Fighting Poverty and Creating Opportunity: Ministry with the Poor Experiential Training at Cass Community UMC, Detroit, MI

Broken down and abandoned church buildings within walking distance of Cass Community Social Services. Photo credit: Nicholas Laccetti.
Broken down and abandoned church buildings within walking distance of Cass Community Social Services. Photo credit: Nicholas Laccetti.

On a warm spring day in May, as flowers and weeds sprouted through the cracks in the streets of Detroit, clergy, lay people, and activists gathered at Cass Community UMC to participate in this year’s Ministry with the Poor Experiential Training hosted at this historic inner-city Detroit church. Held on May 18-20, 2016, the event was the second of at least five Ministry with the Poor experiential trainings that will take place across the country in 2016..

Unique among United Methodist churches, including churches practicing vibrant Ministry with the Poor, Cass Community UMC and its associated nonprofit organization, Cass Community Social Services, actually create jobs, revenue and opportunities in their local urban economy. The experiential training at Cass allowed us to participate in these burgeoning industries and learn about their creation and evolution.

Still in Good Friday

Once considered a cautionary tale of urban blight and inner city crime, Detroit has seen some good press in recent years. The Detroit revival has seen young millennials return to the city of their birth to partake in exciting examples of contemporary food culture, a lively arts and music scene, and new forms of tourism and entertainment.

But this renaissance hasn’t touched all parts of the Motor City. “Most neighborhoods haven’t seen the Resurrection, they’re still in Good Friday,” preaches Rev. Faith Fowler. Cass’ neighborhood—so undesirable in recent years that it doesn’t even have a name—is riddled with dilapidated buildings, empty lots, and discarded tires. A pall of decay remains over the area.

Cass' Green Industries factory. Photo credit: Nicholas Laccetti.
Cass’ Green Industries factory. Photo credit: Nicholas Laccetti.

Yet Cass refuses to abandon its neighborhood or declare “urban revival” without real economic changes for the poor and marginalized. Cass has a history of work with the poor and unhoused, a tradition that accelerated rapidly with the ministries of Rev. Fowler. This is why Cass’ motto, emblazoned on a banner in their Green Industries factory, is “Fighting Poverty and Creating Opportunity.”

Creating Opportunities

In introducing us to Cass and Detroit on the first day of the experiential training, Rev.Fowler  asked us to name three things Detroit brought to mind. Besides Motown, cars, and sports teams, urban decay was unfortunately one of our foremost images of the city. With this as a stepping off point, Rev. Fowler gave us a brief history of Cass in the context of its role and relationship with the neighborhood, as well as the recent gentrification issues in the city. Cass has always had anti-poverty ministries, but Rev. Fowler explained that the drive to create jobs and industry in recent years came from a desire to foster a sustainable impact in the lives of the people.

Unlike other urban UMC churches that serve a congregation of folks who drive to the church from the suburbs or from a more affluent part of a city, most of the people at Cass are chronically underemployed, unhoused, or struggling with mental or physical disabilities. Cass is truly a church of its neighborhood. In response, Cass has initiated many ministries and programs through its nonprofit social services organization.

Buttons micro-enterprise at the Cass Activity Center. Photo credit: Lilly Andoe.
Buttons micro-enterprise at the Cass Activity Center. Photo credit: Lilly Andoe.

Following Rev. Fowler’s overview, we took a tour of the Activity Center at Cass where services are provided for those struggling with developmental disabilities. The Activity Center also houses Cass’micro-enterprises, where chronically underemployed folks are able to start micro businesses with the support of Cass staff. These business opportunities, which range from hat-making to custom dog leashes, from button selling to jewelry, produce income for consumers in the developmentally disabled program, but even more importantly are a source of pride, dignity and purpose. The items are frequently sold at local arts and crafts fairs, as well as on the internet. Cass has also provided no-interest micro-loans to individuals who want to start small businesses, from street art to attending beauty/barber school.

Green Industries

Cass Green Industries. Photo credit: Lilly Andoe.
Cass Green Industries. Photo credit: Lilly Andoe.

