Who is my neighbor?

This is one story in a collection of materials courtesy Faith & Leadership www.faithandleadership.com. Resources include worship materials, tips to support innovators and how to use the story collection in your ministry context. Click here for the collection. Photos by Mark Mulligan.

Westbury UMC's apartment ministry has helped resettled refugees – and the congregation – find new life in Houston

On Easter Sunday 2015, 10 middle schoolers stepped forward with their sponsors, some to be baptized, and all to profess their faith and join Westbury United Methodist Church in Houston. It was one of the largest confirmation classes the church had seen in years.

For four of the class members – and for Westbury – the journey of transformation to that Easter morning had begun years earlier and halfway around the world.

You could see it in the brightly colored African-print clothing the boys’ family members wore as they stood with them before the altar. You could hear it in the boys’ names as they rang out in the packed sanctuary when the candidates were presented for confirmation.

The boys and their families are refugees who had resettled in Houston just two years earlier. They are some of the 40 to 50 African refugees who now worship at Westbury, a church that was planted in 1955 amid new suburbs sprouting up in southwest Houston.

For Westbury, the boys and the other African refugees are signs of new life after years of decline, the literal confirmation of a long process of self-examination and change.

Under the leadership of two successive pastors, a fiercely protective bishop and a risk-taking associate pastor fresh out of divinity school, Westbury has worked to shift its focus over the past five years.

Reclaiming and building upon its long history as a diverse congregation, Westbury leaders have been asking, “Who is my neighbor?” and, “Where is God already at work?” in a Houston vastly changed by immigration, a city that is now the most diverse metropolitan area in America.

Clergy and lay leaders have been finding answers just three miles away in a place they had long overlooked: a neighborhood called Fondren Southwest, along Fondren Road, a busy four-lane thoroughfare that spans southwest Houston.

There, they have discovered, God is at work in several 1970s-era apartment complexes that now house low-income residents, mostly immigrants, including refugees fleeing war and violence around the globe.

Hannah Terry sits at the wheel of her car, Pearl. The two became a familiar sight in the Fondren area of Houston, especially during Terry's first year, when they logged thousands of miles exploring the neighborhood. 

In particular, they have been finding answers in relationship -- friendship -- with refugees from Burundi, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo who live in Los Arcos, a 516-unit complex on Fondren.

Westbury hired a new associate pastor, the Rev. Hannah Terry, who, with a young couple from the church, moved into the Fondren Southwest neighborhood to live in intentional community and get to know the people living nearby. They call their work the Fondren Apartment Ministry, or FAM.

For those looking to learn from Westbury, the congregation’s story is not so much about being in ministry with refugees as it is about embracing a process of change. At a deeper level, Terry said, it is about being present, listening and discerning where God is already at work in the world, in a particular place and context, and then joining in.

“All churches may not be able to be in ministry with refugees, but all churches can do that,” Terry said, referring to the process of change.

This new ministry provided an avenue for movement in both directions -- for Westbury to go into the community, and for the community to come into the church.

“They [the refugees] don’t relate any differently to the church than any other member does,” said the Rev. Taylor Fuerst, Westbury’s senior pastor. “This is their church. They have things to offer here, and they participate in ministries here, and they serve here. They are a part of the church.”

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