[Kearney] is amazingly generous with the pulpit God has assigned him to,” said the Rev. Dr. Natasha Jamison Gadson, Turner Memorial’s minister of leadership growth and development.

As long as Kearney senses that speakers have the Holy Spirit and that they are focused on the same goal of serving God, she said, “he is open with the pulpit for other pastors to come and share.”

Being open to others — interacting with diverse communities — provides an opportunity “to learn something we don’t know about God, our neighbors and the Christian life at large,” said Ismael Ruiz-Millán, the director of the Hispanic House of Studies, Global Education & Intercultural Formation at Duke Divinity School. He also directs programs within the divinity school for non-Hispanic clergy and laity who want to serve the U.S. Latino population.

In what ways could your congregation expand its notion of Christian life, and act upon it?

“If we really believe that all human beings are made after God’s image but we insist in keeping ourselves in circles with people who are just like us, then we really have an incomplete notion of who God is and what the Christian life is about,” Ruiz-Millán said.

The community commitment

In general, both community and church members have responded to this outreach. For instance, on the Sunday before the first Friday revival in September, representatives from the two churches handed out more than 7,500 flyers to share information about the coming events.

Volunteers chat as they pass out flyers with information about services and community offerings.

“I think it is such a great experience,” said Joan Goodluck, a Turner Memorial member originally from Guyana who identifies as black. “I am seeing God’s work being revealed, because he wants the nations of the world to come together.”

Now 78, Goodluck grew up in a Christian home and attended church with majority-black congregations for much of her life. She said that hearing the word in both Spanish and English has been a learning experience for some worshippers, adding that the preaching of the word “helps me to grow more.”

Mejia, who devotes her time to ministry while taking high school and college classes as part of her high school’s dual enrollment program, is a big part of this growth.

She regularly interprets for services at both churches — including translating from Spanish to English at Mt. Horeb for young people who don’t speak Spanish.

In this way, she provides clear messages to congregants and community members even as the pastors speed their cadences and raise their voices.

Are there ways in which you serve others that you could reframe as ministry?

“I thank God overall, because it’s a blessing,” Mejia said after one Sunday morning service at Turner Memorial.

She asks God to speak through her lips when she preaches as an individual and when she interprets for the pastors, she said.

Mejia sings with both congregations as well as interpreting.

During the service, Kearney noted that Mejia does a “wonderful job” (a message she humbly interpreted).

And as Mejia stood outside the sanctuary afterward, people hugged her, with one woman telling her, “You are such a blessing.”

Others too have positive thoughts about the churches’ union.

“I think it’s something really good — good because God calls us to be one body in Christ,” said Evelyn Chávez, a Mt. Horeb member.

“We share the gospel, first. But we are not only sharing the gospel. … There are people with needs. They need clothes; they need many things,” Chávez said.

A new kind of innovation

A pillar of the young partnership between these churches is the September revival series. In past years, Turner Memorial has held revivals featuring pastors from outside the community. But when planning this year’s activities, Kearney said he felt he needed to go out to the people instead of waiting for them to come into the church.

He committed to having the two churches gather outdoors along with neighbors from the community. Members of both churches worked together to plan events.

On the first Friday in September, rows of colorful chairs were lined up outside the building, under a large white tent.

A band that included a singer, a keyboardist and a drummer played lively Christian music with Spanish lyrics as children toddled around in the grass and older attendees wearing everything from T-shirts and jeans to dress shirts and pants wandered among various outdoor booths.

At one booth, stacks of clothing ready to be given away were so plentiful that the church halted donations for the revival’s second week. One booth offered voter registration; another, immigration information.

Reaching out together with Mt. Horeb, and having activities in both English and Spanish, including those offering community aid, may be an innovation on the traditional revival.

Health information and voter registration are offered along with the services and are part of the congregations’ outreach to the community.​​​​​​

“When I look at tradition and the church, what we are doing is traditional,” he said. “Because on the day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit fell, Scripture says that everyone heard the gospel being preached in their native language. And that day 3,000 souls were saved.”

In what ways could you innovate on tradition in your context?

But people can allow personal preferences about language, race and social class to separate them from others, Kearney said.

“And I would dare to say, don’t confuse one’s preference with tradition. Because traditional church teaches us that all of God’s children — regardless of language, race, class — gather together. And that when the Holy Spirit falls, everybody hears the good news,” he said. “If this is innovative, it is traditionally innovative.”

Light in the darkness

On the first night of the revival, attendees gathered under the tent as the service began, reading song lyrics from copied pages so they could worship together.

“Promise keeper, light in the darkness. My God, that is who you are,” they sang before switching to Spanish. “Cumples promesas, luz en tinieblas. Mi Dios, así eres tú.

Have you worshipped or sung in other languages? If not, what might you learn from that experience?

