Article 25

The ‘Messy’ Church in Over-the-Rhine

In Uncategorized on 08/20/2011 at 5:46 pm

First Lutheran redefines power

By Margo Pierce

A woman is lying on the side of the road bloody, bruised, unconscious and looks as though she might be dead. All kinds of people drive past without stopping – an ambulance driver, numerous clergy, a street outreach worker, even a nurse. Finally, someone stops – a man of Middle Eastern origin in flowing robes who believes women in public ought to be covered head-to-toe in fabric. Such a display of a woman from his family could be subject to an “honor” killing. But he doesn’t just stop; he carefully puts the woman in his car, takes her home and is responsible for bringing her back to health. He personally feeds her, sees that she receives medical attention and watches over her until she is strong enough to return to her home – no questions asked, no proselytizing, no payment for his services.

This is an example of the kind of unexpected kindness from a person reviled by society as a whole, the kind of generosity that First Lutheran Church embodies and asks of the people who are there – staff, volunteers, visitors and community members at large.

“A very familiar story is the parable of the good Samaritan, and a parable that you might find some correlation between the story and the community that we live in,” says Fred Cook, pastor of First Lutheran. “The traditional way that the story goes is that a guy is found laying by the side of the road, and the people you would expect to care for that person walk by. The religious people, the people who have resources to do something about it – there’s some expectation that they would do something, and they don’t do anything. And it was the Samaritan person who stopped; and in the context of the story at the time, that would be the person you would least expect to do anything to help this person. The Samaritans were hated.


Nicole and Pastor Cook

“The way the story is normally shared is that one should go and do likewise. You should be a good Samaritan; and that speaks to the kind of religious language, religious culture, religious approach generally in society telling you how you ought to be. And I think a lot of people experience religion or faith traditions in that manner. They are places where people will tell you how to be.”

‘Who decides?’

In the urban core of Cincinnati, individual experiences and cultural influences that form and inform views about what churches are supposed to be and what religion is all about converge in Over-the-Rhine, with its ethnically diverse population. As a result, the ideas of hope, sanctuary and community collide with revulsion, retribution and judgmentalism. It all eventually ends up at the front door of First Lutheran as the first or last place people will go – the first for those who wish to do “ministry” and the last for those who don’t feel a need to be saved. Somewhere in between those extremes is where this building and its people reside. And that’s “messy,” according to Cook.

“Things have a way of working out because there’s a natural flow of experience together and we’re not ‘imposing on’: You need this. You need that. You need to have that happen. You need to have that happen. You need to get off of this. You need to be …” Cook says. “That doesn’t get you very far, and nobody likes to be treated that way. They already have an awareness of some of the struggles that they have to bear. To be in a welcome place where there’s a kind of willingness to address that is something very exciting because it can move them from another place – but because they want to do it and they feel affirmed in their willingness to deal with it, as opposed to someone telling them, ‘You ought to do something.’ ”

One example of this approach is the Community Meal at First Lutheran. Shared the last Monday of every month, anyone who wishes to participate is welcome. Several suburban churches have become regular participants even though this meal doesn’t fit the traditional model of “Eat what we serve you and be grateful.”

The meal started out as people from the burbs bringing in food that they chose to prepare and rushed from their cars into the church, never making eye contact with the people on the street. Those same people would come together to serve and eat, respectively. There was little to no communication or interaction, setting up a giver/receiver, superior/inferior power dynamic, according to Cook. But that changed when the local community was asked to actively participate by sharing the foods they enjoy eating and assisting with preparing the meal.

“The meal is prepared by people from the community alongside people from outside the community,” Cook says. “And the opportunity is for them to … relate to each other in a way that they never would have had to relate to each other in any other context. It’s more respectful of the truth – which is that we all have power.

“To work it the other way is to suggest that we have something that we presume what you want. We’ll offer it to you on our terms and expect you to receive it on our terms, and if you don’t receive it as we expect, we’re going to have some problems. Or to say we appreciate that this is a relationship and so it can’t be one-sided, that you have something to offer.

“That’s a lot more messy, a lot more time consuming. A good question is, in an opportunity like this to eat together, who decides what we’re going to eat? That’s a power thing, too.”

As any good broker of peace, the church worked toward getting the answer, which was more ethnic foods, soul food. That led to those who knew how to prepare such meals teaching those who did not; the people from Washington Park who were supposed to “need” participated in choosing the menu and helping those who “provided.”

