FLINT, Michigan -- What are the ways a community can truly develop, flourish, and become independent again? Asbury Church, located just outside of the Eastside Franklin Park neighborhood on the city’s eastside, is determined to transfer power and freedom into residents’ hands.
Reverend Tommy McDoniel is Asbury’s spiritual leader and has laid the foundation that sets apart the work Asbury Church does in the community. He also understands that the work Asbury is doing is not a quick solution.
“Community development, it takes decades. It’s not an overnight process,” he said. He wants to change the narrative and end codependent relationships between the government, the church, and the community.
“Toxic charity is this idea that churches are toxic because once you provide emergency services, you get hooked and you want to just keep doing it. And so there is codependency, created,” McDoniel said. “Essentially all hell broke loose about 30 years ago. It didn’t all happen overnight, but General Motors started de-investing in the city. The de-investment, the discrimination, the push and fight against integration, the redlining … I mean all of those things added to that. Ultimately you end up with high unemployment with little or no opportunity for jobs and a dependency on some kind of public assistance.
“Then you’ve got the church. Jesus says, when you do this for the least of these, you did it for me. And so emergency services are geared toward that, but as human beings, we're not wired that way. We're wired that it's temporary unless we get conditioned to make it permanent. So if I get my giggles out of giving you something, we create codependency. I need to get that fix. I need to give you something and you need what I have to give. And so we create this codependency and if I can create an entire community of codependent people, I have all the power.”
Local artists’ works are displayed outside of the hoop houses at Asbury Farms in the Eastside Franklin Park neighborhood.
Asbury currently runs several programs that are innovative and effective in ending codependency between the church and the community. Asbury Farms, Asbury Cafe, Flint Farming Project, Asbury House, Asbury Community Help Center, and South Flint Soup Kitchen are among them. Asbury’s leadership also works with local residents and strongly supports and encourages developing creative gifts in the arts as well. All of the church’s outreach programs have a greater goal in mind, to reconcile and bring lasting change to Flint.
Alongside the current programs, McDoniel is looking to implement long-term solutions to help the Latinx community and be a place of respite and hope.
“If in five or 10 years, when I come around this neighborhood, and the community has become a Spanish-speaking community and it all happened because we were successful at being hospitable for people coming here from other countries, I would consider that to be the greatest blessing I've ever had in my life,” he said.
Asbury’s church services are also dedicated to answering hard questions and providing healing truths to attendants in person and through their live broadcasts on Sunday mornings.
Pride curtains hang in the front of The Arts Center inside Asbury Methodist Church.
“We're currently doing a two-month series called, ‘Coming Out,’ and the first month is dedicated to Pride Month,” McDoniel said. “We really focused on Pride Month. The second month in July, because we're in the conclusion of the first part of the series, is coming out relative to the pandemic and the issues around isolation and coming out of isolation. In both cases, the focus has been on being true to who we are, and in particular this fourth week, I'm going to focus on the institutional church and reclaiming it. I can't help it because it's right there. It has to be dealt with. The decision by the Catholic bishops to write a policy that could prevent the president from taking communion … and it doesn't matter to me what side of the political aisle somebody is on, but to refuse access to a means of grace because of a person's political view, I think its got to be dealt with now.”
McDoniel has a unique background and ability to see needs and find creative ways to address them. He originally started his career with an entirely different trajectory.
“Growing up I was a nerd and I was a computer scientist,” he said. “I worked in the computer software industry for 25 years. About 15 years ago, I made a personal decision, a spiritual decision, to stop working and go to seminary and to discover where I fit. I was trying to decide if I wanted to be a missionary.”
After several visits to Appalachia and New Orleans, McDoniel worked on housing projects alongside families to help restore their homes to safe and livable conditions. After realizing he could use gifts to help others, he recognized that he truly started to feel satisfied with his life. In his mid-50s, he quit his job and attended seminary.
“It was a tough transition,” he said. After changing his life dramatically, McDoniel realized he had learned some unique skills and was creative with where he would get his next meal or how he would find security in other essential areas in life.
“The truth is that we are all capable, but we are more capable when we help each other independently,” said McDoniel.
Agricultural wells and a solar-powered irrigation system help sustain Asbury Farms in Eastside Franklin Park.
His programs at the church are built upon a model with three parts. The first part is understanding everybody has a gift. The second, satisfaction is to use your gifts for the community and in return receive gratitude. Third, hospitality results in unlimited gifts. Using this model, McDoniel and the church’s supportive staff members are making big moves towards developing a healthy and whole community.
Asbury Farms currently has 17 hoop houses, three agricultural wells, and an irrigation system that runs off solar energy. A master gardener was brought in and provided education on how to garden and cook meals with fresh produce. Asbury Farms works closely with the Flint and Genesee Group’s Summer Youth Initiative, Strive program, and Michigan Works. One of the hoop houses was built entirely by high school students. Last year the garden was able to provide vegetables for 140 quarts of canned tomatoes and canned vegetable stock.
The food grown on Asbury Farms is also used in Asbury’s kitchen to support the artistic expression that can be explored through food in the church’s youth-led cooking program, “Sizzling Culture.” The program was co-created with Asbury’s Youth Ambassador, Alexis Edmontson, and Desiree Duell, the director of community development. The church is actively trying to put the power of food back into the hands of residents and looking for ways to make their food pantry a co-op that can sustain itself.
Rev. McDoniel shows a carrot grown on Asbury Farms in the Eastside Franklin Park neighborhood.
McDoniel’s vision, plans, and current programs are based on hope. A hope to include and transform anyone willing to participate in the work being done in the community.
“It doesn't matter your gender if you're binary, or you have a different type of gender identity than we think you have. It is immaterial. If your sexual orientation is different it's really immaterial. What's material is that you are one of us and you’re welcomed and we hope that you will be willing to share your gifts with this group,” McDoniel said. “It doesn't have to be ‘do something for the church.’ It can be ‘do something for your next-door neighbor.’ We don't have to even know what you're doing. We just want you to do it because we know if you do it, you'll be satisfied.”