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St. Andrew Presbyterian Church in Iowa City is selecting its future neighbors missionally


Blessed to own land near its campus, the church uses a Matthew 25 focus to work strategically with like-minded partners

July 6, 2023
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Established in 1958, St. Andrew Presbyterian Church in Iowa City moved into this striking space seven years ago. (Photo by Rich Copley/Presbyterian Mission Agency)

The Rev. W. Robert (Rob) Martin, III, lead pastor and head of staff at St. Andrew Presbyterian Church in Iowa City, Iowa, has been at his current calling for 2½ years. That longevity places him among the senior members of the St. Andrew staff, which has welcomed nine new staffers since August.

The church building itself — a beautiful and versatile structure in the growing east side of Iowa City — is just seven years old. “St. Andrew is a community deeply committed to mission. It’s part of its lifeblood,” Martin said during an interview last week designed to outline ways the 725-member congregation is keeping the Matthew 25 commitment St. Andrew made in 2020. “This building is a missional site for Iowa City. Our commitment is to use it in service to the larger community.”

“St. Andrew has always been a Matthew 25 church, even before we knew we should be calling it that,” said Jeff Charis-Carlson, the church’s director of communications and media ministries. “The church began in 1958 with a strong sense of mission with a capital ‘M.’ … We identify that often in terms of Matthew 25 — feeding the hungry, clothing people, visiting people in prison and going out and being a presence in the community.”

Judy Swafford and Clyde Seery work in a greenhouse in St. Andrew Presbyterian Church’s Lettuce Feed Others Garden. (Photo by Rich Copley/Presbyterian Mission Agency)

Martin explained that each year, the church’s Mission Outreach and Service Team selects a primary area of focus for the year. Last year’s was food insecurity, ministry that has continued into 2023. This year, the focus is on mental health.

St. Andrew’s children’s program, 25Live, is named for the Matthew 25 movement. Among many other activities, leaders practice mindfulness with the children to help them deal with stress, Martin said, and they help parents understand how their children’s brains are wired.

“I have seen a number of children who were really struggling from a mental health standpoint who now feel much more grounded,” Martin said. “We also focus on folks 65 and up. We gather people to talk to them about the challenges they face and what we can do as a faith community to help them feel more buoyant.”

The church partners with local agencies that work in the mental health arena. “There are people on the street who struggle with mental health, and some who struggle with mental health silently,” Martin said. “They know we are a safe place to be, but we can’t just assume people know that about us. We have to be very clear about being a welcoming and safe congregation wherever you are on the mental health and economic spectrum.”

In two years, a community for people 55 and older will be constructed on this lot near the church. (Photo by Rich Copley/Presbyterian Mission Agency)

St. Andrew sits “smack dab in the midst of beautiful old farmland. When we came here, we were the only ones out here,” Martin said. “When we built, we bought land so we could sell it to [organizations] we felt were doing good missional work.” St. Andrew recently sold part of its land to a 55-and-up retirement community that will also offer memory care.

Parked outside the church is “a big old school bus,” which takes children around the neighborhood to provide “Andy’s ARKs,” for acts of random kindness. St. Andrew children have been known to leave quarters at a laundromat or money at a neighborhood grocery for people who are short on cash.

“The kids don’t know we focus on Matthew 25, but they learn it experientially,” Martin said, pointing to kind acts recently done to victims of a tornado in nearby Coralville.

“I can’t tell you how many people have told me, ‘I want to come and be part of this community I don’t understand. I don’t understand why you’re loving me unconditionally and why you give me free food every week,” Martin said. “It hasn’t been us evangelizing or trying to encourage them to join. They want to see what we are up to. It means we meet people where they are and as they are, and we explain to them they are vital and important people.”

“This is the only congregation I have ever served,” Martin said, where people who are unhoused “can sit in the pews and nobody will move away. That’s Matthew 25 at its core.”

Mike Ferguson, Editor, Presbyterian News Service

Today’s Focus: St. Andrew Presbyterian Church in Iowa City with a Matthew 25 focus

Let us join in prayer for:

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Edwin Gonzalez-Castillo, Director & Associate, Disaster Response for Latin American and Caribbean, Presbyterian Mission Agency
Theresa Goodlin, Team Leader, Raiser’s Edge Gift & Data Entry, Ministry Engagement & Support, Administrative Services Group (A Corp)

Let us pray

Lord of all peoples, you are continually gathering your people together in surprising and creative ways. We celebrate your call to find our unity through faith in your transformative power. Amen.

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