Bringing it home – ‘One Mile’ model helps focus mission

For years, members of First United Methodist Church of Grapevine, Texas, tried to organize a Wednesday night supper—with little success.

People were too busy. Volunteers were hard to find. They tried having the meal catered. Nothing worked.

Then, in 2009, the church launched “One Mile Mission,” encouraging every group in the church to find some way to serve within a 1-mile radius of the church.

That new focus led leaders to try giving the Wednesday night suppers a new spin.

“We realized we were trying to feed people who weren’t hungry enough,” said the Rev. Cindy Ryan, associate pastor of FUMC Grapevine. “We started to ask, ‘What if we did a good meal for people who needed it, who were hungry, or lonely?’”

As part of their One Mile Mission focus, members of First UMC in Arlington, Texas, have gotten involved in the schools within a mile of the church. Pictured: Church member Tolli Macalik (l) works with a parent and student to clean up and landscape the school. PHOTO COURTESY FIRST UNITED METHODIST ARLINGTON

The result was “Be Our Guest,” where elderly, low-income, homeless or lonely people in the community were invited for a free monthly dinner, served on china and white tablecloths. Soon, up to 180 people were coming to eat, and 150 people—from the church as well as the community at large—signed on as volunteers.

“For our own meal, we couldn’t get enough volunteers,” Dr. Ryan said. “Once we started feeding others, we had 150 volunteers.”

FUMC Grapevine, which averages around 1,200 in weekly worship, has always been a mission-minded church, Dr. Ryan said. But the simple idea of designating an area of roughly 1 mile around the church created a loaves-and-fishes effect.

Desperation

That simple idea was the brainchild of two United Methodist pastors—and it arose out of desperation, according to the Rev. David Mosser, senior pastor of First United Methodist of Arlington, Texas. He came up with “One Mile Mission” along with FUMC Grapevine’s then senior pastor, the late Rev. Kenneth Diehm.

When he was appointed to the Arlington church in 2008, Dr. Mosser says, his congregation was mired in internal conflict. Some members compared their own church, unfavorably, with other UMCs in affluent suburban areas that were growing quickly. Members had few connections with the church’s neighborhood—its residents, schools, nursing homes and non-profit agencies. The majority of the church’s 800 regular attendees live several miles from church; at the time, most drove in for worship or meetings, and then drove back out.

FUMC Grapevine had trouble generating interest in Wednesday night suppers, but “Be Our Guest,” a dinner for seniors, low-income neighbors and others, has brought many volunteers as well as diners to the church. PHOTO COURTESY OF FIRST UMC GRAPEVINE

And that neighborhood was declining. What had been a middle class community 30-40 years ago had become the second poorest ZIP code in Tarrant County. Pawnshops and cheap motels littered the streets. Houses had fallen into disrepair.

People in the surrounding neighborhood didn’t know much about the church, either, even though its campus occupies 14½ acres in downtown Arlington.

“If you stopped someone on the street and asked, ‘Can you tell me where the United Methodist church is?’ I suspect they’d answer, ‘I don’t think they have one here,’” Dr. Mosser said.

Frustrated, Dr. Mosser confided in Diehm, his longtime friend and colleague. (Diehm passed away suddenly, of undiagnosed leukemia, in early 2011.) Together, the two pastors came up with the One Mile Mission concept.

Both presented a simple proposition to their respective congregations in early 2009: Picture a circle with a 1-mile radius, centered on the church’s sanctuary. Challenge every group in the church, large and small, to find some way to serve people in that geographic area: the residents who live in the homes, the students who attend the schools, the patients in the hospitals and nursing homes. Maps of the community, with a big red circle, were posted around the church.

One Mile Mission was launched.

Too many to count

Just as it did in Grapevine, the idea worked its magic at FUMC Arlington, too. Soon, groups in the church—choirs, small groups, committees, Bible study groups, Sunday school classes, youth groups and others—came up with ways to be of service.

The Rainbow Class, an adult Sunday school group, began “adopting” students from out of town who live in the dorms at the University of Texas at Arlington, by way of the Wesley Foundation on campus.

Members of First United Methodist in Grapevine, Texas, serve as volunteers at nearby Cannon Elementary, reading to youngsters after school. PHOTO COURTESY OF FIRST UMC GRAPEVINE

Volunteers from the church started making connections with nearby elementary schools, and started collecting needed supplies, hosting teacher appreciation events and helping tutor kids after school. At one of those schools, the Chancel Choir began sponsoring the music and theater arts programs with scholarship money and volunteer assistance.

The church’s Library Committee came up with the idea of a Book Carnival, giving away thousands of free books to neighborhood kids to read over the summer.

Seventy-five church members signed up as “prayer partners” who pray for individual officers in the Arlington Police Department and send cards with words of encouragement.

Partnering with the local library and Rotary Club, the church opened up a small building on its campus, home to the community’s English as a Second Language (ESL) program.

Children and youth in the church pitched in, too, collecting coats for homeless folks at a shelter near the church and organizing supplies for a nearby women’s shelter.

Now, there are so many different mission projects going on that Michelle Clark, the church’s mission and outreach coordinator, happily reports she can’t keep track of them all.

“It’s cool to know that [church members] do things on their own, and don’t feel the need to have permission to engage in mission in their community,” she said.