“We have come to let the enemy know that no race, no language barriers will stop us. We are not trying to build walls, but we are building bridges,” said Kearney, standing at the front of the tent, as Mejia interpreted.

Moreno then delivered a message in Spanish, telling those gathered that Jesus is the saver of their souls. At one point, his voice and his granddaughter’s overlapped, the English and Spanish floating together, as the worshippers clapped their hands in response and the keyboardist played on.

After the sky went from pastel to dark, Moreno’s message ended, and people came to the altar to receive prayer. As the prayer teams and respondents gathered, one woman stood with them, crying as she raised her hands.

When the altar call ended, Kearney addressed the crowd, declining to do a benediction, he said, because he wanted the revival’s spirit to continue. He urged attendees to bring their friends and families to the next event.

Altar call
Kearney prays with worshippers during the altar call.

“Thank you all so much for coming out,” he said, with Mejia repeating his words in Spanish. “Bless you.”

The crowd lingered, talking and embracing one another, as light continued to shine from the revival tent on the warm September night.

Questions to consider

Questions to consider

  • When the two pastors met, they recognized that they had a unique opportunity to build something together. Are you open to opportunities that might come your way?
  • Ruiz-Millán said that if Christians engage only with people like themselves, they have “an incomplete notion of who God is and what the Christian life is about.” In what ways could your congregation expand its notion of Christian life, and act upon it?
  • Mejia said that when she interprets for others, she experiences God speaking through her. Are there ways in which you serve others that you could reframe as ministry?
  • Kearney calls this partnership “traditionally innovative.” In what ways could you innovate on tradition in your context?
  • Have you worshipped or sung in other languages? If not, what might you learn from that experience?

My friend Manuel “Manny” Ortiz died two years ago. But I’m reminded of him every time I walk down the street in our Harlem neighborhood and see a tree covered in crocheted and knitted swatches of green yarn.

This piece of community-created “yarn bomb” art is dedicated to Manny. It stands next to City Seminary’s community art gallery, named for Manny and our friend Andrew Walls, and is a reminder of how he walked with us — how he showed us the importance of not just leadership but friendship for the future of the urban church.

Manny’s imprint is deep in my life; nearly everything I know about leadership for the urban church I learned from Manny Ortiz.

It was during my pastorate in the Sandtown neighborhood of West Baltimore that I began to see leadership as one of the most crucial questions we face about the future. While our church was growing and making a difference in our neighborhood, I recognized there was more I needed to do to develop the next generation of pastoral leaders. Manny would help me name this challenge and, by both his teaching and his example, enable me to reflect on leadership in the urban church in fresh ways.

Manny, who died in 2017 at 78, was born and raised in New York City, where he met his wife, Blanca. He loved baseball and nearly pursued a career as a catcher. As an adult, he was baptized at a Baptist church.

Manuel “Manny” Ortiz Photo by Anthony Artis/CSNY

Manny and Blanca eventually made their way to Chicago, where he began graduate work at Wheaton and immersed himself in urban ministry. Over a decade and a half, he planted five urban congregations, including Spirit and Truth Fellowship, part of the Christian Reformed Church (CRC). From the beginning, Manny made it a priority to develop leadership training programs for both Hispanic pastors and young people in high school.

Moving to Philadelphia, where he became professor of ministry and urban mission at Westminster Theological Seminary, Manny again poured his energies into the city, into community ministries and the next generation of leaders for the urban church. He soon established another Spirit and Truth Fellowship (CRC), aided by longtime colleagues Sue and Randy Baker, and served as its senior pastor until his death. He also wrote about urban ministry.

I first met Manny many years ago during a seminar he taught on urban church leadership. He was an urban Eugene Peterson, planting many seeds in the formation of my pastoral imagination. Among the seeds Manny planted was that leadership development should be a priority for the church and indeed shapes its future.

But what I needed to learn from Manny didn’t fully sink in until we launched City Seminary of New York. With Maria Liu Wong, who had the vision for the community gallery and the yarn bomb, and with all of our colleagues at City Seminary, I continue to draw on his lessons and life for urban church leadership.

Thinking about his journey and what he lived out, I can identify three of his core teachings for leadership development in the city.

Christian leadership development takes place in community. In Philadelphia, Manny and Sue helped begin nine congregations, each small-scale and multiethnic. To support the new churches, they began a monthly gathering for pastors. There were regular times for prayer, for sharing and for Scripture. It was organic and communal, distinct from approaches that focused on teaching “the leader” information. And it took place over the long haul, a life together through ups and downs, learning in a way that Manny thought was vital to sustaining ministry. The group still meets today.

Leadership development attends to both the person and the context. This means that the calling of pastoral leadership, as Manny saw it, is grounded in an understanding of the unique gifts God has given to each person and the specificities of context. It is vital, therefore, to listen both to God’s call and to the city — to engage in lifelong formation and learning about the city. In this way, Manny was like a spiritual director for both pastors and the city.

