This story began over five years ago with a question: “If our church closed, would anyone miss us?” We asked our board members to consider the question. The answer they reached was, “no.” After all, they concluded, our members would simply go to other churches. It seemed a shame that we were so unconnected with our neighborhood that no one would miss us if we weren’t here. It seemed that maybe Jesus Himself would want his church to have a better relationship with those around us.
So we embarked on a project. Our lead pastor would visit every neighbor who lived around the church. He would try to meet them, ask them how Zion Church could bless them, find out if we were being a good neighbor, and give them information about the church and a $25 gift card to a new local restaurant. He visited 30 some houses. People were polite, impressed with the gift, but really didn’t have much to say about how the church could bless them.
We broadened the project to include local businesses and institutions. The pastor went to the local mall which is only a few blocks away. “How can the church bless you?”, he asked the general manager. Short of being willing to work together, there wasn’t anything we could do.
Then the pastor went to the VA Hospital down the street. “How can the church bless you?,” he asked. They wanted volunteers. Of course, since they are a federal institution, the application process is very involved. We advertised the need but we are still waiting for our first volunteer from the church.
A prayer changed everything. One evening, sitting in the backyard and reading the Bible, our pastor cried out to the Lord in frustration. “What kind of a church do you want us to be?” “ A banquet,” came the clear reply. “What kind of banquet?” “Like Luke 14,” he heard. And then his mind was filled with images of a local apartment complex.
Turning to Luke 14 we find the parable of the great banquet. There were three things that leapt out at us immediately when we read this chapter. 1.) Jesus says, “When you give a banquet, don’t invite those who can invite you back. Invite those who can never repay you.” So we determined that Jesus wanted us to focus first and foremost on the very least, those who couldn’t repay us in any way for serving them. 2.) The guests who were invited, the intended recipients of God’s favor, didn’t come and sent their excuses. We believe that many in the Church today don’t realize that they are saved for a purpose. That purpose is to serve the Lord who saved us by serving others. 3.) God instructs his servants to go to the alleyways and the country roads and compel the poor and the lame and the lost to come to the banquet. We understand this to mean that the church is to go out and seek, not stay home and wait for people to come to us. Zion’s mission statement became, “Jesus says, ‘Go!’”
So we packed up a luncheon feast for 150 people, some games and crafts for the kids and went to the Douglas Terrace Apartments. We met a lot of kids and found out that most of the people living in this complex were recent refugees. Mostly from Burma. We came back monthly for four months, bringing food, games, bounce houses, whatever we could think of, and we began learning names and building relationships.
By the fall it began to occur to us that perhaps we could invite these kids to our Wednesday night tutoring program. That program had 4 kids in it. Overnight it multiplied to 40. Then we needed to find more innovative ways to transport kids, feed kids, and provide the tutoring they needed in a fun atmosphere. Today 300 kids participate.
Next stop for us was the local elementary school. “How can the church bless you?” Naturally, we expected a polite “no thank you.” But we were surprised. The school was having trouble getting children in the English Language Learner (ELL) program come to school in the cold and snowy weather. The kids lived just beyond the edge of the busing zone and didn’t qualify to ride the bus. Could the church help? We asked the congregation and ten people volunteered to drive vans borrowed from local churches and ministries. Each school day we began transporting 14 children to school and back. The congregation stepped forward and we bought our first van. The local school asked the local church for help and, praise God, we worked together to meet the need and the get the kids to school. Turns out that the kids who needed rides lived in the apartment complexes at which we were doing outreaches. Today we transport over 40 kids every school day.
Next, we went to some local restaurants. “How can the church bless you?” The Muslim owner of restaurant was well connected with his Iraqi refugee community. “We need furniture,” he replied. The call went out to the church and furniture started to fill the lobby. Just as quickly it went out to families from Iraq, Burma, and other places. Friendships were made. Jesus was honored. The church became the go to place for help with everything from job applications to utilities to translation and even help for resolving disputes. Furniture now comes from all over the city as word about the need gets out.
The interest in Jesus by some of our new friends has caused us to start an Arabic language service on Sundays. Today that service is led by a lay pastor from Iraq and our Muslim friends feel welcome and comfortable coming to the church with questions and needs and some are choosing to follow Jesus and being baptized. As an outgrowth of this ministry, we’ve help charter a new 501(C)3 organization called the Iraqi Community in Iowa in order to help meet the needs of this community.
Our visits took us to the local mosque. “How can the Church bless you?” Now our pastor and the imam regularly meet for coffee and conversation and we are committed to working together to make our community a better place for all. The imam and some of his congregation join us each year at church for Christmas Eve dinner. We in turn are invited to dinner during Ramadan. We work together yearly on a food drive for needy veterans and also work together to help refugees in Syria and Jordan.
Each Christmas, people in the church want to bless our new friends in the community with Christmas presents and food baskets.
There was a growing need for clothes among the children and parents that were coming to the church for help. So a clothes closet was started. Today, that clothes closet goes “mobile” several times a year with a borrowed trailer that takes the clothes to places in our community where people are in need. Our lobby is full of bins for collecting clothes and household items for anyone in our community that needs help.
