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Listening to Community Stakeholders

The National Black Fellowship’s WI+H initiative seeks solutions by partnering with those in pain.
After the 2016 fatal shooting of a young black man by a police officer and subsequent civil unrest in the north Milwaukee neighborhood of Sherman Park, Walter F. Harvey, pastor of Parklawn Assembly of God (now Embassy Center MKE), realized many of the angry, frustrated, and disenfranchised rioters in the vicinity considered churches irrelevant in solving community problems. Harvey, who had pastored the church for 24 years, began to change his ministry philosophy.

From that fulcrum, Harvey — now president of the Assemblies of God National Black Fellowship (NBF) — has organized a movement that is not only changing Milwaukee but other urban areas as well. WI+H is a nonprofit initiative of NBF.

“WI+H is a disciple-making and community transformation movement that comes alongside people in tough places and transforms those places from the inside out,” explains the 63-year-old Harvey, who also serves as an AG executive presbyter. “If we ask a community what their need is, they probably will not say, We need a bigger church. They’re going to identify their pain points.”

Although numerical growth can be a measurement of a healthy congregation, Harvey recognizes that the predominate model of expecting people to show up to services and events inside the building isn’t always realistic in urban landscapes.

“The prevailing attractional model of come to church for a weekend service, hear a sermon and be blessed does not disrupt the pain,” says the soft-spoken and cerebral Harvey.

Rather, since February 2022, Harvey and his WI+H team have met with pastors and ministry leaders from 75 churches and nonprofits in Milwaukee, Los Angeles, Detroit, and Orlando, Florida. WI+H is stretching across denominational and theological lines as disparate leaders rally around a common goal. Of the 22 churches and nonprofits represented at the Milwaukee gathering, only six came from AG entities.

In these “pathway studio events,” WI+H representatives help ministry leaders imagine new possible solutions to alleviate community turmoil. Many congregations previously already had organized one-day events such as food or clothing giveaways in an effort to connect with local residents. While such outreaches are an improvement over merely expecting the unchurched to visit a service, Harvey says the “to” and “for” outreach model is still lacking.

“We do it on our terms, on our schedule, and with our resources,” Harvey says. “Rarely do we invite other stakeholders to partner with us, because we may think we know what’s best for the community.”

Such a transactional approach isn’t sustainable, according to Harvey. In fact, he says, it can be demeaning, create a form of dependence, and diminish a sense of personal responsibility.

Instead, Harvey and his team members emphasize a better method of engagement as the one Jesus employed: being with people through their struggles. The coaching, strategy, resources, and goals offered by WI+H resonate with most ministry leaders.

“Pastors want to see lives transformed and people discipled,” Harvey says.

Initially, pastors meet over Zoom with a WI+H representative for informal conversation. A second step, the studio event, involves a Friday night and Saturday in-person convening to review community challenges and analyze congregational strengths. In this phase, WI+H team members present a blueprint for disciple-making and initiatives for community transformation. A third step is a yearlong mutual commitment, primarily through videoconferencing, that results in local churches learning from and partnering with other congregations. A fourth and final phase involves individual coaching of pastors by a WI+H member.

The process is more than theoretical for Harvey. His assessment of needs in his Milwaukee neighborhood led to the formation of Prism Economic Development Corporation, to foster business growth in Sherman Park. The effort includes the creation of UpStart Kitchen to help provide prepared food in an area lacking other affordable options.

Although an initiative of NBF, WI+H isn’t restricted to African Americans. It’s for any church or faith-based organization that wants to see church transformation and disciple-making.

City on a Hill, an AG ministry in Milwaukee, has been one of the WI+H participants in the past year. In 2001, City on a Hill came into existence as the city of Milwaukee donated a 13-acre hospital complex on the near west side to the AG’s Wisconsin/Northern Michigan Ministries Network. In a seven-block area, City on a Hill has helped impoverished residents through efforts such as free health screenings, after-school care programs, and baby clothes donations to expectant mothers.

Art Serna Jr., who took over as chief executive officer in 2021, is gladdened by the incredible ministry City on a Hill has performed. But exposure to WI+H showed him that the ministry could be refined to make a broader impact beyond its milieu.

“This new chapter we’re on has increased our level of faith to what God can do through City on a Hill to bring disciples in every culture of life,” says Serna, 45. “We’re about increasing hope, enhancing the quality of life, and advancing justice for all generations.”

Through practices learned in conjunction with WI+H, Serna knows City on a Hill can’t minister in a vacuum.

“We can’t do these things without being proximate to those we’re serving with,” Serna says. “Jesus was Emmanuel — God with us.”

Currently the City on a Hill facility is being used to house urban missionaries who assist new ministry efforts responding to felt community needs regarding matters such as health care and economic development. New business incubators and youth entrepreneurship incubators have formed.

Some of those who have gone through City on a Hill discipleship programs since childhood now are responsible adults in the community. Because they trust City on a Hill, these individuals are cooperating to open up their networks of influence, which ultimately will allow City on a Hill to share the gospel with more young adults.

“We’re doing ministry not to individuals, but with individuals,” Serna says. “We are now co-creating with those who have credibility in the neighborhood.”

Serna says Harvey has helped him envision how City on a Hill can become an economic hub in the area, which has growing Hispanic and Hmong populations. For instance, the ministry is working with local partners to launch a new business model on its campus that ultimately will result in creasing jobs. City on a Hill has a diverse staff. Serna is a Latino whose first language is Spanish.

“Walter has helped us bring discipleship in everything we’re doing on the front lines,” Serna says.

Harvey contends that churches can’t ignore the dangerous places around them and isolate in the safety of the sanctuary.

“The AG is blessed with so many resources focused on Kingdom advancement,” Harvey says. “Church Multiplication Network leads with national church multiplication. Acts 2 Journey leads with church revitalization. The WI+H Movement assists churches with mobilization in their communities.”
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John W. Kennedy

John W. Kennedy served as news editor of AG News from its inception in 2014 until retiring in 2023. He previously spent 15 years as news editor of the Pentecostal Evangel and seven years as news editor at Christianity Today.