As Manny taught and practiced, “it is best to have someone walk with you.” I think he considered this the most important lesson for flourishing in pastoral ministry. Leaders need a friend, a mentor, a peer: someone they trust to walk alongside them through different seasons in ministry.

I experienced this firsthand as Manny walked with me and offered me the gift of his friendship and care for my family. We spoke regularly about our lives, theology, seminary education and ministry, and our friendship deepened. We talked about why missiology is important and worked on themes of a book. Manny shared with me his dreams for a new seminary in Philadelphia.

And when City Seminary was getting started, Manny and Sue jumped in to help get us off the ground and stayed connected for nearly two decades. They often traveled from Philadelphia to New York to be with us — we just had to provide a lunch of Manny’s favorite New York knishes and corned beef sandwiches.

As the work of City Seminary grew, and so did the challenges, Manny would call me, encouraging me, praying for me, expressing his trust and confidence. He listened and helped me find the right path. It was always dialogical — a conversation, never advice.

Manny believed in City Seminary and our focus on leadership for a rapidly changing reality of church and city. Even when his health was failing, he continued to invest in us, praying for and shaping our faculty, our board and our students. He pressed us to “keep at it,” knowing that the work we were doing would bear fruit in time.

A key initiative we have launched at City Seminary is WE LEAD NYC, a youth seminary for high schoolers and those starting college. Here we bring together young people and youth leaders from different churches and neighborhoods to build friendships and grow together in community. It is our way of investing in the next generation, just as Manny invested in us.

And with the support of Lilly Endowment Inc., we have a program for pastors called Thriving in Ministry. The goal of the Thriving in Ministry initiative at City Seminary of New York is to walk alongside pastors from the diverse body of Christ in the complex and ever-changing urban context. We do this by nurturing networks of mutual support, care and well-being. Using collaborative inquiry, the program emphasizes local questions and knowledge, echoing the community gatherings in Philadelphia.

As I look at the beautiful mix of crocheted and knitted patches on the tree outside our community art gallery, I think of the extraordinary gift of Manny, of the way he helped me see ministry as a call from God, an invitation to serve together for the work of the gospel.

Because of Manny, we at the seminary know not only that “it is best to have someone walk with you” but also that we are called to continue to walk together.

Meatloaf. Herb-roasted chicken and acorn squash. Korean beef and rice. Black bean nachos. Shredded potato cheddar soup. Peruvian purple potato gnocchi.

Think you can’t get a good meal at a donate-what-you-can cafe? Then go eat at Thelma’s Kitchen at 31st Street and Troost Avenue in Kansas City, Missouri. There, diners can get those or other items from a menu that changes daily — a full meal of entree, soup, salad, dessert and a drink for whatever they are willing to pay.

The suggested donation: $7 for a small plate and $10 for a large, but many pay more and others less. If you’re strapped for cash, you can even buy a meal with a half-hour of helping out in the cafe.

Though the food is a clear draw (the shredded potato cheddar soup was recently named one of Kansas City’s best soups for 2019) what Thelma’s is really serving is community. Since it opened last summer, Thelma’s has become a popular gathering spot, a place where people from all walks of life sit and have lunch together.

“At Thelma’s I can connect,” one diner posted on the cafe’s Facebook page. “Hear stories, tell stories but connect to a great community.”

Thelma’s Kitchen, another wrote, “nourishes the body and the soul.”

The image of the late Thelma Gardner, a co-founder of Reconciliation Services, watches over diners at the cafe that bears her name, Thelma’s Kitchen.

Part of a larger program aimed at reconciliation and community building, Thelma’s Kitchen is operated by Reconciliation Services, a faith-based nonprofit founded by St. Mary of Egypt Orthodox Church. With a distinctly Orthodox Christian approach to mission, Reconciliation Services offers outreach programs and classes, social services, medical support, mental health services and community-building initiatives to one of Kansas City’s most economically troubled neighborhoods.

All three — nonprofit, church and restaurant — are housed in a four-story building that Reconciliation Services owns at 31st and Troost, church on the top floor, Thelma’s on the bottom, and Reconciliation Services mostly in between.

Troost Avenue has been a racial dividing line for generations, a boundary between Kansas City’s white residents and black residents, between those who have enough and those who don’t. Overall, 99 percent of Reconciliation’s clients live below the federal poverty line, 79 percent are black, and more than half have been victims of violence.

“There has never been a time in the history of Kansas City when Troost was not the dividing line,” said the Rev. Justin Mathews, the executive director of Reconciliation Services and one of two priests at St. Mary of Egypt.

Thelma's Kitchen
Thelma’s Kitchen, located at 31st and Troost Avenue, is open for lunch 11 a.m.-2 p.m., Monday through Friday.