The jewel in the crown of Cass’ job creation efforts is its “Green Industries,” an amalgamation of environmentally sustainable, entrepreneurial, and creative industries that employ local people who would otherwise find it difficult to find or keep paying jobs. These jobs all pay more than minimum wage, while at the same time cleaning up Detroit city streets and producing fine examples of local crafts. The “green” nature of the industries is important to Cass, for, as Rev. Fowler explained, “Global warming effects the poor first and worst.”

Green Industries is now located in Cass’World Building, a huge multi-story structure that once housed a medical supply nonprofit before succumbing to abandonment. Beginning with the creation of mud mats from discarded tires, Green Industries has expanded to Detroit-themed coasters, sandals, and elegant macramé planters. Cass also operates a paper shredding business that processes paper for local Detroit businesses and professionals.

During the training, we got to experience some of these industries first-hand. On the initial day of the training, we sorted and shredded documents for Cass’ Document Destruction enterprise. Feeling a bit like Lucille Ball on the chocolate factory assembly line, we learned quickly that though the paper shredding business offers low-skilled employment, it is by no means an easy job. Those of us stationed at the shredder rather than the sorting line found that our paper sorting skills definitely could use improvement.

On Friday, we also got to participate in the creation of Green Industries Mud Mats. Although this work is designed to employ people who are chronically underemployed or struggling with disabilities or addiction, the work is satisfying and results in a complex example of artistic creation. We had to learn how to match a color design for a mat to the reality of assembling strips of rubber from recycled tires, which Cass “harvests” themselves from the streets of Detroit.

Creating Mud Mats in the World building. Photo credit: Lilly Andoe.
Creating Mud Mats in the World building. Photo credit: Lilly Andoe.

In pairs, we put together the mats under the supervision of one of Green Industries’ regular employees, men and women who are formerly homeless. The supervisor of my group frequently had to correct our mistakes assembling the mat. But at the end of the afternoon, we had one completed product on which to sign our initials in silver ink. The sense of accomplishment I got from finishing just one mat illustrated how important the dignity of work and creation is for those folks whom our society has discarded as almost as useless as old tires. Yet here at Cass, both the raw materials and the people were considered valuable and the abandoned buildings were seen as potential venues for new enterprises, housing, and communities.

Housing the Marginalized

Many of the folks at Cass are unhoused, a deep shame for a city that contains a huge number of abandoned properties, empty lots, and urban sprawl. Cass Community Social Services has responded to this issue through a variety of forms of housing, from emergency housing for those who need a temporary place to stay, to transitional housing for those recovering from addiction or domestic violence, to the beautiful Antisdel Building, which permanently houses dozens of people in a rehabilitated apartment complex.

Cass UMC's visionary pastor, the Rev. Faith Fowler. Photo credit: Lilly Andoe.
Cass UMC’s visionary pastor, the Rev. Faith Fowler. Photo credit: Lilly Andoe.

We received a tour of these facilities, and ate breakfast several mornings in the Antisdel Building’s basement. One of the women attending the training, who had first visited Cass several years earlier, expressed amazement that the building had gone from an example of urban decay and abandonment to a clean, comfortable apartment building in just a few years.

Folks who stay at Antisdel may remain there for as short or as long as they desire. Cass’ variety of housing options reflects the fact that Cass does not dictate to its people what they need or require—Cass respects people to have agency over their own struggles, even if they are underemployed or addicted. On working with the homeless, Rev. Fowler suggests, “The important thing to remember is it’s their goals.”

On our final day at Cass, we had the privilege of witnessing Cass’ philosophy of job creation and entrepreneurialism in action when we were at the church for the announcement of their new Tiny Homes program. The Tiny Homes program aims to create a neighborhood of tiny houses on the church campus. Essentially comprising a miniature town, these homes will be sold for less than their value to folks who can live in them as long as they desire, or resell them at a higher price to others when they have gotten back on their feet and moved into more traditional housing. It is thus both a housing program and a direct financial investment in the people of community.

