response: May/June 2021

Innovative Lay Servant Leadership

Deaconess Katelin Hansen offers creative direction at 
United Methodist Church and Community Development for All People.

Innovative Lay Servant Leadership
Deaconess Katelin Hansen speaks to a group of United Methodist Women members during a day of community service in May 2018.

Katelin Hansen, a deaconess in The United Methodist Church, didn’t plan to be where she is today. When she moved to Columbus, Ohio, to pursue her doctorate in neuroscience at the Ohio State University, she sought out a multiracial church to attend while there. She describes her faith as being interlinked with justice. She joined United Methodist Church for All People as a graduate student, and eventually took a part-time role as the minister of music at the church.

As she neared the end of her studies and prepared to move away, she gave notice to the pastor, John Edgar.

“He sort of just held a mirror to my face and pointed out all of the time I was spending at the church,” said Hansen. “When I wasn’t in the lab, I was at the church. Then he asked me if I’d thought about going into ministry.”

She had thought about it. In fact, she couldn’t stop thinking about it. Soon after that conversation she started working full time for the nonprofit side of the church, Community Development for All People, a United Methodist Women-supported national mission institution.

Under the leadership of Edgar and of Deaconess Sue Wolfe and Pastor Donita Harris, United Methodist Church and Community Development for All People first began with the Free Store, where people can still shop for clothing and household items at no cost. The church membership reflects the surrounding neighborhood, which is almost equal numbers Black and white. Around 60 percent of the church members live below the poverty line, and about 40 percent are middle and upper class. Building relationships across the cultural divides of race and class is a core value of Church and Community Development for All People, as is listening to the hopes, dreams and aspirations of the community. The church owns Community Development for All People, which Hansen describes as the “ministry arm of the church.”

In addition to the Free Store, which gives out $2 million worth of clothing and household items each year, Community Development for All People also works to develop and provide affordable housing, job training, youth development and more. Wolfe has been a central figure in launching the Thrive to 5 Initiative, which focuses on maternal and child health; a Healthy Eating and Living Initiative, which includes cooking classes, exercise classes and a fresh produce market; and Bikes for All People, a full-service bike shop focusing on transportation justice and youth cycling.

As the director of operations, Hansen handles the day-to-day business side of Community Development for All People and leads immersive training initiatives, such as the South Side Neighborhood Leadership Academy. She is also the minister of music for the church, leading multicultural music each Sunday and directing the Ubuntu Choir for All People.

Ministry outside the box

Being innovative means thinking outside of the box. It means being creative and bold. In the ministry of a layperson, it means going where the church has not always been or is sometimes unwilling to be. Being innovative is transformative. What makes Hansen’s ministry innovative is her willingness to listen to the hopes, dreams and aspirations of the community. Then she finds the assets within the community itself to help it transform.

The All People’s Fresh Market does just that, and Hansen describes it as the “hallmark of the Healthy Eating and Living program,” which gives away about 2 million pounds of fresh produce each year. It is the largest distributor of free food in the state of Ohio, which is all healthy food.

“People want to eat healthy,” Hansen said. “They come to us when they could go to a more traditional pantry that’s giving out canned goods and nonperishables, and that’s all fine, but we find that people choose to come to our fresh market.”

Initially, Community Development for All People operated All People’s Fresh Market out of the back of the church, but it was not operating effectively. The decision was made to shut it down and rethink the operation. Hansen shares that she always says to churches, “Do not be afraid to just shut stuff down if it’s not working.” They reopened with a small storefront, giving out fresh produce a few times a week, but they were unable to truly serve the full community, and the space they were using was a challenge.

When the drive-through liquor store across the street closed, Hansen saw an opportunity in the empty building.

“In the mindset of asset-based community development,” said Hansen, “every problem is an asset. The bigger the problem, the bigger the asset.” And it was in this mindset that Community Development for All People purchased the space.

“It turns out drive-through beer stores are perfect for giving away fresh produce,” she said. The wall of refrigerators that once held beer now hold gallons of milk, fresh eggs and fresh produce. Aisles that were once full of wine and liquor have been replaced with cartons of apples, potatoes, onions and more. It has become a pathway to transformation.

Following God’s call

Through creativity, Hansen and the team of Community Development for All People helped to make the All People’s Fresh Market a thriving ministry of the church in the heart of her community. And it is her community—she lives only about a half mile from the church. She walks to work daily and engages with neighbors along the way. A walk that should take about 10 minutes sometimes takes 40.

“The friendship is beautiful,” she said. “If you’re right by the people, then hopefully that’s some notion that you’re right by God.”

Hansen knows it is not her role to try to “fix” or change anyone. “Jesus is the savior, not us,” she said, and while the work can sometimes be challenging and heart-wrenching, she continues to follow her call to walk and serve alongside her community.

Building authentic relationships with her neighbors and listening to their hopes, dreams and aspirations helps Hansen hope and dream as well. Those hopes and dreams become ideas, and the ideas turn into action that transforms the community. Little did she know that 10 years after discovering the Church for All People she would be the director of operations for Community Development for All People, practicing and teaching others about asset-based community development and building relationships across race and class as a United Methodist deaconess. As a deaconess she follows four mandates: to “alleviate suffering; eradicate causes of injustice and all that robs life of dignity and worth; facilitate the development of full human potential; and share in building global community through the church universal” (The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church, ¶1913.1).

Discerning that God was steering her away from neuroscience and academia to live and work among the poor and those on the margins took courage for Hansen. She uses her ability to think strategically and creatively when it comes to turning problems into assets, a skill she uses to continue to follow God’s call.

Hansen’s story challenges us to listen and discern God’s call for our lives and to not be afraid to boldly follow God’s call where it leads. Her experience challenges us to trust God’s dreams and invites us to hold a mirror up to our own faces and ask, where am I called to be?

Megan Hale is a deaconess and an executive for the Office of Deaconess and Home Missioner of United Methodist Women.

Posted or updated: 5/3/2021 12:00:00 AM

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