Racial division, Mathews said, began in the early 1800s, when the first white settlers forced the Osage out of the area. Later, slaves worked for decades on a plantation that sprawled across what is now the Troost area.

In what ways are people divided in your community and city? Where are the dividing lines and boundaries?

Though the neighborhood went on to experience ups and downs, he said, deadly riots after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in April 1968 marked the beginning of the area’s recent decline.

“National Guard tanks were rolling down this very street,” Mathews said. “You can’t be a faith leader on this street without rooting what you do in that history.”

Even today, as redevelopment and gentrification bring new pressures to the neighborhood and its residents, that legacy of trauma still shapes Reconciliation Services’ approach to ministry.

“We are intentional about allowing the history of this place to infuse our solutions to the problems that we see,” Mathews said. “We can’t heal trauma without acknowledging the source of the trauma.”

Mathews, third from left, offers a blessing before a lunch meeting at Thelma’s Kitchen.

How has history shaped your community? How does your church’s ministry reflect that history?

The roots of Reconciliation Services

For years, American churches have launched nonprofit organizations to help carry out their social justice ministries, but Reconciliation Services took a very different path. It began as essentially a one-person house ministry, which begat a church, which in turn launched the formal nonprofit.

Reconciliation Services traces its roots to the 1980s, when the cafe’s namesake, Thelma Gardner, a black woman who had grown up poor in Texarkana, Arkansas, started her own social justice ministry, working from her apartment in the Troost area to do what she could to care for her neighbors.

David Altschul and Thelma Gardner.
Photo courtesy of Reconciliation Services

A few years later, she met David Altschul, a successful, white insurance salesman 12 years her junior, who also felt called to help and feed families in the neighborhood. After the two married in 1987 over the objections of family and friends, they founded a loose-knit organization, Reconciliation Ministries, in the building at 31st and Troost, offering hot meals and assistance as best they could to anyone in need.

As their work in the neighborhood intensified, the two began reading and studying the Desert Fathers and Desert Mothers, along with other early Christian writers, and soon found themselves increasingly drawn to Orthodox Christianity.

“Their journey was so powerful, they became the mother and father of this part of Troost,” Mathews said.

Eventually, the small community at Reconciliation Ministries became St. Mary of Egypt Orthodox Church, and after study and preparation, Altschul became its priest. At his ordination, he took the name Father Paisius, and Thelma became Matushka (a title for a priest’s wife) Michaela, after the archangel Michael, her patron saint.

In 2005, when Father Paisius completed a master’s degree in social work, the church relaunched Reconciliation Services as a separate nonprofit. After Matushka Michaela died in 2012, Father Paisius became a monastic, taking the name Hieromonk Alexii and founding a monastery in rural Missouri.

Their story is still very much a part of life at both the church and the nonprofit, said Mathews, who succeeded Altschul at the church and nonprofit.

The Rev. Turbo Qualls (left) visits with Mathews at Thelma’s Kitchen.

What lessons does Thelma and David’s story offer for your church?

“Father Alexii and Thelma — their marriage and suffering as an interracial couple — was the forge that formed the DNA of Reconciliation Services,” he said.

Today, St. Mary of Egypt, which started with about 50 people, draws about 130 in worship. Known for its multicultural congregation, the church last year brought on a second priest, the Rev. Turbo Qualls, to assist Mathews. This year, the two will gradually reverse those roles, as Mathews begins focusing almost exclusively on leading Reconciliation Services.

The change in pastoral duties, Mathews said, is prompted by the tremendous growth that Reconciliation Services has experienced in recent years. Today, the nonprofit’s budget is $2.5 million, up from $600,000 just five years ago. The organization offers mental health services, job training, rent and utilities assistance, and vouchers to help pay for prescriptions, medical supplies, vision care and dentistry. In the Reconciliation Services foster grandparents program, low-income volunteers 55 and older mentor at-risk youth; last year, 92 foster grandparents logged 80,000 volunteer hours.

foster grandparents program
Marsha Kirkendoll (center), a volunteer with Reconciliation Services’ Foster Grandparents Programs, works with children on an art project

A client’s story

Janet Foy is one of many people who have been helped by Reconciliation Services. Now 58, she came to Kansas City in 2005 from Nashville, Tennessee, with nothing but her bag. Unemployed and broke, she was chronically ill, and not long after she arrived, her mother died.

“I felt like a shoe in a dryer,” she said.

As Foy tried to rebuild her life, she was repeatedly stymied by a single roadblock. She had no identification — no driver’s license, birth certificate or any other form of ID, an absolute necessity for anyone seeking a job and self-sufficiency. Missouri, like most states, charges for the documents that unlock the door to help; no ID, no help. Low-income victims of theft or fire and others who have been evicted or are homeless face the same hurdle.