Worship at the World

Cass’ power-sharing with the marginalized was evident in the hospitality and dignity we witnessed at Cass’ ministries and programs. Folks who had been homeless before finding community at Cass were servers, not recipients. For example, they served us delicious meals cooked in Cass’ million-meal-a-year kitchen.

Wednesday worship at the World building, led by the Ambassadors. Photo credit: Nicholas Laccetti.
Wednesday worship at the World building, led by the Ambassadors. Photo credit: Nicholas Laccetti.

On Wednesday evening, we worshipped in the new World Building on an industrial floor still half empty and ready to house new ministries and businesses, right next to Cass’ free clinic. A musical group called the Ambassadors, consisting of formerly homeless members of the Cass congregation, led worship. Rev. Fowler gave a stirring sermon, but she also drove us herself in a church van to dinner and around the campus buildings.

Much like the flowers sprouting up in the Detroit concrete, Cass is a place where radical community has sprouted in a neighborhood that many would have abandoned to decay and blight. Even if many of Detroit’s neighborhoods are still in Good Friday, Cass Community UMC, at least, is walking in the light of the Resurrection.

For more information on Cass Community UMC, read our Transformational Ministries profile on the church.

The next Ministry with the Poor Experiential Trainings will be held on

For more information, visit the events page at

Experiencing the Downtown Welcome Table: Ministry with the Poor Training at the Haywood Street Congregation

The Haywood Street Congregation was formed seven years ago, after long-time members of the dwindling congregation at that location heard God’s call to try a new way. The old Haywood Street UMC was merged into Asheville’s much larger and well-financed Central UMC, with a commitment to populate the church with “mission-oriented activity.” Eventually, the new Haywood Street mission would be led by a young pastor, Rev. Brian Combs. Pastor Brian was sure he was being called by God to be in ministry with the unsheltered. The Western North Carolina Conference of the UMC, the Blue Ridge District and Central UMC facilitated and supported the new mission. Central UMC’s pastor, Rev. Rob Blackburn, gave Brian the keys to the Haywood Street building. As Blue Ridge District Superintendent, Rev. John Boggs, explains, “We had that vision moment … we tried to figure out how to be Incarnational.” For more information about the history of the Haywood Street Congregation, read our piece on the church here at Transformational Ministries.

Churchyard art at the Haywood Street Congregation in Asheville, NC. Photo credit: Nicholas Laccetti.
Churchyard art at the Haywood Street Congregation in Asheville, NC. Photo credit: Nicholas Laccetti.

Several dozen clergy, lay people, and activists from the United Methodist Church and beyond got a first-hand taste of the Haywood Street Congregation, a radically welcoming church of and with the poor in Asheville, NC. We were participants in the Haywood Street Congregation’s first Ministry with the Poor Experiential Training held at the Asheville Congregation on May 1-3, 2016. This was the first of at least five Ministry with the Poor experiential trainings that will be held across the country this year.

Instead of beginning the training with organized panels and discussions or a structured tour, we were thrust right into the church community, without preconceived expectations or agendas. That experience allowed me to see how the Holy Spirit guides the church’s “holy chaos” into a living example of the gospel witness.

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Cass Community UMC: Cherishing the Discarded

Cass Community UMC
11850 Woodrow Wilson
Detroit, MI 48201

Cass Community Social Services
11745 Rosa Parks Boulevard
Detroit, MI 48206
Website | Facebook | Twitter

Cass Community UMC in Detroit, MI.
Cass Community UMC in Detroit, MI.

Ministry Overview

At Cass, the Holy Spirit invites all in. Old tires dropped off in empty lots are sought after because this community sees purpose and value in the discarded. They know that these are not simply old tires but treasures ready to give new life by creating employment and community. Yet people are sought after even more. Everyone has value, gifts, and something to offer. (Sandy Devoid, UM Christian Educator, “Ministering with the Poor at Cass Community UMC“)

Cass Community UMC in Detroit, Michigan and its affiliated not-for-profit, Cass Community Social Services, are located in post-industrial, economically stressed neighborhoods in Detroit. Cass includes many folks who lack a roof over their heads, along with people struggling with addiction and people coping with physical and mental disabilities–“three dimensional, flesh and blood” people with their own talents, hopes, and dreams (This Far By Faith, x). Cass offers welcoming and spirited worship at the church on Sunday mornings, and at “The World Building” on Wednesday evenings.

