'Making Jesus incarnate in our city'
By Phil Haslanger
Collaboration Project Story Team
When Casey Johnson and Nathan Hobert five years ago were starting what is now Redeemer City Church in Fitchburg, they had a broad vision of what it could be.
“We knew we wanted to be a church that was going to bless the community,” Johnson said. “We wanted to be very involved and we wanted to be Jesus incarnate in our city.”
Now Redeemer City has its own building on the west side of Fitchburg in a neighborhood that is short on community resources. They have partnered with two elementary schools, helped create an afterschool-program for children in a neighborhood isolated from the school they attend, help lead a network of faith leaders in the Fitchburg area and designed their new building so it could house a variety of programs that serve the community.
Hobert talked about Jesus’ heart for the outsider and the Gospel’s proclamation of God’s Kingdom that helps people recognize that “this world is not what it ought to be,” so as people enter into the Gospel story, “you can’t help but see the world differently.”
While some churches see themselves as gathering folks on Sundays for worship and maybe having a mission project or two, Redeemer City set out from the very start to make connections in the community and form the kind of collaborations with community partners that has come to define it.
(On Wednesday, Sept. 18, Redeemer City hosted the Collaboration Project’s School + Church Partners gathering where people could exchange ideas and support one another. They also learned more about the Adopt-a-School program of the Foundation for Madison’s Public Schools.)
Their collaboration grew bit by bit, first being a partner at Chavez Elementary School, where they met for worship on Sundays and offered a variety of support to teachers. Then they added a partnership with Huegel Elementary School. That one started with small things like a mitten drive. Then the second year, they were connected with the Huegel African American Parent Empowerment Network. They had a need for people to come to help take care of kids.
“We’re not coming in with ‘here’s the problems with racial inequities and here’s the solutions,’ ” Hobert said of their involvement at Huegel, which has a more diverse student body than Chavez. “We’re just coming in to help this community, to help advocate with parents for where they are with their students.”
The partnership with Chavez, meanwhile, gave birth to a program at High Ridge Trail, an area of apartments about five miles from Chavez where some 100 students lived and were bused to and from school each day. Johnson said that folks from Redeemer City said, “Let’s step into that need.”
An after-school enrichment program at Chavez for the High Ridge Trail kids grew into the search for space in The Pines apartment complex where they could hold programs, then fund raising and the hiring of teachers to work with the kids. Johnson joined Chavez social worker Andrea Herrera and Joining Forces for Families social worker Emily Thibedeau to create what is now known as Trail to Success.
All of this was happening while Redeemer City was still meeting on Sundays at Chavez Elementary School. But Johnson and Hobert and church members were aware of the needs on the west side of Fitchburg that had loads of commercial spaces, lots of apartments with kids and no gathering space and little in the way of programming.
“The resource they lacked the most was building space,” Johnson said, so Redeemer City bought a building along King James Way, rehabbed it and had its first worship service there on April 14. The building will house a variety of outreach efforts for the community. They held a school supply drive there this summer for Verona school students and about 375 students came in to get supplies. They are providing space for screening for the Birth to Three program every other month.
They are working with the Verona schools to provide after-school programming in their building two days a week and a play group from the King James Way Court comes in once a week. They have hosted a bicycle fix-up program for the neighborhood and have office space available for that area’s Joining Forces for Families social worker to use as needed. The Badger Prairie Needs Network will have a food closet there. They are talking with the City of Fitchburg about using the building as a voting site.
So how does this work within Redeemer City?
The church is organized with what are called city groups of about 15 people each and each city group has taken on one of the partnerships. Two new city groups launching this year. And beyond the school programs, city groups have also adopted the Badger Prairie Needs Network and the Road Home.
“Part of our identity as a small group is to be a servant,” Johnson explained. “So each group adopts a place to serve.” About 90 adults in the church serve the community in some way. That’s out of an average Sunday attendance of about 100 (with 60 or so formal members). This is anything but a huge church, but it has high involvement and a significant impact on the community.
Some of the ideas come from the pastors, but many also come from the people at the church.
“We try to come alongside other people and try to serve and assist them,”
said Johnson. “We try to empower and equip people for what they are already doing.”
Hobert says it all goes back to reorienting around the Gospel. “Jesus should shape us as a people,” is how he put it.
For more information about Redeemer City and its partnerships, contact Casey Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org and Nathan Hobert at email@example.com. Redeemer City is part of the Evangelical Free Church of America.