Before long, Reconciliation Services helped Foy get her birth certificate, opening her path to a new job and a new life. Last year, Reconciliation Services case workers helped clients secure more than 1,500 IDs and other documents needed to qualify for employment and benefits assistance.

Once she had her birth certificate in hand, Foy said, “I felt like I was getting myself back.”

As she looked for a job, the Reconciliation Services staff provided help and encouragement. Foy signed up for a workshop that led to an internship at a local Humana insurance office, where she works today.

Foy said that Reconciliation Services is effective because the staff includes people who have known the emotional and financial pitfalls of life. Mathews and the staff understand the Troost community, its history and its people, she said.

‘All of life is a sacrament’

What connects all of Reconciliation Services’ work, shaping and informing the organization and its approach to ministry, is Orthodox Christianity. At Reconciliation Services, Orthodox sacramental theology intersects directly with the work of alleviating poverty, Mathews said.

“In Orthodox tradition, all of life is a sacrament,” he said. “Our approach in an Orthodox framework is that all life is a sacrament, and God is everywhere, present and filling all, working for our salvation.”

Mathews encourages his staff — some paid, some volunteers, some Christian, some not — to “love them [clients] till they wonder why.” Everyone they encounter — clients, donors, volunteers, staff — is an icon, he reminds them, an image of God.

Orthodox tradition
Qualls and Mathews stand at the altar during Sunday worship at St. Mary of Egypt Orthodox Christian Church.

“When we encounter someone who walks in, we think iconographically or sacramentally: ‘Here walks somebody in the image of God, striving for his likeness,’” he said. “No matter what they have done, that is indelibly stamped on their heart. So our team has to treat everyone like Christ walking in, if we take our theology seriously.”

How does your church’s outreach ministry reflect its theology?

Mathews is the first to acknowledge he’s not a typical Orthodox priest. Formerly a full-time musician who played guitar, sang in Christian groups and worked as a sound technician, he had a religious awakening while living in Nashville that put him on the path to the Orthodox faith and seminary.

He earned a business degree before going to seminary, and that background influences how he approaches his work at Reconciliation Services, which sits right at the intersection of business, faith and philanthropy. Mathews views himself as an entrepreneur in ministry, reading and writing on social entrepreneurship, equitable design thinking and disruptive innovation for social good.

St. Mary of Egypt and Reconciliation Services offer a model for the broader church, he said.

“We ought to be starting churches like this, raising up people who can preach but teaching them to be nonprofit entrepreneurs,” he said. “What we have going here is really working.”

Reconciliation Services is a nonprofit that is able to do “works of mercy” in an ecumenical way with a wide variety of people, he said, sharing the love of God and at the same time generating funds to support operations.

Mathews said his biggest challenge in leading the nonprofit is what he calls “the dandelion dilemma.”

“If you pick the heads off all the dandelions in your yard, the yard looks clean, and you might think you’ve solved your problem,” he said. “But next year, you’ll have all those dandelions and more, because you haven’t gotten to the root of the issue.”

Mathews prefers instead to end the problems that Reconciliation Services encounters, not just offer temporary solutions.

The core issue in Troost, as Altschul recognized years ago, is trauma, Mathews said.

Troost neighborhood
A mural across the street from the Reconciliation Services building pays tribute to the history of the Troost neighborhood in Kansas City, Missouri. 

“And in this community, the source of trauma is bound up in racism, disinvestment and discrimination,” he said.

To help residents recover from the damage inflicted by violence and poverty, Altschul became a licensed clinical trauma specialist and offered free clinical therapy for the community. That work still continues at Reconciliation Services, with the nonprofit providing more than 1,400 hours of therapy for trauma and depression last year alone.

Challenges ahead

Today, redevelopment and gentrification are bringing new challenges to Troost Avenue. As more black residents move to the west and south in Kansas City, white residents are returning to older areas in the city center.

Only a few blocks down the street from Reconciliation Services, new apartment buildings are going up and older buildings are being renovated and repurposed. As redevelopment changes the face of Troost Avenue, Mathews has become a visible presence in local media, reminding anyone who will listen that need still exists in the neighborhood.

“It is good to address the blight of the buildings, but if we do not address the blight of the heart that created the conditions for poverty in the first place, we aren’t changing anything,” he said.

Where does the neighborhood see signs of your church’s commitment and presence?

In the face of change and redevelopment, St. Mary of Egypt, Reconciliation Services and Thelma’s Kitchen are determined to stay right where they are, in the building at 31st and Troost. In many ways, opening Thelma’s Kitchen last summer was a “stake in the ground,” a sign to the neighborhood that Reconciliation Services is not going away, Mathews said.

“We’re praying like mad and growing our church and our work through Reconciliation Services,” he said. “We’re going to stay in this area.”