Because of our work in the community, Zion was approached by the Mizo, an ethnic group from Burma who wanted a church and a pastor to help them. Zion obliged and today the 1:00 Sunday Mizo service is vibrant and growing and our Mizo brothers and sisters work side by side with us on projects and cleaning the church, exchanging preachers and choirs, sharing meals and going through life together as one church. Today, after about a year of paperwork, we have a Mizo speaking pastor from Burma on staff.
Recently, a group of Swahili and Kinyamulenge speaking Congolese joined Zion together with their pastor. That gave birth to the 10:30 a.m. Swahili service. We are working on being one church together and frequently worship and serve together.
Sunday School is now an integrated experience, with Mizo kids and kids from the neighborhood joining us weekly to learn about Jesus. A whole team of people joined together to provide transportation and to receive the kids when they arrive and depart.
Our congregation caught the spirit of what God was doing and things like our Street Outreach, which delivers meals to the city’s homeless and prays with them began to grown. Showers that were built at Zion to host retreats are now used by the homeless so that they can refresh themselves before worship.
We had a long tradition of Wednesday night meals at our church. Now those meals feed hundreds of people and have provided an avenue for people from our community to come and eat and be known. We are exploring how to become a food pantry specializing in Asian items because of the requests we receive.
Our building has become a center for our community. Zion is part of our city’s emergency management plans and serves as a shelter during times of disaster or extreme heat or cold. We host many community organizations, events, and summer camps.
In the last three years, a well regarded local preschool, lost their space and Zion was able to welcome them into our facility without cost. Today, Westside Early Education helps the church by providing room for non-English speaking preschoolers to begin learning English and relating to the classroom environment.
A few years ago we began offering ESL classes taught by volunteers. The classes became so large we needed help to run them and today we partner with the Iowa International Center to provided trained ESL teachers.
We’ve learned so much over the last years. We’ve learned that the church can become essential to the neighborhood simply by going out into the community and finding a way to serve people who can’t ever pay you back. Simply put, Jesus told us to “go.” When we are obedient and go, the way the world looks at the church changes. We’ve also learned that we are a part of something bigger than ourselves. Some of the things we’ve been led to do would never have happened without the help of other churches and ministries and even secular organizations. What we learned was that when we work with others, Jesus gets the glory and miraculous things are done in his name.
We’ve learned that we don’t have to be afraid to simply ask, “How can the church bless you?” Sure, some will send us away, but others are dying for our help. They are looking for Christ but how will he come to them if we, his body, don’t bring him? We never thought the local school would consider partnering with us. But there are wonderful partnerships to be made out there if we are willing to humble ourselves and serve on terms other than our own.
We also want everyone to understand a few things. We believe that Jesus has called us to minister everywhere, wherever we are, not just in this neighborhood. But you have to start somewhere. And we encourage all our members to be open to the ministry that Jesus is calling you to right where you are. We believe that our ministry is to everyone, not just immigrants, but that’s how it started for us and that’s what Jesus has put in front of us in these days. A few years from now, as our immigrant friends become part of the church and our neighborhood, our ministry focus will undoubtedly change as Jesus calls us forward into new adventures and journeys. We believe that our ministry is not just local. In other words, we still care about the rest of the world. We still seek to support the people and things that God is doing globally. We are actively involved in ministry in Tanzania, South Sudan, Cambodia, Myanmar and Jordan and for praying for the Church in persecution throughout the world.
Four years after beginning our project, the results, to us, are nothing short of miraculous. We believe that we have found the ministry Jesus wants for us in this place at this time. And, amazingly, new opportunities keep on presenting themselves. The local middle school and high school are now asking for help in transporting students. We could easily double our student transportation. We were able to provide over 500 books to the elementary school, one for every student, just before Christmas. The parents of the children, regardless of their ability to pay for books themselves, have expressed gratitude that the local church cares about their children. The school has also asked us to provide weekend meals for students that the school is concerned have no food when they are not at school. We are currently providing 30+ students with food each weekend.
Zion has turned extra land on our campus into community gardens, especially for immigrants who miss being on the land and working the soil. Today there are 60 plots for gardeners. The idea came about at a neighborhood meeting and will involve a partnership between the city, the church and Lutheran Services, a social service organization.
We continue to offer “life skills” classes including things like “how to manage money,” “how to go to the pharmacy and what medicines to buy when your children are sick,” “how to buy a house,” and others These classes are an opportunity for partnership between the church and other members of our community. We understand that the church should play a role for good in the transition of our neighborhood as the original residents from the post war era move out and first time home buyers from other places move in.
Zion hosts an Iowa Career Access Point computer. This means that the church can help people find available jobs. We provide volunteers from the congregation to help people use it.
Today, Zion is a church that worships in four languages and prays in over a dozen. Together we hope to be one church that loves and serves the Lord Jesus together.
What’s next? Only God knows. We continue to pray we will be faithful in responding to his call. What’s next for you? Will you find your story in our story? We invite you to come along and be part of the adventure.