Boston is a beautiful city made up of twenty-three neighborhoods that layer various cultures, people groups, housing dynamics, and degrees of gentrification. It’s brimming with history, art, high rent, homelessness, and an abundance of churches. Transplants to the city include university students, immigrants, refugees, and church-planting pastors.
I met a different community of Bostonian Christians.
I immigrated from Belfast, Northern Ireland to Boston when I was three years old. My mother is a native, my father an Irish immigrant. In my early teenage years, I encountered my first church plant when my family joined a congregation in a neighboring suburb where the pastor was a mountain man from Denver, Colorado.
With academic preaching and a welcoming atmosphere, the church was made up of around fifty members and another twenty or so regular attendees. The church reached out to the neighbors through canvassing, hosting furniture giveaways, and other forms of outreach. However my parents soon noticed that, despite all of the church’s efforts, those who settled in the assembly were not locals. It was a commuter church, made up of families traveling from the suburbs who were originally from other states such as Virginia, South Carolina, and Ohio.
Over the years, I heard my city described by transplant leaders as liberal, secular, irreligious metropolis. These leaders continued to ask: how do we serve Bostonians? I wondered the same thing.
After completing my undergraduate degree, I met a different community of Boston Christians while working at a homeless shelter. Residents ranged from refugees to immigrants, to Boston natives and many of the Christian families were members of local congregations I had never known existed. They met in storefronts, schools, and church buildings I had never heard of. Working in this community opened my eyes to the vast and diverse world of my city’s churches. My biases were revealed and my ignorance of the Christian landscape of Boston was quickly confronted. I began to ask lots of questions.
If I, a Boston native, had so much to learn about the other neighborhoods and people groups of the city, how much more would a pastor need to understand in order to shepherd a congregation?
How do we confront the Boston described by mission boards, nonnatives, and people from outside suburbs?
Why do Christians assume my city is an atheist stronghold?
How do church planters develop a Christian community in a complex city?
In fierce curiosity, I began a quest to find native Bostonian pastors to see if there was a difference when someone shepherded a city congregation with a more intimate knowledge of their neighborhood. After consulting various local Christians and several rounds of internet searches, I found a few pastors in Boston who were born and raised in the city, including pastor and activist Reverend Mariama White-Hammond.
The Church Planter Who Already Knows Boston
Reverend White-Hammond is the pastor of a Boston neighborhood church—Dorchester’s New Roots AME church—and a nationally known social justice activist, most accredited for her work on climate justice. I reached out to her with my questions and she graciously agreed to make time to speak with me and give her perspective on being a local pastor.
In our conversation, I wanted to find out two fundamental things: if and how being a native Bostonian affects her role in church leadership and what advice she has for aspiring urban church planters.
“It is really interesting as a native person to experience people coming here as missionaries,” she began, “I haven’t fully processed what that means. The difference between me and most church planters that I have met is that they have a heart for some people that they don’t actually know. That heart eventually translates to real people and real lives, but it starts from the abstract. Versus me, I had a heart for some very specific people and wanting to create a space for them. I have been working on criminal justice since my cousin got locked up. I have been working on immigration because I have friends who are undocumented.”
Reverend White-Hammond understands that planters or transplants may feel called to a certain population, but, she added, remember that it takes time to really get to know the targeted population and their needs. “You know maybe one piece of their life,” she said, “but you don’t know them.”
In her own church, the community-building aspect began differently. “I started by realizing there were unmet needs of people I cared about and said, ‘how do I create a community that meets those needs?’” Because she wasn’t working with the abstract idea of a group of people but with people she already knew, Reverend White-Hammond and a team of six others designed every aspect of their church service based on the needs of her community. In addition, most of her fellow church planters were reflective of the community she wanted to build.
The church has also done only minimal outreach. “Most of our growth is by word of mouth,” she said, “I was trying to grow small and intentionally.”
But just because she knew her congregants did not mean that it was easy to construct this fellowship. “Dorchester,” Reverend White-Hammond reminded me, “has the third most diverse zip code in the United States. Our biggest challenge is trying to meet the needs of people in very different places.”