Questions to consider

Questions to consider

  • In what ways are people divided in your community and city? Where are the dividing lines and boundaries?
  • How has history shaped your community? How does your church’s ministry reflect that history?
  • What lessons does Thelma and David’s story offer for your church?
  • How does your church’s outreach ministry reflect its theology?
  • Where has your church planted “a stake in the ground?” Where does the neighborhood see signs of the church’s presence?

The church today in New York and other urban areas is bigger than we can imagine, says Mark Gornik, the director of City Seminary of New York.

“It’s from all parts of the world; it’s from different traditions,” Gornik said. “It’s so much bigger. God has many people in the city, and the surprise of who’s there is the joy of what God is doing.”

GornikIn the book “Stay in the City: How Christian Faith Is Flourishing in an Urban World,” published last year by Eerdmans, Gornik and Maria Liu Wong, the dean of City Seminary, share what the school is learning about Christianity in today’s increasingly globalized and urban world. Founded in 2003, City Seminary of New York is an independent seminary that provides theological education to men and women in ministry in the city’s ethnic and immigrant communities, where Christianity is thriving.

“The world is more urban than it’s ever been, and will be increasingly so,” Liu Wong said. “The average Christian in the world is going to be an urban Christian going forward, so how do we live into that space and context?”

WongIn the book, Gornik and Liu Wong argue that global migration is one of the most important factors fueling the growth of Christianity today.

“One of the gifts of immigration is the gift of faith,” Gornik said. “The church is here all around us because God is bringing people from around the world to enrich cities and enrich communities, suburban areas, rural areas, urban areas in the United States. It’s everywhere we look.

“We should rejoice in that and grow in it and recognize how connected we in the United States are to the world.”

This increasingly urban and globalized Christianity is changing our understanding of and approach to ministry, Liu Wong said.

“When we think about ministry, it’s important to be present and to hear and see what’s already there — that God is there before us, that people are already doing things in the neighborhoods, and that we’re not coming in to save that community,” she said. “It’s about spending time and recognizing what is already happening and then seeing where we can be invited into that.”

Liu Wong and Gornik spoke recently with Faith & Leadership about “Stay in the City” and how an increasingly urban and global faith is changing our understanding of ministry and theological education. The following is an edited transcript.

book coverQ: Tell us a little about the book and what you’re trying to accomplish.

Gornik: We wrote it because we wanted to share what we are finding in the city and in urban life in New York. We have found great joy and hope in the Christian community and its flourishing life and diversity, so we wanted to share what we are learning as a seminary about Christian faith in our urban world today.

The title, “Stay in the City,” is from the Gospel of Luke, where after Christ’s resurrection, he says to the people, “Stay in the city, where you will receive power from on high” (Luke 24:49).

There’s a power and presence, and that’s where the Spirit meets us. It’s not about going as much as it is staying and seeing what God is doing through the Holy Spirit right in front of you.

Q: Who’s the intended audience?

Liu Wong: We were hoping that it would start conversations. It could be for a small group or a Sunday school or a seminary classroom — a wide range of uses. We’ve even used it with our high school youth seminary to have conversations and reflections.

It pushes past the idea of urban ministry as ministry in a specific neighborhood or community and instead sees that ministry is happening everywhere and how to be present to that, whether as a parent, educator, neighbor or just someone riding on the subway. It’s about seeing what is happening in the city and recognizing that ministry is much broader than we think.

Q: What does urban Christianity look like in the 21st century?

Liu Wong: There’s a lot of complexity, a lot of change. When we think about ministry, it’s important to be present and to hear and see what’s already there — that God is there before us, that people are already doing things in the neighborhoods, and that we’re not coming in to save that community. It’s about spending time and recognizing what is already happening and then seeing where we can be invited into that.

The world is more urban than it’s ever been, and will be increasingly so. The average Christian in the world is going to be an urban Christian going forward, so how do we live into that space and context?

Gornik: “Urban ministry” sometimes sounds like “inner-city ministry” or “industrial ministry.” We’re not trying to lose the word “urban,” but “urban ministry” has this connotation, whereas we think about ministry in the city as what everybody is doing. When you get up in the morning and when you go to work and when you’re going to school — the way we live our lives in an urban context is how we do ministry in the city.

The church is much bigger than we can imagine — it’s from all parts of the world; it’s from different traditions. It’s so much bigger. God has many people in the city, and the surprise of who’s there is the joy of what God is doing. So ministry becomes redefined, not as a project or a particular position, but as a way of life that everyone is living.

Q: In the book, you say that the vocation of urban Christians begins with presence and that ministry is theology on the ground. What do you mean?

Gornik: One thing we mean is that we don’t start by saying we know what ministry is. We don’t always know what it is until we are present to people around us and seeing where Christ is already present. It’s being open to the work of the Holy Spirit. It’s being open to God’s leading.

