John Wesley United Methodist Church
If you travel down Jimmy Carter Boulevard, just off I85 in Atlanta you have probably passed John Wesley UMC many times. It is a big brown building just off the road, across from the Hibachi Grill where the cross section of the world loves to eat. These days that cross section has become largely hispanic, as the neighborhood seems to be going, but it is literally a snap shot of the world on that corner.
John Wesley has a great and rich tradition of ministry, but as they ended 2014 and started 2015 their future seemed to be what we could call “uncertain”. The Matthew Initiative has been working with John Wesley for almost a year now, but in December we felt an urgency to see if momentum could be started with a weekly children’s program on Sunday afternoons. They sit on a most strategic corner and we wondered what could happen if they were successful in restarting a children’s program, even if it were a small and consistent one. Here is a snap shot of what has happened in the short 2 and a half months that we have been partnering with the determined team at John Wesley UMC:
We launched with a Christmas party, something we have never done before. We went door to door in the neighborhood, and invited the children and families from the soccer fields behind the church who come to play/watch football. Almost 40 people attended. Actually, attendance has never gone below 20 children and now they are hovering around 30 children. Every week, parents have come with their children and formed a row on the back pew of the fellowship hall. They seem to be grateful for what their children are receiving, and JW makes sure that they too are offered the meal their children enjoy. Radical hospitality for a church with extremely limited resources.
On the last Sunday before Christmas we had the children arranging the nativity scene with stickers. A parent who had come with her daughter asked the question of the ages: “which one was God”. Since then she has found her home at John Wesley, and is not only inviting other children to come to the program, but welcoming both children and parents every week! She speaks spanish, a gift that we will be needing as this story continues to unfold.
We have been developing strategic partnerships with other churches who are going to send teams into John Wesley on a monthly basis. The Korean church of Atlanta will send a youth group in once a month to work with the children giving the JW volunteer team a break, and Tucker UMC will be providing meals for the children and volunteers. A Korean youth team ministering to hispanic children: who saw that coming! Wow.
As the children have become more comfortable, they have begun to share what life is like for them in that area of Norcross.
First of all, they are hungry. We can’t tell what their home situation is, but it appears that multiple families live together in single dwellings, and we suspect it is not uncommon for them to sleep on the floor. We are learning that they come from as far away as Guatemala, and beyond. The local laundry mat is a hot spot in the community, and family is very important. The children speak English, but their parents struggle with it. We have noticed some preschool children are not bilingual yet which lets us know that these children may be the first generation in our country.
This past Sunday afternoon the church gathered in the fellowship hall where the new emerging church would be gathering in under two hours. They came to discuss how they could begin to build bridges to the parents who are coming, and after one of the most joyful conversations we have yet to experience in our journey which is The Matthew Initiative, here are some things the members of John Wesley came up with:
Offer English classes for the parents while their children attend the Sunday evening program. Who knows where this could lead!
Offer the church laundry facilities to parents, also while the children attend their program.
Start a mattress ministry for the community to families. Simple, but could really make a huge difference.
Invite the parents to share the recipes their families enjoy, and perhaps begin to share the kitchen and rich food traditions of this emerging community.
And, our favorite: Start a John Wesley men’s soccer (football) team! Get out on the soccer field and kick that ball around with the community. We predict this will become legendary as the members of John Wesley qualify for the senior discount at the Hibachi Grill. I think they are really going to do this! Stay tuned.
As the spiritual heirs of the wesleyan revival, we love to quote “the world is my parish”. The next time you see Steve Thomas, the part time pastor of John Wesley UMC, ask him how that is becoming a reality at his big brown church on Jimmy Carter Boulevard. Also, let him know if you have a mattress or perhaps some soccer sports shirts for their new team.
Thanks Be to God!