‘Scary stuff’

The church’s approach is to identify what everyone has to offer – whether from expected or unexpected people – and coming together around the wish to share what the other has to offer. Cook identifies one such “gift” that residents of Over-the-Rhine offer: the “willingness to learn.” That interest gave rise to the creation of the Over-the-Rhine Learning Center, where anyone can go to learn basic literacy or prepare to take the General Educational Development (GED) test if they never finished high school.

“It’s not curiosity,” Cook. “It’s a willingness to face one’s brokenness of the past. … It takes a lot of courage – that’s a positive thing, that’s a great thing, that’s a wonderful thing that many of us are reluctant to do. To say, ‘This is a part of my experience that I would like to be different, and so I’m going to do something about it.’ They bring that amount of interest and courage and willingness to take the time, to make the sacrifices to come and change something in their life that they haven’t found helpful.”

The students and tutors work with Leslie Cook, the director of the Learning Center, who matches them up after assessing what each person needs. Married to Pastor Cook, Les – as everyone calls her – didn’t start out with the idea of founding a learning center.

“People would keep coming to Fred with paperwork,” she says. “They’d want to talk to him confidentially but usually there was a reason other than just to chat but maybe not a spiritual reason, but some kind of a need and they would go to someone they would trust. They’d pull out paperwork – court papers, legal papers, eviction notices, things like that: ‘What do you think I should do about this?’

“It would become evident that these people couldn’t read, and this is scary stuff. It’s very hard for people who can’t read to say, ‘I can’t read. Can you read this for me?’ There’s a lot of shame involved. Not everyone was like that, but there is a stigma to being illiterate.”

What started as one or two people a week was followed by the realization that, according to national statistics, over 50 percent of people who are unemployed are illiterate and that would likely translate into a significant number of the their neighbors not knowing how to read.

With high hopes of being able to fill a great need, Les Cook prepared for her first day with enough materials for 20 students. She opened the door and she waited, and waited and waited.

“We knew personally of people who wanted to learn to read,” she says. “They didn’t even come – and they felt safe and comfortable. But they weren’t ready. But it was still overwhelmingly positive because the one person who came was so thankful that he found a place. So we started with that.”

Now more than 20 tutors work with over 30 students in two of the three programs offered – basic literacy, Bridge to GED and GED preparation. One-on-one tutoring makes the program unique and is why their students enjoy such success, according to Les Cook.

The pride in her voice is apparent when she talks about a 60-year-old student “with gold bling on his fingers” sobbing because he realized that, for the first time in his life, he could read by himself and understand what he read without any help. The oldest student is 80-something and the youngest is a teenager. What they find at the Learning Center is what they need to make it possible to achieve their life goals.

“What sets us apart from the other programs is that we … switched all three levels of our program to one-to-one tutoring because that’s what we found worked best,” Les Cook says. “It was the most effective to get the job done, to teach someone to read. There’s something about that relationship with your tutors, just a growing respect that we’re both giving all we have and we want to give to that other person.

“Our tutors work hard, and we’re here to make progress, and every student here moves up a grade level every year of active tutoring.”

That partnership is formalized in an agreement signed by both student and tutor when they begin the program together. But it’s also about having a place in the community and being a partner with the neighborhood.

‘Standing up’

The Cooks are well aware of the struggles their neighbors face with addiction, mental-health issues and other manifestations of “brokenness.” But they aren’t sitting idly by behind closed doors and only worrying about the safety of the people inside.

“We’ve been put in a position where, if we want to have a safe respectful community environment, we can’t allow that to happen,” Les Cook says. “So I shoo away crack dealers. I shoo away open-flask drinkers. I pour out bottles of beer; I’ve been chased down the street for doing that. But I can’t allow this block and entry to this program where people are coming to reach life-goals to be contaminated openly and overtly by people who are breaking the law. Prostitution right out front, drug deals, the dyads and triads of guys with their phones – I shoo them away all the time.

“District One (police) is not happy about me doing that because it can be dangerous. But this is my program, this is my building and I have to protect my own community, my tutors, my students. My students get upset about it. My students … love it when someone is standing up.”

Another form of “standing up” that goes on at First Lutheran is the number of students who have taken charge of their futures by enrolling in the GED program. While some are able to read, their comprehension or other basic langue skills might not be strong enough to take on the independent work required for the preparation. Those individuals work with Bridge to GED tutors to get them ready for the rigorous training required.

