From the soon to be released (December, 2016) book
"The Whole Church: Becoming an Incarnational Church
by Lynn Cory
Planting a Church with a Neighboring Approach:
Joe White- Neighborhood Church- Fresno, California
Neighborhood Church is not your typical church. We don’t occupy a traditional church building. We don’t function as one would expect a conventional church to function. Instead, we have “staked out” a specific neighborhood in the city of Fresno where we hope to reflect and manifest the Kingdom of God to those who call this neighborhood “home.”
There are 923 homes in our neighborhood, some of which have been taken back by financial institutions. There they sit, empty and boarded up. As for the remainder of the neighborhood, many of the families have been hit heard by the current economy. Of the 3,500 residents, a significant percentage are migrant farm workers, with 71% not even having a high school diploma. We experience 18% unemployment within our neighborhood, with many more under-employed, and I regret to report that there are some who have resorted to illegal activities as a result of their hardship. This is our “home”: high unemployment; a high crime rate; but fertile ground for the Holy Spirit.
Before I go any further, I need to point out is that my wife and I made the conscious decision to not separate ourselves from those to whom we felt called. We believe that ministry should be incarnational. Thus we moved into the neighborhood with the attitude that this was our “flock” . . . lost sheep in need of the Shepherd. We didn’t come to preach or teach. We came to reflect the life of Jesus in such a way that the entire neighborhood would be impacted for the better. And since making that commitment to live in the midst of the ”sheep”, we . . . and our neighbors . . . have experienced God in some powerful ways.
With such a high unemployment rate, the children of our neighbors often experience barriers to employment. One of our dreams has been to repurpose a dilapidated workshop in our neighborhood and turn it into a place where neighborhood teenagers could be paired with Christian mentors who are skilled woodworkers, welders, and artisans. Not only would they learn a trade, but they would learn about Jesus at the same time.
Of course, the reality of coming up with the funds to purchase the necessary equipment seemed to put this dream out of reach . . . that is, until God introduced us to John.
John contacted us because he had heard about our vision for a neighborhood focused church. We met the next day, and here’s the story he shared: “Ten years ago, my passion was motorcycling. I had a beautiful Harley that I loved to ride. One night while sleeping I had a dream. In my dream Jesus came to me and said, ‘You need to give away your motorcycle.’ I woke up feeling convicted but I just couldn’t give it up. For three months I resisted God. I loved my motorcycle! But I finally relented and gave it away. Since then my passion has been woodworking. I amassed for myself a garage full of high-end cabinetry making equipment. Three months ago I was sleeping and I had another dream. In my dream, Jesus came to me just as he had before, but them time He said, ‘You need to give away your woodworking equipment.’ I woke up feeling convicted. Ten years ago I resisted God, but this time I knew what I had to do. Joe, would you like my woodworking equipment?”
I didn’t have to answer….God was already saying “yes.” A man I had never met was going to give Neighborhood Church nearly $10,000 worth of woodworking equipment to further God’s Kingdom in our neighborhood. Today there is a repurposed 100 year-old workshop in our neighboring being used to teach neighborhood kids about Jesus while they learn a trade.
Unfortunately, poverty leads to poor eating habits, and many of our neighbors either don’t have the money or the education to make healthy dietary choices. As we looked out over our neighborhood, we began to wonder . . . Could we help our neighbors make wiser choices when it came to their food purchases? What if we purchased an abandoned property in our neighborhood and, with the help of our neighbors, created an urban farm that would produce enough fruits and vegetables for all the residents living here?
It seems like fantasy, but we recently shared our vision over dinner with some folks who had moved in across the street only a month prior. They aren't Christians, but they listened attentively as we shared our vision for the neighborhood and for our urban farm. We said, "Jesus loves this neighborhood and everyone in it. He wants our bodies to be nourished by healthy food and our hearts to experience his love for us. Our world says, 'We become what we eat.' But Jesus calls us to become more like Him. When we do that….we'll take better care of our bodies (because he made them with Love) and work to ensure everyone has access to healthy food."
We witnessed our new neighbors hanging on our every word. Then they said something that surprised us…."We want you to know that it must be no accident that we've moved right across the street. All the stuff you are talking about is our passion and life's work. We help people set up urban farms all across the world. I currently sit on the board of an organization that does exactly what you are trying to do here in this neighborhood. I know how to set this kind of thing up….and I want to tell you….we are going to help you with this. We will support you in way you need. I love the idea of this kind of Church."
We were floored. God was bringing us into relationship with the very people needed to impact our neighborhood. Right before our eyes, Jesus was building His Church…one seed at a time!
The stories of some individuals can speak volumes. One such story is about my neighbor, Manny. Manny works 12 hour days as a machinist and then drives around the city collecting scrap metal in an effort to make ends meet. His wife drinks too much, but behind the drinking is another story - drug use and violence, some of which we have witnessed first hand. In Manny’s mind, any dysfunction within his family can be solved with more money . . . or so he thinks.
The other day, Manny saw me in the front yard playing baseball with my son Josiah. His truck was full of scrap metal. "He must be coming home after a long day of work," I thought. After all, he starts work at 2:30am and it was now 5pm. He stopped his car in front of our house and turned off his ignition. Then he rolled down his driver's side window and yelled, "Hey Joe! Come over here!"
I walked over to the car, now parked in the middle of the street, and before I had the chance to a word, Manny blurted out in his typical gruff tone, "Joe, you've been here for a couple months now. I have to know . . . what do you do, you know, for work?" I laughed. It's a good question. After all, he does see me around the neighborhood a lot.
"Well Manny, we are going to start a tutoring club for kids at the elementary school that will emphasize math and reading. We are trying to take an abandoned property in our neighborhood and turn it into an urban farm. And we are starting a church."
His eyes perked up and looked right at me. "Church" he said. "What kind of church?"
"Well", I said, "It's kind of a church for people who don't like church."
I watched as his eyes filled with tears. Turning his eyes up towards me, hands firmly gripped on the steering wheel, he said in a low whisper, "Do you mean a church for people like me?"
"Yes, Manny. It's a neighborhood church, a church of neighbors, just like you."