When we planted the Vine, a new spiritual community in Haverhill, MA, in the fall of 2009, there were a lot of questions that we did not ask.
We did not ask, “Where are we going to find a building?”
We did not ask, “What style will we use for weekly worship?”
We did not ask, “How will we make this a growing, successful church?”
We tried to ask only one question: “God, how can we love this city the way that you do?”
We began to discover that there were many right (and wrong) answers to that question. We discovered that Haverhill was surprisingly resource-rich and relationship-poor: a city with six active food banks, where you could get a hot meal twice a day, seven days a week, but where it was difficult to find a friend to have a meal with. We discovered a mix of blue collar workers, up and coming millennials, and people who were hanging onto their lives by their fingernails, all of whom were starved for relationship and thought that the church was the last place where they would find it.
We discovered that loving these people would mean putting aside much of what has been familiar for us in our faith journey. It would mean putting asides concerns about a building, about developing familiar patterns of weekly worship, even about how we were going to succeed and fail. It would mean simply pouring ourselves out for our city, as best as we could, and trusting that if we did so, God would give us the resources we need.
And so, instead of buying a building and starting weekly worship, we began to make friends and gathered them into small groups of people, so that together we could pour ourselves out for God, for each other, and for the city, and to teach others to do the same. God gathered an eclectic group of people into our mix: from active fundamentalists to activist atheists, from middle class do-gooders to serial couch hoppers, from recovering church people to recovering addicts, all learning from one another, learning what it means to follow Jesus together.
The stories we’ve encountered have amazed us. I think of Lisa, who has struggled for years with depression and anxiety, who came to a city-wide cleanup we participated in and ended up getting involved. We invited her over to our house for dinner, talked to her on the phone when she struggled with almost paralyzing self-doubt, and delivered Ben and Jerry’s to her apartment door after a rough day. Last year, she got a tattoo that says “Hope” over the scars from where she used to cut herself. This year, she went on a mission trip to Guatemala to help those in need. When she says that Vine saved her life, she means it literally.
She is one of several who could tell similar stories. And, year by year, God has blessed us with the resources to pour ourselves for more people in the city. This year, we hosted a free market (think of a flea market, except everything is free to whoever comes) in February, and threw a big party at local neighborhood playground in May, where over 500 people showed up. This summer, our Urban Kindness group was recognized by the mayor for their work restoring the planters and gardens in one of the poorest neighborhoods of the city.
These are the ways that we know that our work is beginning to take root: not through the number of people at worship, or the money in our budget, but through the lives and the communities, one at a time, that are experiencing what God’s love looks like. While it has not always been an easy journey, or a simple one, we have begun to learn what it looks like to love without expecting anything in return and trust that God will do the rest.
Melissa and Ben Yosua-Davis are co-pastors of the Vine, a new spiritual community in Haverhill, MA. As Drew Theological School graduates, they are grateful for the time under the trees, from the paradigm-bending challenges of Doctor Sweet to the persistence and encouragement of Dr. Kearns in helping them draw straight lines from their theology to their lives. You can get in contact with them via e-mail at email@example.com or via www.thevinehaverhill.com.