It’s not programs as much as it’s relational and personal, right in front of us. It doesn’t mean that ministry doesn’t take institutional or programmatic forms at times, but the underlying structure is being present to God and to others, listening and finding out why we’re being invited into God’s story in the places and relationships that we have in city life.

Liu Wong: There’s intentionality in that. The pace of life in New York is always moving. It’s easy to just go through a community that you live in — get your coffee here, your bagel there — and never really recognize who is there, what is happening, what your presence means in the community, until you stop and look and study and really try to interpret theologically where God has placed you.

In our Pray and Break Bread events, we invite students to do a deeper dive into their own communities where they live or work. And we’ve found that spending time praying and being on the ground, walking and touching a school building or a hospital, being aware of what’s there, changes people.

Presence is being intentional about what is before you — opening your eyes to being in a space and having physical, sensory experiences and praying and remembering that and expanding our own experience.

I know New York a whole lot better because I’ve been able to pray in so many different places. I could do this for my entire life and still not visit every neighborhood in New York. But it’s also about depth and scope and raising awareness for our students and their congregations and their families. When we pray for the city, it’s not an abstract notion of “the city” but also the person I get coffee from and others. I know their names, I know their stories, and I pray for them.

So it’s stretching what it is to be a neighbor in a city with so many people.

Q: You write in the book that the most important factor for the growth of faith today is global migration between cities. If so, what is the impact of the current battles over immigration on the spread of faith?

Gornik: Andrew Walls has shown that Christianity has developed over time by crossing cultures and continents and lines and barriers. Christian faith is a dynamic, living community that is at home around the world, and continues to make its homes around the world.

One of the great gifts of immigration is to see how God is present in the people that are moving around the world. Sometimes that’s for reasons that are really hard — drought or loss of land or loss of jobs or violence or war.

But as the world constantly moves and people move with it, they bring their faith with them. One of the greatest gifts we’ve received in North America is that Christians from around the world have brought their faith and given everyone an opportunity to grow together into the fullness of Christ.

Sociologically or economically, it’s very hard to undo globalization, and I think it’s here with us. The struggle [over immigration] is a spiritual struggle. How do we live together in a globalized world? How do we live with generosity and hospitality?

One of the gifts of immigration is the gift of faith. The church is here all around us because God is bringing people from around the world to enrich cities and enrich communities, suburban areas, rural areas, urban areas in the United States. It’s everywhere we look.

We should rejoice in that and grow in it and recognize how connected we in the United States are to the world.

Liu Wong: New York will always be fueled by immigration. That’s what makes this city work. I think about the different stories, like my own family’s story coming from England to America. I am optimistic that there are cycles and seasons, and that particularly harder seasons don’t necessarily mean that everything’s going to lead to destruction.

And it’s not just immigration; it is migration. Many New Yorkers have transcontinental identities. My parents came, but they went back to Asia, and they come back, and their story isn’t unique. Many people here have homes in two or more places.

Q: The book has five “lessons for the long run.” Walk us through those.

Gornik: In doing research for this book, which was supported by the Lilly Endowment, we brought together small groups of Christians from different parts of the United States and Latin America and a few other places and we listened. We asked them to talk about the practices that were helpful to them, and we collated them and came up with these five practices, which also confirmed our own experience.

The first is begin with what is in front of you.

City life is always at a very fast pace, so we’re encouraging people to slow down, take moments during the day to reflect and consider what they are experiencing, to exercise the gift of wonder and the gift of prayer and look at all the different relationships that people carry with them and then ask, “How is God already present in the city?”

It’s a way of being and a way of understanding everyday life through the lens of gratitude and wonder and prayer, but also through the senses. And it’s an encouragement to pray as we go through everyday life — not to separate prayer from school or prayer from the bus or prayer from the grocery store, but to incorporate a prayerful spirit — because we’re encountering God’s presence everywhere and [seeing] how creation is flourishing or broken.

So this was a way to focus on what is already here, to suspend judgment and knowledge and listen and find something new.

Liu Wong: The second lesson is that relationships come first. It’s about really listening — listening for people’s hopes, dreams, expectations. Listening for what God is telling us through conversations and time with others.

At the seminary, we talk about how we are learning from each other in our relationships rather than attending a program. So really investing in interpersonal but also institutional and organizational relationships and in the various parts of our lives where our stories come together and God speaks to us.

Gornik: The third lesson is that community matters. Many times, our understanding of ministry is individual — I have my ministry; I am the pastor; I am the youth leader.

But we are finding that what really matters for a flourishing and thriving ministry is that we share this journey with others — and that includes everything from thinking about what ministry is to the joys and struggles we share to the callings we have.

It includes the embodied practices of eating together, forgiveness and friendship. This is the heart of ministry. We’re not in this alone. There may be seasons when we feel alone, but ministry is a gift given to community and to doing with others.

