Interns expand church's ministry throughout neighborhood
by Kathy Heinrichs Wiest
“I’ve experienced a lot of things that have been painful in my life, but God makes them beautiful,” says intern Justin Mata, looking back on the first half of his 10-month internship with Micah Project at North Fresno Church (NFC), a Mennonite Brethren congregation in Central California.
Mata (pictured right in center) grew up in a home with a father whose drug addiction cycled him in and out of jail. Mata himself struggled through a decade of rebellion against God. The boys he mentors in the neighborhood around church are living similar stories. “My life helps me understand these youth,” he says.
Each of Micah Project’s interns brings a unique story and passion to his or her assignment. Some have lived through poverty and homelessness; others come from a middle class background. One grew up as a missionary kid in Guatemala. Several are college students. All of them have made a commitment to living in community together for t10 months of learning about and practicing urban ministry.
Now in its second year, Micah Project’s six interns live in three two-bedroom units of a small low-income apartment complex just three blocks from NFC. Their learning and ministry start right inside those apartments where they have to work through the household conflicts that naturally come from their diverse histories.
“For most of them, reconciling relationships isn’t something they’ve had much experience with," says Micah Project director Rhonda Dueck. She helps them process the conflicts, reminding them, “You’re all going to fail each other because you’re human.”
Beyond the walls of their apartments, the interns are extending North Fresno’s reach throughout the Robinson neighborhood, an area surrounding Robinson Elementary school that the church has identified for ministry. “North Fresno has always been very intentional about being invested in our incredibly diverse neighborhood,” says Dueck.
Investing in the community
Thirty-one-year-old Mata came to Micah Project to put into practice a calling that he had already begun to pursue soon after he “went full-force for God” two years ago. A Christian brother who had been praying for him told Mata that he should work with young men to help steer them toward God. “It was prophetic,” says Mata, “and I’ve done everything since that day to work toward that.”
Mata’s volunteer assignment with North Fresno’s youth ministry focuses on what he calls “the youth in the hallways”—neighborhood youth for whom the church world is unfamiliar and who may not even feel welcome enough to stay in the room during youth group meetings.
“In our youth group there are lots of students who came up through the ranks of Sunday school and youth group,” says Mata, “but I have a heart for those who are marginalized, at different stages of their understanding of God.”
Helping the boys fix their bicycles or driving them to a Christian boxing gym gives Mata a chance for meaningful conversations about the real issues the neighborhood boys face. “It’s interesting how things come up when people are working together,” Mata explains. “Having a common task is better than just sitting over coffee.”
Volunteering strengthens connections
Each intern is required to volunteer at least five hours a week. Several of them help with the church’s twice-weekly tutoring club where neighborhood children can get homework help as well as a dose of loving attention. Often on Wednesdays children come after school for tutoring club, stay for a dinner served by church volunteers and then attend the church’s Wednesday evening programs.
For intern Shelby King, volunteering at the tutoring club and with the children’s program on Wednesday nights dovetails with her day job as a teacher’s aide at Robinson Elementary School, also located in the neighborhood.
One of her Robinson school students, Vester, comes to the tutoring club. “He has a rough family situation,” says King, “but he knows he has a safe person in me and there are people at tutoring club who give him that attention.”
King points out that living in the neighborhood makes the relationship with Vester and other students even stronger. She meets them at the neighborhood Target store and the grocery store and gets to know their families. “We don’t come from the same background and upbringing, but I can say that I live in the neighborhood too,” she says.
Taking off blinders
The internship program’s mentoring and educational components ensure that Micah Project participants are much more than just a guaranteed labor force for North Fresno’s outreach efforts. Dueck meets individually with each intern once a month. Required readings and a weekly class together with other urban ministry interns in Fresno enrich their hands-on experience.
The curriculum acquaints the interns with the principles of Christian community development as well as a broader picture of urban life in Fresno. “They come in only knowing about their part of the city,” Dueck points out. The readings, teaching sessions and group discussions help them “take off the blinders and embrace the city that is incredibly rich in diversity but also full of pain and struggle.”
“There are so many injustices in the world,” Mata reflects. “The amount of time we take to focus on all the things that are wrong has given me more of an idea of what God means when he tells us to love justice.”
The class also includes a module about the church and God’s mission. “We want them to see that evangelism isn’t just passing out tracts or inviting people to church,” says Dueck. “The gospel means walking with people and sharing the pain of their life,” things they are putting into practice in the neighborhood.
Connecting congregation, interns
Dueck connects the interns with other mentors from the church as well. Each one meets monthly with a “ministry coach” from North Fresno’s pastoral staff and twice monthly with a lay person from the congregation.
King, whose passion is working with children, was matched with a lay mentor who is a therapist working with children in the Fresno Unified School District. “It has been incredible to have older people in the church investing in us,” she says. “I thought (the internship) was about what I was going to give and do, but there’s also this constant outpouring into us that gets pushed forward through us to the younger generation.”
The “outpouring” from the congregation includes another substantial gift: the three apartments that house the interns belong to a member of the congregation who lets them live there free of charge. This allows the church to keep the cost of participating very low. Participants pay a program fee of just $3,000 payable in monthly installments over the 10 months of internship.
North Fresno Church’s tutoring program and youth ministries see some immediate results of the investment in Micah Project interns, but Dueck is quick to point out that the real investment is in the impact these interns will make in the coming years as they live out what the internship has taught them.
Remembering the bigger picture
She uses a metaphor to remind the congregation of the bigger picture. “We’re not planting a tomato garden, we are planting oak trees. In a decade we will see the results.”
King agrees: “Once you learn these things, you can’t go back.”
Dueck says, “We are a sending church. We hope some fall in love with Fresno and stay, but we pray that others go home and work in the community where they came from.”
Dueck and several interns will sow seed for future Micah Project participants at Named 2015, the National Mennonite Brethren Youth Conference this April. They hope to expand and draw a diverse team of interns, spreading the impact to other cities across the country.
Guidelines and the application process for participants are on the Micah Project website: https://themicahproject.
Shelby's testimony: "God made that position for me"
Shelby King knows that God was at work in placing her at Robinson Elementary School near North Fresno Church, Fresno, Calif. “I still get the chills when I talk about it,” she says.
The non-profit organization that she applied to said from the start they do not take requests for specific placements for the hundreds of “teaching fellows” they place in Fresno schools every year. At the group interview of about 50 applicants they told the applicants, “We’ll place you where we need you, and we don’t have a place to accept specific requests.”
But King, who loves working with children, knew that a Robinson school placement would be a perfect fit with her internship at Micah Project. So she prayed. And in her second interview, when the interviewer reiterated that they don’t take requests, she insisted, “Could you just write it down somewhere?”
The interviewer took a moment to page through the stack of papers on her desk and found that there was indeed a position at Robinson, a first-time placement. But, she cautioned, the chance that that assignment would go to King was slim.
When King’s call came, however, the Robinson position was the one they offered.
“God made that position for me,” King testifies, explaining how working in the local school gives her a greater understanding of the children the neighborhood. “It takes this whole experience so much deeper.”
First Photo: Dominic Brumfield and his sister Sallie Brumfield (far left and far right) get help with their homework from Micah Project interns Justin Mata (left) and Estela Magana (standing). Photo by James Bergen
Group Photo (left to right): Justin Mata, Shelby King, Cathryn Araujo, Director Rhonda Dueck, David Kadera, Estela Magaña and Roxanne Sanchez pose with Justin’s old pick-up that hauls the fix-up projects and the high school boys he mentors as part of internship ministry with Micah Project. Photo by James Bergen