Hidden in Plain Sight
Written By Mike Mather
At the beginning of 1992 I moved to a very small congregation in South Bend that known as the “social-service church” in a low-income neighborhood. When people came to our food pantry, they were required to fill out a government form, because we received government surplus food. The form asked for their name, address, income, and expenses.
In worship one Sunday, we read the passage from Acts 2 where Joel (through Peter) shares this word from God: “I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh.” After worship, an insightful woman asked me, “If what Joel said is true, why don’t we treat people like that? When people come to the food pantry, we ask people how poor they are rather than how rich they are. Peter is saying all people have God’s Spirit poured into them.”
I stopped. I didn’t know what to say. Shamed, I whispered, “You’re right.” We were actually working against our beliefs. We say in worship that “God’s Spirit flows down on everyone,” and then we act like it isn’t true.
I began thinking about something called Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD). John McKnight and Jody Kretzmann, cofounders of ABCD, proposed that when working with low-income citizens, you ought to begin by focusing on the gifts of the community rather than starting with what the community lacks. This led to an important change in how we interacted with the people who came to our food pantry.
We began asking them different questions. We asked whether folks took care of children or elders, and whether they did it with their family or as part of a job or to help out a neighbor. We asked whether people could put up drywall or fix a toaster or knew how to drive a car. “Do you play a musical instrument?” we asked. “Do you garden?” And each interviewer asked three more questions at the end of the survey:
- What three things do you do well enough that you could teach them to someone else?
- What three things would you like to learn that you don’t already know?
- Who besides God and me [the interviewer] is going to go with you along the way?
One of the first people who came to the food pantry after we began using this questionnaire was a neighbor, Adele. Three generations of her family were living in her home, and she was working part-time at the University of Notre Dame as a cook. She told us she was a good cook, and we said, “Prove it.” When she asked what we meant, we asked her to cook lunch one day for the custodian, the secretary, and the pastor (me). The lunch she prepared was fabulous.
Shortly after that, we heard that the leaders of the neighborhood organization were planning to meet at a restaurant. The church secretary told them, “Don’t do that. Meet here at the church, and let Adele cook for you.” They did, and they paid her for the meal. Over the next nine months, Adele catered three events in the neighborhood.
Then the Chamber of Commerce contacted us wanting to use our church building for a meeting. Since they were going to be there all day, they wanted to use the kitchen. We told them they could, but that we preferred they use our caterer. And they agreed.
We took twenty dollars (our only investment) and bought Adele a thousand business cards that said “La Chaparrita Catering: Spunky Tex-Mex Food.” When she fed seventy of the business and civic leaders in the community, she put those cards to good use. She also got connected to the Michiana Business Women’s Association, and a year and a half later she opened Adelita’s Fajitas at the corner of 8th and Harrison in Elkhart, Indiana.
If we had asked Adele how poor she was, we would all have ended up poorer for it. We would also have missed a lot of great food. Adele taught us that if we asked different questions, we would discover a world of gifts we didn’t know existed in people’s lives, and we would see different results. If we began looking for people’s gifts rather than people’s needs, then even better things than we thought possible might materialize.
I had stumbled into an awakening. A revelation. We hadn’t created anything. We hadn’t taught Adele how to cook. She knew how to cook. We hadn’t given her “life skills.” She already had those. What we did was invest in her. We paid for her to share her gift, and then we found others who were looking for someone with that gift. We were practicing the theology of abundance by looking for and naming the gifts of people who are thought of as poor and needy. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus proclaims Good News to the poor. Likewise, our telling people who thought they had nothing to offer that they had gifts was indeed good news.
If Adele had shown up two weeks earlier, we would never have asked her about her giftedness. The gift would have been there, but we would have missed it. We began to think that building on the gifts of people rather than filling their needs could hold the key to changing the odds for everyone.
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