A different perspective on ministry in “impoverished” areas

Once every few years I come across a book that’s so helpful and intriguing that I buy a dozen copies and send them to important people in my life. Michael Mathers’s Having Nothing, Possessing Everything: Finding Abundant Communities in Unexpected Places is the most recent of those books.

Mike is a United Methodist pastor in Indianapolis. He has served for the past sixteen years as the senior pastor at Broadway UMC, sitting right in the middle of what most people would call an impoverished neighborhood. But Mike doesn’t tend to refer to this as an impoverished neighborhood. He refers to it as a community of abundance.

I met Mike a few years ago at a ministry conference, and I was so intrigued by the different way that he thought and talked about ministry in his neighborhood that I wanted to see it first-hand. So the next year, our pastoral team went to spend a couple of days in Indianapolis with the Broadway UMC team. I came home impressed, inspired, and telling their story.

I’m so grateful that Mike has put a lot of this story in writing now. I think it will help leaders in ministry, non-profits, and perhaps government and granting organizations think differently about the people they work with––whether they would be considered “impoverished” or not.

I asked Mike for a short interview so I could introduce him to you. Consider this a teaser for his book, which covers the things we discussed in much more depth. I hope you’ll buy a copy after you read/listen. Or buy a dozen and give them to important people in your life.

I’ll be sharing a written form of the interview here in two parts (lightly edited for reading), and I’m also providing the audio if you’d like to listen instead.

I think Mike is a delightful conversationalist, so I personally recommend the audio. Whether you read or listen, enjoy!

Stream the audio here or click the dots at right to choose the download option.


Teddy: Hi, Mike. I’m really glad to be able to talk with you.

Mike: Sure. Thanks Teddy. Good to see you again.

Teddy: One of my favorite stories that you shared with me back when we visited your church was about your church tutoring program and Maya. And as I was getting toward the end of your book, I was surprised you had never told it. I was thinking, “This is one of his best stories, and he held it back!” And then there it was. It was your closing for the whole book. So I guess I’m starting with a spoiler, but I think that story is worth people hearing a few times. I think it’s a great illustration of the change in how you’re approaching ministry in your neighborhood. Would you mind to share that in short form?

Mike: So we had run a tutoring program for over 30 years in the neighborhood. And we did 50 people, one-on-one tutoring, and we would get tutors from other United Methodist churches in town. We would get tutors from leaders from United Way. We would get tutors from Lily Pharmaceutical. But we never asked for tutors from among our neighbors, because this is who we were doing this service for. So we had hired DeAmon, who was a member of our church and lived in the neighborhood to be a roving listener, to find the gifts and talents of our neighbors.

And he called me one day and said, “Well, Mike, you need to talk to Maya.”

I said, “Well, who’s Maya?”

DeAmon said, “Well, she runs tutoring out of her house.”

And I said, “What do you mean?”

And he said, “Well, you need to talk to her.”

So he gave me the phone number and I called her. She’s 34 years old at the time. She lived in our neighborhood her whole life. She lived in the house her parents raised her in. She worked at AT&T at night. And when she got up in the summer at 11 o’clock in the morning, the kids from her block would come over to her house.

I asked, “What do you cover in tutoring with them?”

And she says, “I cover everything from phonics to Sophocles.”

I said, “What do you mean?”

She said, “Well, if they don’t know how to read, we do phonics. If they do know how to read, we do Sophocles. And then every Friday I have a barbecue at my house and their parents come over and they present what they’ve learned that week.”

Now, we at the church should not be saying to Maya, “Hey, come and be involved in what we’re doing with the tutoring program at the church.” We should be asking, “How can we be a part of this amazing work that’s going on in your life, in your neighborhood?” And so that’s what we did.

[We didn’t get to the end of this story. See Mike’s book to hear how the church started to be part of what Maya was doing. It’s a great story of a church thinking differently about its role in the community.]

Teddy: And that seems to encapsulate so much of what you’ve been doing over the last few years or decades, just constantly recognizing what’s already happening in the community.

There’s something about what you’re doing that must be counterintuitive or at least that contradicts something about how we’ve been taught to think about poverty and service. Everything you say sounds so obvious … except for the fact that we’ve all done it exactly the other way. Why isn’t this the way we naturally think? 

