When social worker Diane Anderson first heard about the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s 1001 New Worshiping Communities initiative from her pastor, she couldn’t sleep at night.
“I was awake, coming under the authority of the Holy Spirit,” she says.
Anna Taylor Sweringen, her pastor at United Presbyterian Church of Paterson, New Jersey, expected as much, based on Anderson’s leadership as a ruling elder and the chair of the church’s evangelism and outreach committee.
“You can tell from the fruit of her ministry that she is listening to what God is telling her to do,” Sweringen says.
In those initial sleepless nights of listening, Anderson sensed God asking her to reach out to people on the street directly behind the church.
“It’s a major prostitution strip, plagued by drug and alcohol abuse,” she says. “For some time I’ve felt like our church has failed the community around us.”
Anderson wanted to form a team of people from her church, who live in primarily middle-class neighborhoods, to reach out to those on the margins of society.
So she and Sweringen began to pray.
As part of their discernment and preparation to answer God’s call to start something new, they reached out to 1001 east associate Shannon Kiser who suggested that Anderson go through new worshiping community training.
After the training, Anderson used the 1001 discernment process to develop a team of people who invested and helped bring to life this vision God had given her.
In the spring she went through a three-day missional assessment, to further help her prepare for and sustain the new ministry, which now had a name, Faith Works.
After the assessment, she talked with Kiser and other 1001 associates about next steps. With input from Sweringen, they decided to create a 10-week summer internship, where Anderson could dig into her vision for this new ministry.
One of the first things she did was invite people in the community to come to the church.
June 27 is a date she won’t forget. No one showed up.
“I immediately starting praying, ‘God, what did I do wrong?’” she says. “That’s when I felt the Spirit urging me to be mobile—to go to them.”
She thought, “OK, I can pray outside, in the streets.”
As she prayed her way through the neighborhood, Anderson felt that God wanted her new worshiping community “to feed people’s spiritual and physical hunger.”
She began to notice people congregating at a Chinese restaurant, where the biggest seller was chicken wings. Her imagination took flight. “ ‘Wings and a prayer’—we could do this,” she thought.
Help from a ‘queen bee’
Anderson’s team of six went to work, setting up their first “wings and prayer” night. The first person they encountered was a woman named Deidra, who helped them set up and started picking up garbage.
“If we’re going to have company, we need to clean up,” she said.
As it turned out, Deidra was the “queen bee” of the neighborhood. She knew everybody’s story—even people’s drugs of choice.
“By inviting people to come, Deidra became our ambassador,” says Anderson. “She became our unofficial partner in all of this.”
Now over 100 people attend, every Thursday at six.
They meet two blocks from the church, sitting against an old marble wall, eating their chicken wings and praying.
“The kind of presence we’re trying to have is to be there in their dying and living,” says Anderson. “We are not there to condemn them. If we ever do that, they won’t come back.”
Anderson remembers the night that, after they’d prayed, a man in the neighborhood came back and handed over a $10 bill.
“He said, ‘I’m giving you what I have.’ He wanted the people of God to have this money rather than the man at the liquor store. ‘They’re just contributing to my slow death, but you’re contributing to life.’ ”
Anderson says she continues to learn every day how much people are hurting and how much they want to be released from the bondage that holds them.
“There’s pain, low self-esteem, drug and alcohol abuse, men with heavy guilt for not being available to their children,” she says.
To help meet those needs, the Faith Works team plans to move the “wings and prayer” service inside the church. Organizers hope to have preparations complete by winter.
“We’re trying to get pictures of the 100 people who are coming,” Anderson says. “We want to make a collage of all of their images and title it ‘The Face of God.’ ”
Hearing this, Kiser says: “Not everyone could do what Diane is doing. She is such a witness to hope in a nonjudgmental way. It’s a very unique ministry, which she is equipped for. She’s a go-getter, attentive to—and listening to—the Holy Spirit.”
Sweringen says United Presbyterian is “so excited about what God is doing through Diane” that the session officially requested that the Presbytery of the Palisades make her a commissioned ruling elder.
“She’s even taken classes of preparation for ministry—for lay leaders—at Princeton,” Sweringen says. “We can’t wait for her to be welcomed into this 1001 ministry for which she was ordained.”