OKUMC VIM Visit to Manos Juntas Highlights Practices for Community Engagement
By Bryan Tener
In early February, a team of local church leaders from the Oklahoma Annual Conference visited Manos Juntas, a part of the social ministries of the Methodist Church of Mexico. They have received volunteers and mission teams from the United States for several years that help with construction and medical needs. Based in the Rio Bravo, Manos Juntas began as a small mission with a focus on helping the poor through medical aid and through the construction of tiny houses and casitas. Like several other annual conferences in the United States, Oklahoma has been part of a long partnership with Manos Juntas, but like many other mission ministries over the last two years, those partnerships had been put on hold because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, relationships are beginning to be reconnected, and churches are once again putting teams together to serve. A participant on the trip, Laryn Moore, reflected on this:
Something that stood out to me was when Julian said, 'We didn’t have time to plan/dream because there was always a team here or a team to prepare for.' I think COVID really gave them a chance to slow down and dream, while realizing they couldn’t just depend on teams for support/funds (which led them to their wonderful idea of self-sustaining ministries).
During the visit, Manos Juntas leader Willie Berman, director and General Board of Global Ministries missionary, shared with the Oklahoma VIM team what has taken place since the pandemic began. The pandemic, when no teams visited, allowed the leaders to take a step back and reflect on their identity, discern a vision, and begin strategic planning for connecting with the community in ways that offered the opportunity for the flourishing of life through focusing on education, physical health, housing, and plans for building a faith community while creating long-term sustainability for Manos Juntas.
As the team traveled through Rio Bravo, Reynosa, and some of the surrounding areas to see various mission sites, leaders provided the vision for Manos Juntas. We saw the beginnings of the elementary school grounds with half-completed school rooms, a community center about halfway finished, and the hospital being made ready for use. Allison Dunn from Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, took notice of the vision for long-term sustainability as well as the willingness to take risks with the view that the outcome from the work Manos Juntas lives into is a learning opportunity. She explained:
They want our relationship with Manos Juntas to be more 'eye to eye' than one of looking down. We are there to work WITH them, not FOR them. I was so impressed by how Willie and Julian are BIG dreamers! They are willing to take risks, and if something is not successful, they try something new. They talk to the community about what they need (daycare center). There is an intentional shift toward self-sufficiency for each of their projects. There is a shift to high-impact and long-lasting projects. Casitas are still important, but there is a shift to projects that reach a larger population.
From noting the relationships with community and government leaders that opened the doors to new facilities to eye doctors and physicians to teachers that led to opportunities to use those facilities, several practices for engaging the community were lifted up throughout, and these practices have an eye toward relationships, long-term sustainability, and the flourishing of life.
Listening with Others
One key to engaging the community is listening. Intentional listening involves being prayerful and present with others. The leaders at Manos Juntas listened to the people in the community for their gifts, their hopes, and the needs of those in the neighborhood. Through listening to others, they were able to discover opportunities to connect people’s gifts and skills with others with complementary gifts and skills in ways that could benefit everyone. For example, across the street from the health clinic, there is a daycare. Parents would drop off their children but wouldn’t leave for several hours. After listening to the parents, the leaders discovered a need for activities, so Manos Juntas opened up the second floor and began offering a Zumba class for the parents after they dropped off their children. This created space for better physical health along with filling the need for social activity. This also led to the recognition that there were some children who needed access to online learning and tutoring during the pandemic. Alongside the Zumba class, one room away, there was space for tutoring and study for some of the older children. Listening involves conversations with the people, asking questions that open up opportunities to learn about the community: what the needs are, what the gifts are, and what is possible when they are brought together. Conversations with community leaders, nonprofits serving others, and the constituents they serve, and prayer walks can all help in getting to know the community. These can give insight into how the local church can begin to engage and build relationships.
Building partnerships is important in community engagement. Manos Juntas works with the government in relation to education, health, and facilities, which allows them to navigate the formal processes and agreements and to receive children into the House of Hope orphanage. These partnerships are important in their context, and these kinds of partnerships and connections can be important in the U.S. context as well. Finding ways to connect with local civic leaders benefits learning about the local community and can open the door to other relationships and connections that can benefit existing ministries or lead to new ones. For Manos Juntas, existing partnerships with U.S. annual conferences are important. These partnerships lead to service teams, increased funding, and the creation of new opportunities to meet organizational needs and human needs. Laryn, in reflecting on this partnership, said she loves
that they are looking at our partnerships in a new way, truly being partners with us (the U.S. teams). The relationships are so important! Our relationship with Manos Juntas, their relationship with their community, and our relationship with the community were all talked about in the presentation and our conversations. Willie saying, 'Don’t come here and show us our poverty. We know what that looks like already' really made me think about the relationships and how we approach our trips and what we’re doing.
Partnerships aren’t one sided and must be entered into with humility and a spirit of mutuality. A few questions to begin with as you think about your context are:
- Who are the other faith communities, ecumenical/interfaith, nonprofits that are engaging the community?
- In what ways are they engaging the community, or what services are being offered?
- Are there gaps, relationally or in service between what is offered and what is needed?
- Are the local schools connected with any nonprofits or faith communities in any way?
Identifying Gifts and Needs
Manos Juntas, in listening to the community and identifying partnerships, was a able to identify gifts and connect people to those gifts to fill needs. A local eye doctor offers his time to help with low-cost eye care; physicians and nurses are doing the same; teachers and caregivers lead at the orphanage. There are plans for opening a pizza restaurant to connect with people in their new community center.
In your context, what gifts do you see: gifts of time, skill, energy or passion; or even facility or building space? Are there opportunities to connect people’s gifts together in ways that can benefit others? As you connect people, ask these questions:
- What’s something that you love to do?
- When situations are tough or you’re feeling weighed down, what helps lift you up?
- What’s a hobby or favorite thing to do that people might be surprised to learn about you?
As you learn more about people’s gifts, think about what connections can be made between people and the needs of the community.
Building community is also an important aspect of community engagement. Engaged listening, partnering in exciting and life-giving ways, and seeing the gifts of the community, along with consistent presence all help to build trust and help build community. At Manos Juntas, one goal is to build a new faith community out of their facility in Rio Bravo. One leader has been connecting with the neighborhood, offering pastoral care, and following up with the people who are being served in the various ministries as well as connecting with the neighborhood and inviting them to join together for prayer and worship. For Manos Juntas, this is beginning to take shape as a church.
As you engage your community and as groups begin to form through relationships, is there space to be authentic and wrestle with the stuff of life, to share in the joys and the worries that are carried? It might be small steps that begin to be taken to show care or to offer encouragement to others or to create space to explore questions; these can be the building blocks for the formation of community.
Pastor Tim McHugh from Claremore, Oklahoma, says he loves
how they are including their vision for the future in missionary work. They want to build relationships with the communities and people that they help. They are thinking of the legacy of the ministry. Peaceful Control. Letting the teams know what they need done and giving them options and flexibility: big teams, small teams, painters, musicians, cooks, multiskilled or lack of skills. Everybody can have a job and has a purpose.
Tim hopes that by sharing Manos Juntas’ vision with his congregation that his church will see that the great commission is for everyone, and they will see themselves as having a role in reaching out and engaging with not only Manos Juntas but also with those in their own community.