In May of 2018 Bethlehem Lutheran Church held an upbeat street ministry event, Taking Jesus to the Streets, in Ferguson. They met more than 100 people a block from the Canfield Apartment complex, the epicenter of the unrest that made the St. Louis suburb infamous. The residents asked them a powerful question, “We’re so glad that you’re here. Are you going to come back or is this just a one-time thing?”
Ferguson residents said many churches and organizations showed up for short-term work, like delivering Christmas presents to children in need. However, most of them left with the news cameras. There has been a palpable absence of the church in building long-term relationships the community dealing with so many challenges.
This realization about the “wilderness of churches” in Ferguson led to a program called More Greater Things, which includes a summer camp for children and during the school year, it serves the same children with a club night three times a week. Kids attend for free and have time with mentors, get some food and have a Bible lesson, while volunteers come from LCMS congregations
all over town.
Rev. Schmidtke serves as at Bethlehem Lutheran Church, which has a strong history of building relationships in St. Louis City and surrounding suburbs. Rev. Gerard Bolling, Bethlehem’s Associate Pastor, says they were well positioned to fill this voice because, “being missional is in our DNA.” He also says that they’ve found a lot of success doing one thing really well—
reaching local children with the Gospel.
Missouri District Awards More Greater Things Mission Grant
The Missouri District works closely with congregations and other LMCS ministries to support local mission work. The Missouri District has awarded More Greater Things a 2019 mission grant, in the amount of $40,000.
Rev. Bill Geis, Assistant to the President for Missions, says, More Greater Things stands out because of the impact it’s made very quickly, as well as the integration and support of volunteers from all over town. Many people still want to know how people in Ferguson are holding up, even five years after the start of the unrest. However, most people don’t have the community relationships or know-how to jump right into serving people there on their own.
Rev. Geis says, “One reason I chose the grant was because of its strong emphasis on engaging our area congregations as partners. More Greater Things involves at least 10 LCMS congregations with over 70 volunteers monthly participating in the process. They’re intentionally partnering with north city and north county mission opportunities where our city’s greatest needs are.”
Helping Volunteers Make a Difference that Wouldn’t be Possible as Individuals
Such robust programming requires immense volunteer support to keep moving. More Greater Things draws volunteers from across the St. Louis area, which means that the volunteers often come from drastically different backgrounds than the children served in the ministry. It creates a space where people from all backgrounds can learn about each other.
Rev. Bolling describes their process for helping the volunteers acclimate to this unique ministry. First, they simply watch. Then, the next day, they co-lead the activities, and the third time, they lead and the staff watches. After the initial shock of learning what some of these children are going through, the volunteers build relationships that flourish and help both groups of people understand each other. In outreach, Rev. Bolling says, “You’re holding people’s stories in your heart and responding in an appropriate way, by doing what God has equipped you to do the most.”
The Power of Doing One Thing
Sometimes, people want to address every societal issue they encounter. It’s tough for volunteers, because it’s often their first time working with children who talk about not having enough to eat, or coming home to houses darkened from inability to pay the electric bill. The volunteers learn early on to do their best not to react right away when they hear things like that.
Rev. Bolling says, “When our sister churches come in, suburban churches, it becomes so deep for them when they realize how difficult life is [for the kids] because of so many different circumstances and they see how cyclical poverty is. They realize things go deeper and are more complex than the stories they hear on the news.” For example, not having a true sense of home, because you don’t have a dedicated bed makes it harder to learn in school. Understandably, many volunteers go through a phase where they want to try to tackle all the problems they can see holding these neighborhoods back. Soon though, they realize that taking the Gospel to children is the best way to infiltrate the negative cycles around them.