Grassroots work

First UMC Grapevine saw a similar snowball effect. With the launch of One Mile Mission, 40 volunteers from the congregation began reading with struggling students at a nearby elementary school, and “it just began to mushroom,” Dr. Ryan said. Learning that some kids were arriving at school on Monday mornings hungry—because their families didn’t have enough food at home—the volunteers began partnering with a local man who’d been purchasing, at his own expense, 25 bags of food each week to send home with needy kids. Now there are 800-900 bags of food going home with kids in 12 schools in Grapevine and nearby Colleyville.

To launch “One Mile Mission 2.0” in March, members of First UMC Arlington walked around the neighborhood as part of a 5K event sponsored by the church. PHOTO COURTESY OF FIRST UMC ARLINGTON

Church members also reached out to residents—most of them undocumented Hispanic families—in a mobile home park within a mile of the church. In 2009, church members decided to host a fiesta at the park with piñatas and hot dogs.

“In the first few minutes, it was real awkward, because no one came,” Dr. Ryan recalled. “There were just these church people standing around with food. But all of a sudden, people just started coming. It was a life-changing moment in our church.”

The church now hosts about three fiestas per year at the park. Local school administrators turn up, as do firefighters, police officers and folks from nearby community agencies.

One trailer park resident joined the church, on the spot, at the first fiesta and remains active today. Others began attending the church’s bilingual service, and several residents volunteer with the weekend food program as well as the church’s summer feeding program for low-income kids. Church members have helped repair 72 trailer homes in the park.

Because of One Mile Mission, “we got really bold as a church,” Dr. Ryan said.

A way that works

The power of the One Mile Mission concept at these two churches doesn’t surprise Isabel Docampo, professor of the supervised ministry program at Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology. Turning outward and connecting with people in neighborhoods can energize a congregation and strengthen church members’ faith, too, she said.

“What happens to people is, the meaning of their faith comes into perspective,” she said. “It makes faith very relatable to their everyday life and experience.”

Left to right: Ashley Ray, Katie Kelly and Allison Ray help pick up trash in the neighborhood around First UMC Arlington. PHOTO COURTESY OF FIRST UMC ARLINGTON

Dr. Docampo cites the New Testament story of the rich young ruler, who asked Jesus how he could be saved.

“Instead of saying, ‘Believe in God,’ Jesus said, ‘Sell everything and follow me,’” she said. When church members engage their neighbors, the story’s meaning becomes clear.

“They’re able to see that it’s not giving out of your excess, it’s just sharing, it’s just being in relationship,” she said. “People realize, ‘This is how it heals my spirit. This is where I need God.’ It’s a salvation experience. You see life differently.”

Dr. Docampo says she’s witnessed several examples of this kind of neighborhood focus revitalizing a congregation. She cites Parker Lane United Methodist in Austin, Texas, which, like the churches in Grapevine and Arlington, has become a nerve center of its neighborhood, home to a health clinic and a range of neighborhood groups.

“We’re not swooping in from the outside,” said the Rev. Tina Carter, Parker Lane’s pastor. “Our objective was to become the neighborhood. We meet our neighbors and we know our neighbors.”

Dr. Carter can often be seen walking around the neighborhood, usually in her clerical collar, alone or with one or two others, praying for the community and for the people she meets.

“It sounds cheesy, but when you start praying for somebody, two things will happen,” she said. “You’re going to start loving them, and you’re going to learn their name.”

Hearts, not numbers

Neither Grapevine nor Arlington can point to significant upticks in attendance, baptisms or giving as a result of One Mile Mission, but Dr. Mosser believes that, without One Mile Mission, his church might’ve lost members instead of holding steady in its numbers.

“We live in an urban area; to just hold our own is a major victory,” Dr. Mosser said. “What One Mile Mission really changed was the attitude, from people saying ‘What’s wrong with us?’ to ‘How can we help others?’”

Partnering with the Rotary Club and the local library, First UMC in Arlington provides a house on its campus for the community’s English as a Second Language program. UMR PHOTO BY MARY JACOBS

Leaders from both churches say they’ve seen a heart transformation: Children in the church are more attuned to the needs of those without advantages. Church members know families in the neighborhood by name and know about their daily struggles. People start becoming bolder about getting out of the church and into the streets.

“It’s helped redirect our energy from self-serving things,” Dr. Mosser said. “Having a good music program, or a good children’s program, those are important, but they’re means to an end. Not only do we get to know our neighbors, but they get to know us.”

In recent years, both churches have extended the boundaries of their mission focus. The circles on the maps in the Arlington church now include mission projects within two miles of the church.

Grapevine branched out to three “villages”—the 1-mile area as well as mission stations in Kenya and Costa Rica. Leaders from both overseas communities have visited Grapevine, observed the church’s local mission work and taken new ideas back to their own communities.

Dr. Ryan believes the One Mile Mission generated energy that in turn spilled over to the Kenya and Costa Rica projects.

“All of us care about people in need, but it’s so overwhelming,” she said. “When you put the magnifying glass on specific areas, specific needs, specific projects, then people are able to respond.”

Rezolia Johnson, a pastoral intern at FUMC Arlington, believes any congregation could easily adopt One Mile Mission—and spark similar missionary entrepreneurship.

“By getting more intentional about engaging in mission in their own backyards . . . churches won’t be little islands anymore,” she said.

Recently, FUMC Arlington hosted a 5K walk around the community. Church members spotted new needs. Someone noticed a litter-filled creek, and the youth later gathered a work party to clean it up.

That’s the beauty of One Mile Mission, Dr. Mosser said: Church members come up with their own ideas and run with them.

“There’s a freedom and a focus at the same time,” he said.

mjacobs@umr.org

 

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Mary Jacobs

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