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Today in the Mission Yearbook

Illinois congregation finds transformation through community dinners

October 5, 2016

Pastor Nancy Jo Dederer offers a blessing before the community dinner at First Presbyterian Church of Homewood, Illinois. (Photo by Frank Casella)

Pastor Nancy Jo Dederer offers a blessing before the community dinner at First Presbyterian Church of Homewood, Illinois. (Photo by Frank Casella)

When Rev. Dr. Nancy Jo Dederer earned her Doctor of Ministry degree in parish revitalization, she had no idea that church transformation would become her calling.

And not only her calling, but also a blessing to the people of Homewood, Illinois.

“I had anticipated doing my degree at McCormick [Theological Seminary] in preaching, but choosing parish revitalization was an act of the Spirit,” said Dederer, who became pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Homewood in 2001.

Dederer quickly discovered that Homewood—a Chicago suburb—reflects many trends that are changing the nation’s demographics.

“When I started, we were averaging 150 in worship,” Dederer said. “Since then, we have lost 100 members either to death, moving away to be with their children, or people who just weren’t ready for change. The primary change that’s happening in Homewood is that as the older, white people are dying, retiring, or moving, African American residents primarily from the South Side of Chicago are coming and buying houses. In addition to that, the church, which was primarily associated with the former pastor who had served it for 33 years, had an identity problem. And we were still stuck.”

Stuck, that is, until the congregation discovered a way forward through New Beginnings, an assessment and prayer discernment process that helps churches make decisions about their future. Formerly offered through the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s office of Vital Congregations, the program continues to be available to PC(USA) congregations through the Hope Partnership for Missional Transformation.

When an opportunity to take part in New Beginnings came to the Presbytery of Chicago, the presbytery not only invited the Homewood church to apply, but also provided a scholarship covering 80 percent of the program cost.

“So we did New Beginnings in 2013 at Easter time, a good time, resurrection and all,” Dederer said, “except that we realized through the program’s four main questions—What’s your passion? What are you good at? What are your resources for that? What’s relevant?—that our passion was worship and music, and that wasn’t relevant to anybody except us. It was a painful thing to say out loud—painful for me as a pastor, painful for the church that’s been in town the longest to come to the realization that they are out of touch. And it’s a church that’s filled with wonderful, God-loving people!”

For nearly 10 months session members prayed to discern how to respond faithfully to what they had learned. In March, Dederer presented the session with a list of 12 conversation starters, including some “outrageous ideas,” such as the church’s opening a café.

“We went around the table and each person read one of the ideas,” said Dederer, “and every single thing, whether it was a big-ticket item or a small-ticket item, was shot down by the person who said it. And I just went home shaking my head because I couldn’t even get a conversation going.”

In the meantime, a session member who’d been unable to make the meeting reviewed the list of ideas that Dederer left in his church mailbox.

“When he asked me about the list, I told him the story,” she said. “We just need to get to find a way to talk to people, and that’s what that list was about—how do we connect with community? So he told me he’d work on the idea of hosting dinner for the summer, and that he’d bring it up at the next session meeting.”

When he brought the concept of hosting summer community dinners before the April session meeting, every prior objection fell away. Session volunteers quickly formed a team, which decided to do weekly cookouts on Monday nights during June, July, and August of 2014, with the purpose of getting to know the community.

Members and guests enjoy the Monday evening community dinner at First Presbyterian Church of Homewood, Illinois. (Photo by Nancy Jo Dederer)

Members and guests enjoy the Monday evening community dinner at First Presbyterian Church of Homewood, Illinois. (Photo by Nancy Jo Dederer)

After the team handed out flyers and put up signs to promote the free dinners, no one in the church knew whether anyone from the community would respond. But on that first Monday, 30 people showed up, nine of whom had no previous connection with the church. “And that was only the beginning,” Dederer said. As the summer progressed, the dinners began to draw 30 to 40 people every week.

“What we learned all over again was the power of prayer—prayer for answers, guidance, prodding, and a new boldness to step out,” she said.

Once the summer had ended, the church decided that it wasn’t ready to stop. “So the next Monday we had the dinner again, and we haven’t stopped since,” Dederer said.

Since launching the weekly dinners, the church has also attracted the participation of community sponsors, such as Homewood Chevrolet, which hosted a July 4 dinner, and a local pizza parlor, Aurelio’s, which hosted a spaghetti dinner.

“In March, the Chamber of Commerce asked us if we would be their charity partner for a golf tournament,” said Dederer. “They said it meant we’d receive money specifically for our community dinners, so I said OK! After the second anniversary of the start of our dinners, which happened to be the date of the golf outing, they gave us a check for $1,000, which was one-sixth of our total budget. That was such a huge affirmation for us, and since then, other partners and financial gifts have followed.”

Dederer added that when the church decided to continue the dinners, the question about finances was the last question raised. “That was a transformation,” she said. “I don’t think the session realized it, but nobody talked about money until the motion was coming. ‘Let’s do this,’ they all said.”

In addition to providing dinner and community, the dinners have afforded an opportunity for area agencies to make presentations on such topics as making homes more energy efficient, or the ways that Respond Now, the community’s local connection for help with food, housing, medical, and utility expenses, can provide assistance. The dinners have also blossomed into a venue for distributing clothing, nonperishable food items, and gifts.

“It’s beautiful,” Dederer said. “And the other thing is I’ve watched our members really start building relationships with people.”

“What it has done,” she added, “is that it has given us more energy. It’s given us hands-on ways to put our faith to work.”

Emily Enders Odom, Communications Strategist, Presbyterian Mission Agency

Today’s Focus:  First Presbyterian Church of Homewood, Illinois

Let us join in prayer for:

Staff of First Presbyterian Church of Homewood, Illinois

Rev. Dr. Nancy Jo Dederer, Pastor
Debra Campbell, Secretary
Norinne Pulec, Treasurer
Tim VanNasdale, Director of Music
Johnnie Dorsey, Sexton

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff

Tammy Gish, FDN
John Glenn, PMA

Let us pray

Gracious God, we ask you to keep the vision before us of what it means to be disciples. Generations before us have followed your light. May we continue to show love and compassion with people whose voices have been long silenced. Amen.

Daily Lectionary

Morning Psalms 89:1-18; 147:1-11
First Reading Hosea 8:1-14
Second Reading Acts 23:23-35
Gospel Reading Luke 7:18-35
Evening Psalms 1; 33