Cass offers many ministries and programs, including those relating to food, health, housing, and jobs, and other services and activities that foster a community-centered future of economic and spiritual growth for those living in inner city Detroit. These programs include:

  • Cass Green Industries, a collection of environmentally-friendly, job-creating endeavors including Detroit Treads, a company that produces sandals made from illegally dumped tires. The company provides steady work for over a dozen people and produced 3,000 pairs of sandals in just five months. Green Industries as a whole employs over 85 people.
  • Two Free Clinics on Wednesdays at the World Building and on Saturdays at the Activity Center, offer medical care and medications to patients free of charge.
  • Street outreach, emergency shelters, transitional housing and permanent supportive housing for over 300 people through Cass Community Social Services.
  • A food program that serves a million meals a year. Matt Prentice, a well-known and respected restaurateur, trains staff, supervises volunteers, and prepares food.
  • An urban gardening program that began in 2010 comprised of garden beds and plots all over the Cass campus as well as a hydroponic greenhouse. The program grows more than 40 varieties of fruits and vegetables for use in Cass’ commercial kitchen.
  • Cass Community Publishing House, which produces books on social change that traditional publishing companies might not embrace, including Rev. Faith Fowler’s memoir about her first twenty years at Cass, This Far by Faith.

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The Haywood Street Congregation: A Welcoming Table

Relationships blossom at Haywood Street. Photo courtesy of the Haywood Street Congregation.

The Haywood Street Congregation
297 Haywood Street
Asheville, NC 28801
Website | Facebook | Twitter

Ministry Overview

“Our Mission is to be a transformative, open community of Christ, led by the Holy Spirit, creating opportunities to serve and be served so that all who participate are empowered to claim their identity as a child of God.”

At the Haywood Street Congregation in Asheville, NC, various core programs provide a platform for the “ministry of relationship,” which Haywood Street defines simply as the act of “being with.” It contrasts with “doing for” and forms the basis for Haywood Street’s “unique and transformative companion ministry.” These core programs include:

  • The Downtown Welcome Table serves a free sit down, family style luncheon for up to 400 people each Wednesday, with cloth napkins, flowers on the table, and china plates. Through partnerships with some of the very best local restaurants and chefs, referred to as Chefs at The Downtown Welcome Table, once a month the Downtown Welcome Table becomes a gourmet affair. Free haircuts are available to those waiting to be seated for lunch.
  • A radically welcoming mid-day, mid-week worship service draws in hundreds of worshippers.
  • God’s Outfitters Clothing Closet is a free store that serves about 150 people on Wednesdays.
  • The ‘Love & Fishes Bountiful Garden’ produces fresh, organic produce, grown by and for the community.
  • The Haywood Street Respite, a transitional living and healing space, accommodates up to eight adults in need of a home-like place to rest and recover after being discharged from inpatient hospital stays.

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Transformational Ministries

cross-flame onlyVibrant Ministries with the Poor

A woman battling alcohol and drug addictions, who hasn’t been able to make recovery programs work for her, finally beats her addictions in a program rooted in the neighborhood—a program that treats addiction in the context of the community’s struggles. She becomes a Sunday school teacher and receptionist.

A man living on the streets wanders into the weekly meal at a church that practices radical hospitality. Over time he emerges as the head chef, and as one of the leaders of the church community that helped him to embrace his talents and dreams.

A day-laborer who lost his home is alone in a new city when he is hospitalized for cancer. When he is discharged, he is welcomed into a respite program at a local church, and in this small intentional community he discovers that the church is his new home.

These are just some of the many examples of Ministry with the Poor that we will highlight in this new blog series, Transformational MinistriesWe hope these stories inspire creative new ministries with, rather than to or for, those struggling with poverty.

Ministry with the Poor, one of four priority areas of focus of the United Methodist Church, goes far beyond food pantries and other anti-poverty relief programs. Ministry With* is a transformational approach to working with, instead of just giving to or doing for, people and communities living in conditions of poverty.