Mike: So years ago I read a book about a guy named Paul Farmer. I don’t know if you’ve read that, called Mountains Beyond Mountains. He’s a MacArthur Genius Grant award winner, a doctor in Haiti. One of the things he talks about is that we are schooled in scarcity. And I think the reason, Teddy, that you thought, “Oh, this is so obvious” is, that’s the way it came to me, too, when I first started looking at things this way. It’s like it was so obvious.

Why wasn’t I doing it? It’s because all my practices were built around what was missing, not about what was present. And so the practices really, it’s the practices of running the food pantry or the tutoring program and the way we’ve done it that really reflects what we believe, even though we say we believe something else. And so trying to school ourselves in abundance is the bigger challenge, I think.

Teddy: It even seems like a different understanding of human dignity. A lot of times in our service, we’re attempting to fill that thing that’s missing, that’s preventing someone from having dignity rather than recognizing that the dignity comes from acknowledging them as a full human being with something to offer. But usually we come in with our big idea and the attitude that we’re going to fill someone else’s need.

Mike: Well, you know, I kind of like to think that I have really great ideas. And maybe the other side of that is, does that mean I’m thinking that other people don’t have good ideas? I don’t know. But I feel like what I had done for many years in running programs for people was not treat people as if they had really cool ideas and wonderful things going on in their lives as well.

And your question about why, I mean it’s a really good question. You know, maybe it’s a mystery in some places or maybe it means facing some hard truths about ourselves in some other ways.

Teddy: That’s a great way to put that. I’m not going to put this on everyone else, but I wondered for myself if this can turn into serving people for my own good. I really want to believe that I did something significant, so I help someone else in need. And even the service is about me. I may never really put my eyes on them and who they are as a person, just who they are as someone to make me feel better about doing something good.

Mike: Well, the one thing I would say is that that is a thing that works within us. But because that’s a thing that works within us, we should recognize that it’s a thing working within others as well. So if we like being needed, maybe we need to think maybe the person I think I’m serving, maybe they want to feel needed as well.

And in terms of being part of the church and the Christian idea of this, this is the part where Philippians talks about emptying ourselves. This is not about ourselves, but about giving others the chance to give. I think one of the things I wrote in the book was, we say that old statement is that it is more blessed to give than to receive. So why do we hoard all the giving to ourselves? Or to say it another way connected to what you said before, if we know that this is what motivates us, how come we don’t think that that might motivate the person sitting in front of us as well?

Teddy: Right. And you tell so many stories about that. It was interesting to me to see that shift. You talked about the group that wanted you to do something for the neighborhood around Christmas. And they led with, “You could do this for us; you could do that for us.” And then you ended up going around on Christmas Eve with them in Santa Claus suits.

Mike: Yes! They had said, “Well, why don’t you pay a utility bill for everybody on the block?” And I was like, “My God, I know your gas bill is $600 a month. What do you think we have here? But what would it look like if you did something?”

And so then he said, “Well, me and my friends, we could dress up like Santa Claus and go door to door.”

And I was like, “Oh my gosh! I would have never come up with that in a million years on my own.”

And I would’ve never thought that they wanted to do something like that. But boy, that is the ultimate example of the thing you were just talking about, right? I mean, that wanting to feel good: playing Santa Claus!

Teddy: No kidding. It could almost be a metaphor for the whole thing. So often we come in and we just want to play Santa Claus and never give anyone else that opportunity to be on the giving side of it.

So much of this has seemed to me like a shift in mindset and attitude where we shift our focus to asking, What assets do these other people have? What gifts do they have? And then just participating with them in that.

Have there been any times that the focus on the neighbors and their gifts was right, but something else went really wrong in the process? It seems like surely you’ve had some major busts along the way, and I’m curious about any of those.

Mike: Well, I think all the time there are things that don’t work along the way. But that was pretty much true when I was doing things the old way. So the issue is not, does everything always go well? It’s what do I do that in service of? Am I doing it in service of believing and trusting in God’s abundance in someone?

So one of the stories I don’t think I told in the book as an example of this is about a neighbor who came over and talked to me. And we had this old thrift shop, which I did talk about in the book. And we had closed the thrift shop because the people who wanted to run it didn’t want to run it anymore.

And this neighbor, Delores, came over to me and said, “Hey, I’d like to open a boutique in here.”

