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Two Scots on a Rock
The Full Story of how Hope Lutheran Church
uses demographics in ministry. . .
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An urban neighborhood's biggest fear is for its' safety, while a church in that same neighborhood is concerned that they've become invisible. Now they're discovering each other—and how they both can work together to reclaim the neighborhood.

Seven-year old Anna* looked around in wide-eyed amazement at the inside of the big red building where she received her twice-weekly reading lessons. She marveled at the long wooden seats that could fit so many people at once. And she really liked eating lunch outside—right underneath the giant white cross—while she listened to her friend, Grady, read. But by far the coolest part was the little room that was really high up and open to the floor below. "What's that?" she asked Mary Hatton, her new reading teacher. "That's where the people stand up and sing songs to God," replied Mary. "Oh, said Anna, missing the loftiness of it all—well, can I go up there and play?"

Anna didn't know that the wooden seats were called pews and the raised open space was called a choir loft. She didn't know, because except for being a flower girl at a wedding once when she was five, this was the first time she had ever been inside a church.

Now Anna was finding out where those dressed up people she always saw went on Sunday mornings. Like many of the people in this
lower-middle class neighborhood of Tacoma, Washington, her parents didn't go to church. But twice a week—like clockwork—Anna's father brought her to Hope Lutheran where Mary Hatton, a church member and cook in the school system, helped her improve her reading skills.

Anna liked going there.

It was fun picking out her own books and reading stories. She liked the people she met there, too. Especially Pastor Stu—he was funny. She remembered what he told her after she had come back from a weekend at the beach. She had swum right smack dab into some slimy, creepy jellyfish and afterwards, decided to tell Pastor Stu about her adventure. "Well, Anna," he said, "Why didn't you bring the jellyfish back with you? Then, instead of the Lunchables you have every time you come, you could have a peanut butter and jellyfish sandwich!" Anna giggled. She wished her parents could meet Pastor Stu and the rest of her new friends. She decided to ask her mom and dad to come to a big party that the church was putting on for the neighborhood. She hoped they'd come.

When Anna's parents enrolled their daughter in Hope Lutheran's new reading program they weren't thinking of it as a drug or crime-prevention program. They just wanted her to be the best reader she could be. Yet statistics show that
Tacoma—including Anna's neighborhood—has one of the highest crime rates in the nation. It was so bad that years ago, many members of Hope Lutheran moved out of the neighborhood to escape both falling real estate values and from becoming victims of rising drug-related crime. Whatever problems beset this community, in many of the member's minds it was now someone else's problem.

But it's hard to ignore a statistic that comes home to roost. Especially when your church home is in a neighborhood where the grade school reading level is below average—as a result the odds are raised that some of those children will one day end up in prison. It's not a spurious connection. Consider this: When the state of Washington begins to project the need for prison space over X amount of years they do so by looking at one statistic—the present reading level of 3rd graders. In other words, the greater the problems that third graders have in reading, the more apt they are to end up in prison.

Hope Lutheran and their interim pastor, Stewart McDonald, would have never known about that statistic were it not for two factors. First, a good percentage of the church went through Percept's ReVision process. That, in turn, helped to open their eyes to what was really going on within the area surrounding their church. Second, the president of the congregation had what McDonald termed a "providential" meeting with a key player in the community.

"Right after we had completed ReVision, the president of our congregation, Bill Rose, went to a dinner where, seated next to him was a woman who worked for the Tacoma Urban League," says Stewart McDonald. "Her name was Harriet Williams. And because ReVision was fresh in Bill's mind, he started talking to Harriet about what it had done for the church in terms of opening their eyes to the real needs of the community. Harriet, who also happened to be a devoted Christian, responded to his story with an enthusiastic, 'Boy! I think I can help!' Within a few months, the church leadership had a meeting with Harriet and, as a result, we have started two new ministries!"

Hope Lutheran is the first church in Tacoma to start this reading program. In addition, the church is also beginning an accompanying
program called P.E.L.T, or Parent Education Leadership Training that teaches parents how to interact with their children's schools. "How do you talk to teachers? What are their responsibilities and what are yours? How do you talk to administrators? These are the kinds of questions parents are taught to ask themselves," says McDonald. "It's all about enhancing the whole relationship between students, parents and the school so their children will have an improved educational outcome."

"Children are the heart of it all," believes long-time church member, Wayne Campbell, a local business owner. Like many Hope Lutheran members he no longer lives in the neighborhood. But that hasn't stopped him from getting involved—in fact, he's probably the most involved of anyone. It is all the more amazing when you consider that not too long ago, Wayne was one of the church's major blockers to change.

"I admit it. . .I resisted the pastor when he first came," says Wayne. "And I carry a little weight around here because of my longevity. I was one of those who was born, baptized and confirmed in the same church. Anyway, after the pastor came back from the Community Church of Joy conference in Arizona he started changing a few things. And I said, 'Whoa!' . . . what are we doing here?! I am not comfortable with this. After the council meeting, where I sat around the table spewing forth my objections, I went home so upset that I couldn't sleep all night."

You could say that Campbell "fought the law and the law won"—although in this instance, it was really grace that won the case. Early the next morning he called Pastor McDonald  and apologized for his behavior. "Okay, I'm done," Campbell told McDonald. "I give up—I'm on your side. I'm not going to fight you anymore. We're going to work for the betterment of this church and I believe that is why you are here."