That means preparing for a test that is now equivalent to that which high school students are required to pass before they get a diploma. It used to be a two-subject test and was seen as less valuable than a diploma, but since 2002 the test consists of 10th-grade math (algebra and geometry), social studies, language and writing, science and reading. It’s a big job, and students have to be committed to doing whatever it takes to get to the point of taking the test. For some, it can be as little as two months; but for others it can be two to three years.

It also means dealing with the past, says Tamra Johnson, the GED instructor for the Learning Center.

“It could have been very young, but something happened along the way where all of a sudden there was a disconnect for school,” she says.”Often, family situations exacerbated that, and when they were able to leave school … something just went awry, and their family wasn’t strong enough to say, ‘Look, you are absolutely going to finish school.’ Many had probably some kind of learning challenge that wasn’t a full-blown disability but it was a challenge which they weren’t getting help for.

“There are many reasons why someone would leave school, and many of them are tied in with family situations.”

These students continue to face the same issues now: homelessness or some problem with housing, medical issues, generational poverty, mental health. Of the seven students currently enrolled in the GED program, Nicole Smith is a case in point.

“I walked with my class in ’91,” she says. “I just had that one class that I needed to go to summer school for … that was the algebra. And I flunked it in summer school, so I said, ‘What the heck.’ I didn’t want to go back to school. But as I got older, I got tired of working these dead-end jobs. I had my children now I’ve got a grandchild, so now their future depends on me. I made a conscious decision to better myself so I can demonstrate to my kids that you can be successful. You don’t have to be on the street corners. You don’t have to be sitting on welfare. You can do whatever you put your mind to.”

Now 38 years old, she’s given herself a deadline of getting her GED by the age of 40 and moving onto pharmacy technician training. She’s confident she’ll be successful because one of the people on her tutoring team is Mark Butler, a 50-year-old graduate of the GED program who is now enrolled at Cincinnati State Technical College and has helped Smith finally understand algebra.

“I was failing in algebra because I didn’t get it, and now I get it, so when I take the test I’m gonna pass,” Smith says.

 ‘What do you do?’

Learning could be easily identified as a cornerstone of everything that goes on at First Lutheran Church. While the classroom work is critical, it’s what goes on before and after the books are closed that is the foundation of how this church exists as a neighbor in its community. It’s about acknowledging the problems that neighbors struggle with – some that can be addressed and some that can’t.

The church offers personal hygiene supplies and clothing. The Learning Center also includes a computer lab where anyone can get online. On June 1 the church began hosting Article 25 volunteers, who sign up distributors who want to make some extra money by offering the non-profit newspaper for a suggested donation of $1. From 10 a.m. to noon Tuesday through Friday neighbors stop in to see if the paper can help them augment their income or learn the details so they can refer others.

This effort to embody the expectations they have for everyone in their community is what First Lutheran does when making decisions about what they will do with the resources they have, Les Cook says.

“We just keep responding to the need,” she says. “The need has not changed. I know a lot of people have been moved out of their buildings, but the people in poverty walk, they’re still in transition and some may be on the periphery but many thousands of people still live right here and we just have not seen any change in the need.

“There is nothing being solved in the area of poverty through gentrification. The illiterate are still illiterate. The poor are still poor. The people sleeping on the stoops and under the bridges are still doing that. There is nothing being solved, so we are still here.”

This awareness comes from making the time to be “in relationship” with the community and the people who live there or merely pass through and being willing to be changed by those experiences.

“You learn about someone,” Pastor Cook says. “Once you learn, what are you going to do with what you learn? You have a new experience now. How do you live out of the new experience? The new experience is, ‘Now I know you don’t ever have anybody ever come interpret your diabetes information.’ What do you do? Now that you know that, so you say, ‘Well, I hope you can find someone.’ And you walk away. Maybe that’s the only thing you can do.

“It becomes very quickly overwhelming to become that open to that many people, that many opportunities, that many needs; and it become crushing in its weight of so much if one is willing to hear it, to experience it. What do you do with it? The emotional weight, the tangible stuff about food and clothing and hygiene products and cleanliness, to get out of the heat even, to use a bathroom – it becomes overwhelming, but part of the good news is that it’s not all up to us.

“There are ways that, no matter where you live, that you can participate in more systemic ways to make a more just society, to make a more loving and peaceful culture for people to understand each other and to live together and to care about one another, no matter faith tradition you come from.”


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