And I said, “Great! You can do that.”

And she said, “Okay, I want you to paint it and get it fixed up for me.”

And I said no.

She was mad, and I didn’t see her for a year and a half. And then a year and a half later she showed up to see me one day and she said, “Hey, I want you to come over and look. I’ve been painting in the room.” And she paid and fixed it up and has done a boutique there now for several years.

I think the biggest failure was of course running that summer program with those nine young men who died. Nine young men dying in nine months. I could have just done the funerals and then not thought about it anymore or much more except just to grieve. But I thought, Man, am I being nearly as helpful as I thought here? And I think this all the time, I think we’re doing things and Rachel who I worked with for a lot of years here, did this survey of congregations around Indianapolis asking what they were doing about poverty, and they would all tell her the programs they were offering, and then her second question was, “and is it effective?” And people were like, “Oh, I never thought of that.”

Well, yeah, that was sort of the way I acted.

Teddy: Those nine funerals seem like they were the big first turning point for you. Is that right? 

Mike: That’s right.

And people would say to me, “Oh, but if you hadn’t been doing the summer program or those other things, it would’ve been even worse.” And I had two responses to that. One is “no,” and the second response is, “even if you’re right, this isn’t good enough.” I mean, in a four block radius in a major American city to have that many young people dying, and most of them had grown up in the programming that the church ran. That was a really hard reality for me to face.

You know, you talked about this as a mindset change, and I do agree, but the other thing I want to say with that is, in recovery movements, we say that people don’t think their way into new ways of acting, but act their way into new ways of thinking.

And this is why I think practices are so important. We begin to develop practices of, instead of asking people how poor are you, tell me how rich you are, tell me how gifted you are. Tell me what the people who love you would say about you. You know, what do you do with yourself when you’re not doing something you have to do? What brings you alive? What gives you joy in your life? You know, oftentimes when we ask people, the very first thing they say is something they think you want to hear. You know, like, “I’m really good at cleaning.” But they don’t say that with joy.

Teddy: And so how do you get to that next level? You shared some of this in the book, and I thought it was pretty interesting.

Mike: Well, you ask questions about the other people in their lives or, particularly if they’re with somebody else when they come to see you, you say to that person, “So tell me about your mom. Tell me about your son here. Tell me about …” whoever it is they’re with. “What would you tell me about this person?”

I remember one woman came to me one time and she was there for some food and we were talking about what she was good at. And she said, “Well, I’m a really good friend.”

And so we said, “Well, how do we know that?”

And she said, “Well, I have this friend, and she was living on the street, and I took her into my home and I talked to her and I told her, ‘You can do better than this and I’m gonna be with you all along the way.’”

And I kept thinking of the words of Isaiah when he said, “Take the homeless poor into your home.” And I thought of words of Jesus when he said, “No longer do I call you servants, but friends.” And we said to this woman, “You are a good friend and there are some people who could use to talk to you because there are people who could use a friend.”

And she was great with that. But it wouldn’t have happened if I would have just asked her the questions we used to ask when somebody came to the food pantry. We’d ask, “How many members of your family?” And then we’d put together the package for four or six people or whatever, then send them on their way. It wouldn’t be an interesting conversation about what’s most meaningful in somebody’s life. And what I would say as a pastor is, I want to see what the Holy Spirit is doing in this person’s life, in and through this person, that they may not even see. I think a lot of our work as pastors is just holding up a mirror to people and saying, “Look! Look at this remarkable holy thing I’m seeing in this mirror when I see you.”

Teddy:  It’s interesting when you mention the questions we usually ask. Out of some good intention, we say we want to do this service in the community. And then the questions that we end up asking of people, you would never expect them to produce good conversation. They’re not interesting questions. They’re not questions of interest about another human being. They’re just filing someone through the line, and each answer is pretty similar to the one before and the one after. And you’ve totally reversed that to ask things that are unique to each person and make them stand out and special to you … and to themselves.

Mike: The young people who do the asking of the questions in our neighborhood, I’ve been learning a lot from them. One of the questions they love is, “Tell me what you’re most proud of in your life.” Man, the things they hear are amazing! “Tell me what dream you have for your life.” They get a chance to hear some pretty interesting stuff.

That’s all for part I. Now see part II here.

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