Ministry With* aspires to impact root causes of poverty, spearheaded by the very people and communities burdened with the struggle, in partnership with people of faith who, like Jesus,  are called to walk with and alongside the poor and marginalized.

Ministry With* is an aspect of discipleship, a form of conversion experience. According to the Ministry with the Poor Guiding Principles and Foundations,  Ministry With* is about “Answering Jesus’ Call to Discipleship in God’s Mission of Love and Justice” in response to a biblical imperative that applies to us as much as it did to Jesus:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners, and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19 NIV)

How Do We Engage in Authentic Ministry With?*

But what does transformational Ministry With* look like?  Are there any “best practices,” models, or living examples that can be replicated or adapted to different contexts?

The answer is yes, some of which can be found in stories, blogs and other resources we have shared on the Ministry with the Poor website, our Facebook page and Twitter. Yet, hearing continued requests for “best practices,” we recognize the need to try a different approach to sharing ideas and stories that will inform, inspire, and resonate with people who yearn to respond to God’s call to be in Ministry With*. It is for that reason we now launch this Transformational Ministries blog.

Some Distinguishing Features of Ministry With*

In contrast to merely giving to or doing for people in poverty (as if they have no gifts, talents, or voices of their own to contribute), engaging in ministry with, alongside, and in concert with leadership from the margins (instead of from the center) includes a number of distinguishing features, such as:

  1. Mutual, Transformational Relationships
    The foundational principle of Ministry With* is the practice of building authentic, mutual, open, caring, sustained and transformational relationships among people of different economic, cultural, and class situations. In contrast to purely donor-recipient transactions, authentic Ministry With* involves becoming conscious of and setting aside one’s own social location, attitudes and cultural assumptions, and—like Jesus—being humble, vulnerable, open, courageous, and willing to listen, learn, and build trust and deeper relationships.
  2. Crossing Boundaries as a Spiritual Discipline
    Multi-class, multi-cultural worship, prayer, bible reading, breaking bread, open-mic nights, poetry slams, singing and  dancing, and other inclusive spiritual and social encounters that embrace and celebrate diversity and create safe and welcoming space to cross boundaries, transcend the literal and figurative walls that separate us, and build mutually transformational relationships.
  3. Accompaniment
    Short-hand expression for being with, being present with (rather than doing for), being in solidarity with, walking with and alongside people struggling with conditions of and systems that perpetuate poverty. Assumes humility, openness and courage; a willingness to listen, learn, and build trust and deeper relationships.
  4. 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.
  5. Long-Term Sustainable Impact
    To build and maintain relationships that nurture and respect local leadership and avoid creating dependencies requires more than short term interventions and relief; long-term commitment of partners in relationship with leaders of local communities is needed to bring about sustainable changes in systems and structures.

Transformational Ministries

In many “new places for new people”—out in the streets, in “churches without walls,” in prisons, community centers, drug treatment facilities, re-claimed and repurposed buildings, transitional housing, cafés—as well as in some traditional church structures, we find disciples of Jesus, partnering in a special way with God and neighbor to transform this world into God’s kingdom.

We have found that these people and places typically embody some or all of the Distinguishing Features of Ministry With*, with a particular emphasis on intentionally bridging social barriers to develop authentic, life-giving relationships among people of different economic, cultural, and class situations. Transformational Ministries are what we are calling these living examples of Ministry With*, a/k/a “best practices.”

This series lifts up specific practices that can be applied or adapted to diverse contexts. These stories of Transformational Ministries and the ways in which they embody the Features of Ministry With* illustrate the difference between a donor-recipient model and a model of transformational ministry with and alongside the poor.

Stay tuned. The next blog post of Transformational Ministries should be coming within two weeks.

Be With* Us!

Which of the Features of Ministry With* are embodied in your ministries?

Which of the Features of Ministry With* would you like to see your church or group focus on developing?

If you know of examples of Transformational Ministries, would you please bring them to our attention so that we may lift them up to others?

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