More than a decade ago, Broadway United Methodist Church, an urban congregation in Indianapolis, Indiana, had a food pantry, a clothing ministry, and an after-school program. They tutored kids in the neighborhood and ran a summer program for 250 daily. Their pastor was a self-identified “Matthew 25 Christian,” interested in feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and those in prison. All of this would seem like cause for celebration and self-congratulation in a church of a different prophetic caliber than Broadway UMC. But Rev. Mike Mather felt differently: “We weren’t doing much. We had a food pantry, but the food was unhealthy. We tutored children, but the neighborhood school declined.” Recognizing this reality, Mather and the church “decided to take another path.”
As De’Amon Harges describes this time period, “The church decided its call was to be good neighbors. And that we should listen and see people as children of God.” In order to meet this call, in 2004, Mather hired Harges to be Broadway UMC’s first “roving listener.”
“I was curious about what was good in people, and that was what I was going to find out,” Harges said. A 2015 article by Robert King describes what this looked like on the ground: “Harges’ job was to rove the neighborhood, block by block at first, spending time with the neighbors, not to gauge their needs but to understand what talents lay there. … Harges wound up spending hours sitting on people’s porches and hovering near them as they worked in their backyard gardens. He began listening for hints about their gifts.”
“I started paying attention to what they really cared about,” Harges said.
According to King and Mather, the idea of hiring a “roving listener” drew deeply “from the philosophical well of ‘asset-based community development’ – the notion of capitalizing on what’s good and working in a place rather than merely addressing its deficiencies.”
John McKnight, a professor emeritus at Northwestern University and one of the founders of asset-based community development, describes Harges’ role in terms of the approach. “What he’s listening for is their gifts – ‘What has God given you?’”
This approach differs from a needs-based approach, which merely concerns itself with the failures or deficiencies in a community, often in a superficially charity-driven way. The asset-based approach first identifies what the gifts and talents of a community are, in order to discover solutions to a community’s problems within that community itself. It is one of the primary features of ministry with, rather than to or for, the poor:
Asset-based leadership from the margins, not the center respects and values the skills, knowledge and leadership potential of those living on the margins, rather than imposing leadership from the center to the margins and imposing donor/developer/lender-driven solutions. Begins with seeking out and embracing the assets, gifts, talents, graces, and hopes of communities and people impacted by poverty, rather than with a “needs assessment” by people (volunteers, donors, developers, government agencies, etc.) from outside the community.
Taking on this approach to community development at Broadway UMC transformed the church’s ministries and its understanding of being with those in poverty. As Mathers explains, “We began to foster connections within the neighborhood that had the potential for more significant and long-lasting change. We helped people find each other and work together on solutions to community challenges, including ways to support better health.”
Eventually, the church hired “15 to 20 kids from the neighborhood to learn from Harges and then head out into the neighborhood as part-time roving listeners.” This has led to interest groups forming at the church in diverse areas: art, poetry, music, law, and education, among others.
Rev. Mathers describes the task of the newest roving listeners: “Those young people do three things: first, name the gifts of their neighbors; second, lay hands on them and bless them; and, third, connect them with others who care about the same thing. Name, bless, connect. Over and over again.”
There are signs that roving listeners soon may start appearing at churches beyond Broadway UMC. Recently, others in the United Methodist connection got to learn about Broadway’s transformational approach to Ministry With* through an Atlanta discussion on what it takes to be a roving listener.
Listening to a presentation called “An Economy of Abundance: Building Community from the Inside Out,” attendees learned about the difference between asset-based and needs-based approaches to community development.
A needs-based approach focuses on what isn’t there, while an asset-based approach focuses on what is there, the presentation suggested. Needs-based approaches treat community members like consumers of programs, while asset-based approaches treat them like citizens, because “people,” not programs, “are the answer.”
The first step, and the step that roving listeners can help with the most, is identifying what talents and gifts are already in a community before the church attempts to act for the community. “Powerful communities create a place for people to share their gifts,” the presentation suggested.
Holding learning conversations or learning interviews at the church is another possibility for this step. These interviews start from the premise that, as the image of God, everyone has gifts, without exception. Interviews and conversations are a great way to “discover what people care about, how they see the situation, and what they can offer” a community.
After truthfully mapping the assets of a community, the church can effectively build on its strengths to develop new approaches to walking with the community in their lives and struggles. This is true Ministry With* the poor and effective asset-based community development. As the Atlanta presentation on roving listeners concluded,
Go to the people
Live among them
Learn from them
Start with what they know
Build on what they have;
But of the best leaders
when their task is done
The people will remark
“We have done it ourselves.”