Instead of the usual church plant dilemma of getting to know the neighborhood, her church was looking to heal and address many different needs and wounds. “People have been hurt and damaged by things [church as an institution] has said and done,” she admitted. Adding that she has gone in front of her congregation to apologize for the institutional trauma that many of her congregants experienced. Though she herself had a great experience growing up in church, she knows this was not universal, especially for many marginalized groups of people, such as LGBTQ people of color. So, in her church they decided “to create a space where we acknowledge that damage.”
To further prevent damage to congregants, Reverend White-Hammond calls churches to be honest and upfront about their interpretations of the more controversial passages in scripture, for example, she said, if a church is complementarian, be transparent about that on the website and in preaching.
Before beginning her church, Reverend White-Hammond did not realize just how many transplant church plants existed in Boston saying, “I didn’t know the extent of this phenomenon until I went looking for it.”
Having experienced a similar awakening while searching for a native Boston pastor, I asked her if she had also noticed a correlation between church plants and a congregation filled with college students and other non-native people. “Transients tend to frequent places where transient people are so those are the people they reach,” she explained, “You have a tendency to attract the people that you want to minister to and/or that you have the ability to minister to.” She mentioned that people can easily tell when you don’t know what they are facing, though “you can breakthrough, but it takes a long time.”
And Reverend White-Hammond explained that there is a financial imperative connected with the issue of time. She said not many people talk about it, but because of targeted goals for church sustainability or the agenda of the church’s supporters, church plants sometimes have to choose who they want to reach. Therefore, money can be a deep tension. “You may say you want to reach a diverse group of people,” she acknowledged, “but if you need a certain amount of tithers and need a certain amount of money in three years, those who are hard to get . . . what’s the likelihood you are going to get the people you really wanted to reach?”
Sometimes there is special funding for student populations, so they may not be as difficult, she explained. However, it is a reality that planters “might have to pay attention to what success looks like to the people who fund [them] and it might be very different from what success looks like to [their] neighborhood[s].”
On that note, Reverend White-Hammond mentioned she is blessed to have the ability to be bivocational. She works full time as a consultant and does not take a salary from her church. As a result, she does not have the financial constraints of most church planters and her job gives her flexibility. Her practice was established before she became a pastor. But a bivocational church planter coming in from another place will struggle in different ways, she said, they have to both start a job and get to know a population to plant a church.
Back to the congregation, when starting a church, she advised, people need to ask of the intended population: “Why are they not coming to church and how am I going to reach them?” Have a working knowledge of who you are trying to reach, she advised.
Reverend White-Hammond had three pieces of advice to Boston’s church planting communities:
If you can do this work without being financially dependent on it, try to make that happen. It means that you don’t have to be of two minds.
If you feel called to reach a group of people you have to have them in the leadership and design process. You cannot make something on your own when you are not the constituency you are trying to reach (be in co-leadership and decision making).
Give yourself the space to test things without the growth imperative overwhelming you. If you are trying to do something authentically new and different, having too many people can be a barrier. You may know you need to shift but seventy-five to one hundred people are hard to move. Start small to test things and learn.
In Our City for the Gospel’s Sake
Speaking with Reverend White-Hammond was a reminder to me that, as Christians, we have a responsibility to meet people where they are, to recognize how much of our own culture is intertwined in our practice of faith and worship, and to be contributing to the unity of a body that recognizes its members have a diversity of needs and experiences.
If we read Acts we see the early church in its own cultural setting. A political, religious, and cultural environment entirely different from my own church’s. Paul preaches the same gospel but in different cultural ways. In the diverse world of the apostles’ Middle East, the church relies on local knowledge and recognizes cultural diversity.
We need to continue to question: What is the goal of our church plants? Are we really seeking Bostonians? How can we improve?
We should pray for the next generation of Bostonian religious leaders, for healing in suffering communities, for political change, for rising native pastors. May God in his infinite wisdom and mercy use us as instruments in his perfect will.