The two men made peace—thereby avoiding the Tacoma Campbell- McDonald clan war. (Actually Wayne is part Native-American—a status that, by his own admission, made him the only ethnic member of the church.) Wayne took it even further and apologized to the whole council. He told them he didn't know what he was thinking because all he was doing was trying to protect the old. But the old wasn't working so it was time to move forward.

What motivated Campbell to keep moving forward was more than just an acknowledgment that "church as usual" was no longer working. He needed to have both the biblical imperative and the hard facts of what was really going on with the people outside their four walls. For Wayne,
the ReVision process not only opened his eyes—it also enlarged his heart. His transformation continued during the week he spent at the Community Church of Joy Conference on The Entrepreneurial Church—the same one that Pastor McDonald and Bill Rose had attended the year before. Nine people from the church went down to the conference and all of them came back fired up and ready to launch themselves into the community for the gospel’s sake. A big emphases at the conference was prayer—and, according to Wayne, they did a lot of it while they were there. "I wasn’t really a person who prayed a lot, but now I see things differently. Now I truly believe that if Hope Lutheran is going to have its doors open 10 years from now it will be the power of prayer that did it," says Campbell.

One of the statistics unearthed during the ReVision process had a particularly strong impact on Wayne—for three very personal reasons: The three young children who came to live with him just over a year ago. Before that time he and his wife, both in their 50s, had been childless. Now—after gaining custody of their one grand-niece and two-grand nephews—they suddenly found themselves instant parents. "What we discovered doing Revision was that there were a lot of single mothers…I mean in the back of your head, you kind of know that, but when you see it on paper it just blows you away," says Wayne. "I think it was something like 60%! It was a rude awakening. I make good money so we’re not struggling but it made me realize how expensive it is to have children. I just couldn’t imagine living on minimum wage and trying to raise them. So my heart went out to these moms and their kids. All I could think was: ‘What can we do, how do we get them in here?’"

Campbell's dream is to put a gym in the church so that kids have someplace to go and parents will know they are safe. When he thinks about helping the single moms he knows that financially speaking, they are not a great source of potential revenue for the church. But he's determined to make them feel that Hope Lutheran is their home. When asked how the church can afford to do that he laughs, "Well, we'll just have to make it up in volume—we'll have hundreds here. It will be just like McDonalds!"

Stewart McDonald would probably agree that the single moms in the community who struggle with kids, poverty and self-esteem issues really do "deserve a break today." To that end, the church has started up a few more outreach ministries including a weekly Family Festival that targets not just single working moms, but two-parent families as well. Every
Tuesday the church provides an ethnic dinner for anyone in the neighborhood who wants to come. The theme varies each week. For an upcoming week, for example, they invited the chaplain from a local Native-American tribe to come in and host a Salmon barbecue.

"This was yet another ministry that grew out of the ReVision study," says McDonald. "I could have just come in here as an interim pastor and said, "Okay folks, here is what you need to do: ABCD . . . now do it! And I might have had some success, but not a lot. What these small group studies did was to help the members develop a vision for the congregation themselves. They owned it . . . it was coming from them, not this interim pastor that the bishop stuck in here for a year and a half."

Probably the most vivid example of the congregation owning the vision was the idea they came up with to meet the neighborhood's expressed need to feel safe in their crime-ridden neighborhood. Admittedly, when first learning of this need many of them balked saying, "Well now wait a minute, the information says that the neighborhood has a concern for safety and security—we can't do anything about that! We can't organize neighborhood groups, or patrol the streets or anything of that nature." But during ReVision's small groups, many of the members realized that one thing that many Lutherans did well was to show the gift of hospitality. That identification soon transitioned into the church hosting a program called the National Night Out Block Party. Sponsored by a group called "Safe Streets", this nationwide program provides an opportunity for neighbors to meet each other and to organize their block with a view to lowering the incidents of drug-related crimes.

"We are going to invite the police department in—the Drug Task Force—and talk about how you deal with the presence of drugs in your neighborhood," says McDonald. "How do you recognize a problem with your kids? Do you really know their friends? We will have a whole series of classes that talk about safety and security and how to reclaim the neighborhood. All of this has grown out of the ReVision study."

Hope Lutheran is recognizing that the most effective way to reach the community with the gospel is to first demonstrate that they care about them as people—their concerns, their fears and, for those who haven't given up on having any, their dreams. People are more likely to hear what you have to say when you can fill their stomachs or help keep their kids from falling prey to drug dealers. Or, for parents like Anna's mom and dad, you can help give their child a chance to break the cycle of poverty that goes hand-in-hand with poor reading skills.

Oh . . .and that Neighborhood Block Party? Anna's parents did come after all. They wanted to personally thank the pastor for doing such a great job with their daughter. Not only that, but about 40 more people from the neighborhood showed up—many of whom were overheard saying things like, "Boy, this sure is a friendly church" . . . "I feel really cared for here," . . . and—what had to be Mozart to a minister's ears—"I think I'm going to come to church here." -Jenni Keast

* Name was changed to protect identity
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©  COPYRIGHT 2008 PERCEPT GROUP, INC.
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