SUGAR LAND—Both the kingdom of God and the needs of communities are too great for any single congregation to operate in isolation, panelists told participants at a conference sponsored by Texas Baptists’ Christian Life Commission.
Importance of relationships
“Don’t try to do it all by yourself,” said Elmo Johnson, pastor of Rose of Sharon Missionary Baptist Church in Houston’s Fourth Ward for 33 years. “It’s all about relationships, relationships, relationships.”
Johnson participated in a panel discussion on “community partnerships for the common good” during the Micah 6:8 conference, along with Bryant Lee, pastor of Higher Expectations Church in Humble and Marilyn Lee, executive director of Loving Houston.
Rose of Sharon—a small-membership inner-city congregation—welcomes suburban congregations with greater resources who want to partner with them in ministry, Johnson said.
To ensure the mission partners understand the community and the vision of the church in that neighborhood, Johnson makes the effort to develop friendships with leaders of those congregations.
“When it comes to partnerships, you have to build relationships first with the pastor or the mission pastor,” he said.
‘Put skin in the game’
God gets the glory when people humbly work together to accomplish his purposes, Bryant Lee noted.
“When you are in relationship, it’s not your ministry. It’s God’s ministry,” he said.
Higher Expectations Church requires representatives of congregations from outside his community to spend a couple of days in the community before entering into a missions partnership, Lee noted.
Higher Expectations does not want a church to just write a check or make a one-time drop-in visit without committing human resources for at least three years to establish relationships, he explained.
“We will not partner with anybody who will not put skin in the game,” Lee said.
The church knows it is succeeding in its work when former gangbangers surrender their weapons and show up for worship on Sunday, he noted.
“We measure our success by transformed lives,” he said.
Lives are changed when churches humbly listen to people in their communities to discover needs, Lee said.
“Don’t assume what people need. Ask them,” he said.
Loving Houston seeks to mobilize churches in the Houston area to collaborate with school districts and non-profit organizations to meet needs, Marilyn Lee explained.
“Our mission is advancing community transformation by helping churches serve local schools,” she said.
Communities are changed over the long haul when children reach their full potential, she noted. So, Loving Houston strategically focuses on meeting the needs of children and their families.
“We take the long view,” she said.
Justice and redemption
In another panel discussion, a prosecutor, a public policy specialist and a criminal justice reform advocate discussed the church’s role in bringing about meaningful positive change in the criminal justice system.
Churches can help ex-offenders be restored to society by welcoming them and help them overcome barriers such as getting a job and finding housing, as well as advocating for policies that make re-entry easier, said Kathryn Freeman, director of public policy with the CLC.
“If anybody understands redemption, it is the people of the cross,” she said.
Doug Smith, policy analyst with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, told how he connected with a faith community during the five years and eight months he served time in Texas Department of Criminal Justice facilities.
“It changed my life,” he said.
Now Smith’s faith motivates him to advocate for policies to reduce mass incarceration and to help ex-offenders re-enter society.
Tiana Sanford, district court chief prosecutor for Montgomery County, emphasized the importance of prosecutorial discretion in ensuring justice.
“The prosecutor’s job is not to convict but to see that justice is done,” she said.
Sanford encouraged Christians to “give cover” to elected officials—particularly district attorneys—who are opposed in elections by candidates espousing “tough on crime” rhetoric.
Sanford advocates for community-based prosecution, which involves long-term partnerships between the prosecutor’s office, law enforcement, the community, and public and private organizations.
She outlined key principles of community-based prosecution:
- Recognize the community’s role in public safety.
- Engage in problem solving by focusing not only on individual crimes, but also on the contexts in which actions occur.
- Establish and maintain the partnerships.
- Evaluate outcomes.