Training and coaching organizations and congregations on how to shift from relief to Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) brings us joy.  We get to partner with organizations who share our passion for empowering residents to achieve their dreams in the place(s) and space(s) they call home. The Reverend John Maher is a friend and active Embrace Richmond Board Member who has participated in several of the ABCD “Mission Shift” workshops led by our Executive Director, Wendy McCaig. John is the Vicar of St. Francis, Manakin Sabot, and he recently directed a Listening Project in Hickory Haven with help from members of his congregation. Listening is a crucial step in any ABCD process and we think that St. Francis’ journey with Hickory Haven is worth celebrating!

In the latter half of 2017, St. Francis Episcopal Church received a grant from The Roanridge Trust which awards funds to Episcopal Churches conducting projects in rural areas. With this grant, John decided to undertake a listening project in HIckory Haven, a small housing development in Goochland County, Virginia. This neighborhood is located in the eastern part of Goochland County, about a mile from St. Francis Episcopal Church and twenty miles northwest of Richmond. John and several members of his congregation wanted to get to know their Hickory Haven neighbors and learn about their hopes and dreams.

The St. Francis team set out optimistically in July of 2017 to identify young people from Hickory Haven who would be willing to interview their neighbors. The goal was to recruit five youth. However, the beauty of doing community work is that it tends to disregard even the best laid plans. Only one high school student was currently living in Hickory Haven and that individual had already accepted a summer internship. Fortunately, the rector of a neighboring parish suggested that they reach out to his son, Hollis Cobb. Hollis was able to start immediately and turned out to be an exceptional interviewer. He established rapport easily in Hickory Haven with residents of all ages and backgrounds.

Soon after, John and the St. Francis team met Pete and Joyce Gregory, who were pivotal “ministers of introduction” during the Listening Project. Pete, who refers to himself as the “Mayor of Hickory Haven”, and his wife welcomed John into their home for many visits and the three bonded easily over conversations about the meaning of “community”. The couple shared the names of a few neighbors they felt would enjoy being interviewed and hoped that they would introduce the St. Francis team to even more residents. One of these neighbors was Betty Hodges.

Betty took Hollis under her wing in September and introduced him around the neighborhood. She even accompanied him to knock on the doors of neighbors that she did not know personally. Thanks to Betty and her relationships, Hollis was able to interview nearly half of the forty Hickory Haven households using the Neighborhood Strengths Survey. After each interview, Hollis and John tried to decipher that neighbor’s dream for their neighborhood. This debriefing process inspired the St. Francis team to create a Hickory Haven Dream Board. As the interviews continued, the St. Francis team observed how the dreams clustered into common categories on the Dream Board

At the end of November, the St. Francis team threw a neighborhood celebration in Hickory Haven to reveal the Dream Board and invited every resident interviewed by Hollis. At the party, they involved their new friends in an asset-mapping activity to identify their skills and talents and explore whether action teams could form around the shared dreams on the Dream Board. Although fewer residents attended than anticipated, they were an enthusiastic bunch. Those in attendance decided to plan regular Hickory Haven “get-togethers” to establish a common, shared space with their neighbors. They formed an organizing team and set the intention of inviting other neighbors to join in the effort. For now, these gatherings are being held at St. Francis.

We are so pleased about the resident-led outcomes of the Hickory Haven Listening Project and this new collaboration between congregation and community. Nice work Rev. John Maher, the entire St. Francis Team and the invaluable neighbors of Hickory Haven: Hollis, Pete, Joyce and Betty!

What the St. Francis Team Learned About Listening Projects:

  1. People want to be encouraged and empowered for the good of their neighbors.
  2. A “person of peace” and a “minister of introduction” are essential members of the team. They cannot really be members of the church. Rather they must be solid neighbors in the neighborhood.
  3. The quality of the interviewer is of the greatest importance- without Hollis’s relational skill and desire to hear people’s stories this would have not got well at all.
  4. The focus of the celebration on getting an action team going is essential to the further development of the neighborhood.

What the St. Francis Team Learned About Hickory Haven:

  1. Most of the residents love living there
  2. Many of them have skills that would be of help to others in the neighborhood and they are willing to use them
  3. The residents are ready for the changes that are coming to their community. This 40 house development that is almost sixty years old is about to be overshadowed by a 350 house development right next to it. They are ready to welcome the changes and remain a welcoming neighborhood.

What the St. Francis Team Thinks Churches Can Learn:

  1. The lead person, especially if a pastor, must successfully communicate that the project goal is for the church to become a better neighbor and friend to those who live nearby. The goal is not to increase the membership of the church.
  2. Listening to the stories and dreams of the people will show church members where God is already at work in the neighborhoods nearby their church facility.
  3. There are members who may not be in any church programs but are ready to listen carefully to the neighbors and lead the way in the church being able to be a friend and good neighbor to those who live nearby.