Liu Wong: The fourth lesson is to try new things and take risks. It’s a mindset that everything we engage in is a place where we can learn. We can learn from our mistakes and failures, but we have to also learn how we learn.

It’s being open to the possibilities that God brings before us, being able to discern together with others what we can do or how we can be and how we can join in with what God is already doing.

City Seminary is a story of taking a risk and going by faith and doing something that maybe others haven’t done. Our story has evolved with just being open to where God has put us, trying in faith to honor our call as an organization but also respond in new or different ways.

Gornik: The last lesson is that who you are is significant.

Even as we work in community, we also are growing individually and spiritually before God. It’s an awareness of our gifts and vocation and our life in God and our life with one another.

Who you are is significant in any type of ministry, whether it’s a youth pastor or your faith at work or a pastor of a new church. There should be a sense of security in the work that God is doing in our lives, and a lot of that comes from reflecting on our experience with other leaders, having peer mentors that allow us to find a way to thrive in ministry.

Who we are is important. We don’t want to lose sight of our own journeys and our own stories of this work of the gospel.

What we bring to ministry ties them all together. It’s about relationships. It’s about being present. It’s about the ability to try new things.

Q: So they’re all interrelated.

Gornik: Yes, they are interrelated, and they build on one another.

For example, when we started City Seminary, it wouldn’t have happened unless we were present to what was in front of us, to what God was doing with Maria’s story and the new Nigerian and Ghanaian churches in the city.

Because of that, we asked, “What opportunities do we have to learn together and serve together for the work of the gospel in the city?”

City Seminary was born in response to what God was doing. It wasn’t that we just wanted to do something innovative or creative; it was, “What is God doing, and how is God showing us something about the future and where the church should be? And how do we join in this?”

It’s important to be present to what God is doing. We don’t always see it. That’s why being present to God in the streets and the world is so critical. There’s so much creative opportunity in front of us to do new things for the kingdom of God, but it takes time to see what that is.

It’s a natural response to the work of the Holy Spirit in our communities and lives, but it also is innovative in that we don’t have to do it the same way. What is the 21st century, and how does it invite us to think and do and believe and pray in new ways?

Liu Wong: It’s not innovation for innovation’s sake. It’s how do we make meaning — and make meaning in new ways — because of the experiences that we’ve had with others.

We’re always inviting our students to take risks when they’re in their very diverse community of learners. They are from a lot of different places, and they’re taking a risk being in this space and sharing their lives together.

But the fruit of that — the friendships, the possibilities that emerge out of those relationships — are things that they could not have imagined without this space and time together. Creativity comes out of having had this possibility for relationship in a safe space and then really seeing that God is bigger than what I’ve known God to be and that I need to believe and trust in that.

Q: What does all of this mean for theological education? What are the lessons from City Seminary for theological education?

Gornik: Maria and I wrestle with that question. For us, we’re asking, “Where is the church going, and how can we be transformed by that?” We’re trying to respond to what the Holy Spirit is doing, and we’re trying to understand what is happening in the church and be part of that journey for the future of the church.

This is the most exciting time to be involved in theological education. Theological education is a common good for the church, and to know that there is so much flourishing faith in our city and to be part of it is a gift.

We’re trying to understand what it means to do theological education in light of urbanization and a global church. These are very different [conditions from] when the theological education that formed many of us was formed in the 19th century, so there is a different set of questions.

Maria’s writing a book, with Ted Smith at Emory, about her story — and probably about this story. Maria, can you say a little about that?

Liu Wong: Sure. I’ve been working with Ted and about 11 other people, wrestling around the question of theological education in this moment of a lot of change and the question of what is the meaning and purpose of theological education and what is most hopeful going forward.

My particular contribution is an autoethnography, tracing my own story and how it’s been integral with the story of the City Seminary. I’m trying to share lessons from my own formation and think about theological education both within the scope of institutional life and beyond.

One of the key ideas is that theological education is not simply for the individual but for the family and the community, and how can educational formation be thought of that way. So I’m weaving my story through the lens of family and friendship and learning in leadership, and then I end up with a consideration of wisdom.

In our particular case at City Seminary, we’re always asking, “What are the needs of our students, and how do we respond? How does our curriculum, how does the way we teach, reflect our students? What is the context, and how do we make sense of the world together?”

Our world is changing so much. We have to be relevant, we have to be accessible, we have to be responsive, and that might look different than it did 50 years ago. What are the implications of that?

I’m considering the idea of theological education starting much earlier than seminary, even from the home. My parents were missionaries, and we had missionaries in our home all the time, so a lot of my own trajectory of living and working in faith here is because of the formation that I had, starting with my parents.

And when I went to seminary, my husband and I — we went together and were in our second year of marriage, and we had a newborn. We did seminary together, but so much of our community came around us.

Theological education now and for the future has to take into account all those things.