Seeing the Way to ‘You Can,’ When the World Says ‘You Can’t’

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Photo by Edi Libedinsky on Unsplash

What if your job was to go around blessing people? What if, instead of lamenting all that is wrong, you got to say, “There is something terribly, terribly, right with the world”? And what if you got to say this thing in the very places that get written off as ‘God-forsaken’?

Michael Mather has such a job. As a young clergy person he was first sent as an associate pastor to Broadway United Methodist Church in Indianapolis where he was asked “to find ways to invite them into deeper relationships with the neighbors they were serving.”(6) What he discovered was “that most of the time, the action needed from me was shining a spotlight on the glories of the people in our neighborhood.”(7) 

Now, as the senior pastor of that same church with thirty-plus years of ministry under his belt, Mather is still about the work of seeing with different eyes. “Our streets aren’t dark and dangerous,” Mather says, “they’re bright and imaginative.”(50) You have to skew your vision if what you want to see instead is American carnage.

Mather has written a fantastic little book, Having Nothing, Possessing Everything: Finding Abundant Communities in Unexpected Places. What’s unexpected is that the place you are living in is one of those places. And what’s frustrating to Mather is that most American church life is about not seeing the abundance.

I began to notice the subtle and not-so-subtle ways that Christian congregational life tended to focus on people’s need rather than their capacities…Where is the hymn that celebrates the abundance of talent and gift that overflows every neighborhood? (31)

This is the foundational insight of Asset-Based Community Development, a movement Mather is also involved in as a faculty member at DePaul University. It starts with an assumption that every community contains within itself the seeds of its own flourishing. Theologically we would say that every community has the presence of a transforming God. Inner-city neighborhoods, (and rural communities on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, I’d add), don’t have a deficit that has to be supplied by imported resources; they have gifts that are waiting to be uncovered. Which is the reason that Mather’s church began sending out people as “Animators of the Spirit”—ambassadors whose only task is to bring out those gifts for the benefit of the larger community.

As I have written about rural ministry and the Great Divide in our nation over the last few years, I keep coming back to the question of agency. So much of our cultural despair and anger seems to arise from the sense that our communities are not able to change the problems that are so obvious. From economic development to political influence to church revitalization, we have begun to believe that the centers of power are elsewhere and, if they can’t be lured to come help, they can only be cursed or endured. How do we reclaim the ‘can do’ spirit that used to remind us of how powerful we can be together?

Mather suggests that even in places that have been defined by their poverty, there is wealth—primarily in the people. “If institutions, including the church, can see those gifts in the lives of those who are poor, the road out of poverty is built.”(64) So his church created The Abundance Fund and began to pay people to share their talents with others, teaching others auto mechanics and painting. In these small classes, new microeconomies developed and new community was formed. The church, in turn, was not seen as an alien presence but an embodied presence making a concrete difference in the place they were situated.

What caused my whole world to change—what caused all the unlearning and then the relearning—was realizing that I could use money to support the gifts, talents, and dreams of people whom I had thought of as needy. (76)

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Rev. Michael Mather

The current pandemic is a danger to underdeveloped communities. The forces that led us to believe that our ability to solve problems was slipping away have only intensified. We need books like Mather’s to remind us of the great biblical truth that God is always overturning things, creating a path, uncovering capacities, bringing new things to birth—and doing it first in the least likely places.

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