Ministry from the margins

Ministry from the margins

Written on 10/30/2020
William Jones

Written by William Jones

I sat at my desk, staring forward at the brick wall of my office. The ministry questions spinning in my mind were the same ones I’ve had for the past days, weeks, and months.

What will our congregation look like moving forward? Who will come back? Who won’t? What will next year’s budget look like? What would Jesus’ ministry look like if he were here today?

To my surprise, the sound of the church door opening interrupted this morning ritual. Normally, the door latched shut, locking itself so that any guest had to knock and wait while someone ensured they had a mask on. I looked up and was reassured to hear a muffled hello from behind a mask. Joe walked comfortably into my office, making himself at home on a sanitized chair exactly seven feet away from where I sat. Joe was upset and asked if I had a few minutes to talk.

He asked if I knew how many people without homes were living in our city. The question was rhetorical, but he still waited graciously for my response. I answered uncertainly, figuring, knowing there must be many.

I had hardly finished my last word when Joseph emphatically burst, “Hundreds! William, there are hundreds!” Joe looked down at the floor. I don’t know if I looked startled, or guilty, or perhaps a stunned combination of the two. He continued more calmly, like a preacher who reveals passion on a crucial point but quickly dials back before evoking the congregation’s fight or flight response.

Joe had been getting on his scooter every morning for several months to drive to Memorial Park in downtown Oshawa. There he would pass out Nutri-Grain bars and juice boxes to the local residents who had made the park their home. Joe began to know their names, and they quickly got to know his. Joe drove up to anyone and offered them this humble meal. If he found someone sleeping he left the food beside them.

Joe recounted meeting one lady who was swaying back and forth, shouting frantically in some form of trance. Upon asking her cautiously if she wanted a juice box, she sat up, calm and poised, and responded, “Yes, please! Thank you.”The spark in Joe’s eye as he told this story indicated he had not only developed a passion or a ministry—he had developed relationships built from love.

Tears rolled down Joe’s face as he told me his story. He tried to continue talking, but at some point he stopped, weeping in a way family members might at a funeral.

Joe always gives each word a heartbeat when he tells a story. But what made this particular story stand out was that it was his own. Joe recalled a time in his own life when he called the city streets his home.

“I don’t understand,” Joe repeated.“People walk by as if these people do not exist. I just don’t understand.”

Unknown to anyone, Joe had been funding his ministry with his COVID-19 one-time benefit from the Canadian government. While Joe himself lives on a limited and fixed income, he felt strongly that there were others who needed it more than him. While many would see the government benefit as a small token, Joe saw it as an abundance to be shared.

He had continued his ministry for months on his own, but even granola bars and juice boxes—purchased on sale at No Frills—add up after a while. In the very room where minutes ago I’d been questioning what the church would look like in this new season, Joe was also asking crucial questions about his ministry’s future.

We both sat in silence for what felt like a solid minute before Joe struck me with the most challenging comment. This time he continued more cautiously, almost as if he was hesitating to ruin this sacred moment. His eyes communicated urgency.

“William, I know this church hands out food at your food bank. That’s important. But these people are downtown. I don’t expect you to go there with me, but I need help.”

I felt guilty at first.

Here I was sitting in my office questioning what ministry should look like in this brave new world, and there was Joe carrying out a ministry to those in the centre of the city, but on the fringes of society.

Joe’s ministry was quite refreshing in this season where most ministry questions seem to revolve around online presence, how we can keep people interested and engaged, if now is the time to re-open Sunday gatherings, and if so, what needs to be put in place.

After asking the haunting question of who would return if we opened, and worse off, how many people were really engaged before we closed back in March, a question like Joe’s gave my mind a breath of hope.

Perspective never comes when I’m expecting it. It doesn’t knock on the door or wait on hold until I pick up the phone. Perspective subtly enters my reality, often in such a way that it causes me to wonder if it was always right in front of me.

Perhaps this is how perspective is most gracious. It doesn’t flail its arms or shout at the top of its lungs. Instead, it patiently waits for ignorance to take a breath, pause from its tireless striving, and have a conversation.

Joe’s perspective felt new at the moment, yet it should have felt oddly familiar. Perhaps this was the irony of it all. Here was Joe—giving food to the hungry, juice to the thirsty, and hospitality to the lonely—coming to church to ask if we could join him in his ministry. Much to his unawares, his invitation was a gentle confrontation with Jesus’ way of ministry.

In asking this simple question, he not only answered the cyclone of questions I’d been caught in for the past several months, but he also helped me realize that the questions I was asking of the church were questions I needed to be asking of myself.

Joe was not caught up in the concern of adapting his ministry to remain relevant or engaging or struggling with how to do that. He was not trying to maintain or recover a sense of personal comfort or security. He wasn’t weighing the pros or cons and wasn’t questioning what the personal sacrifice of Jesus’ way would cost him.

No. Joe’s gaze was fixed on Jesus, and that gaze directed him to the overlooked and forgotten people in our city. As Joe spoke, looking past me as if to some distant land, his eyes were filled with tears as if remembering the warm smile of gratitude, the ecstatic joy of receiving, the uplifted posture of dignity restored. This was the look of a man who experienced a glimpse of a new creation, heaven on earth.

Joe wasn’t asking what Jesus’ ministry would look like if Christ were here today because he already knew. And perhaps this was the most confronting truth: we all know, too.

William Jones is the worship and ministry coordinator at Zion Church in Oshawa, Ont. He is also currently taking his Master of Divinity studies through Fuller Theological Seminary. Do you have a comment on church ministry in this season? Send William a note at coordinator@zioncrc.ca. He’d love to hear from you!