Reflections on “Catching the Spirit: Reclaiming Methodism as a Movement with and of the poor”

Editor's Note: The following is a reflection by Elizabeth Tapia the January 28, 2014 Tea and Theology, a monthly staff gathering for theological reflection at the General Board of Global Ministries. The topic on January 28, 2014 was “Catching the Spirit: Reclaiming Methodism as a Movement with and of the poor” and was led by Mary Ellen Kris.

She is trained as a lawyer and a theologian.  She is Mary Ellen Kris, a passionate advocate for the UMC’s priority focus on Ministry with the Poor.  I invited Mary Ellen to speak at our once-a month staff study-gathering we call Tea and Theology.  Mary Ellen, who provides leadership, direction and coordination of the Church’s Ministry with the Poor, spoke about “Catching the Spirit: Reclaiming Methodism as a movement with and of the poor.”  Kara Crawford, a Young Adult Mission Intern who serves half time at Global Ministries in Ministry with the Poor and half time at New Day UMC, a justice-driven church plant in the Bronx,  read the following scripture passage:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because God has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. The Spirit has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners, and recovery of sight to the blind, to release the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19).

“I believe the Spirit is calling all of us to be part of a 21st century Jesus Movement that reclaims and re-calls the Wesleyan Jesus Movement, which took the form of a Movement WITH and OF the Poor”, Mary Ellen declared.  She challenged the twenty-three staff present to think about the difference between movement-building and institution-building, between building God’s kingdom on earth as opposed to “empire- building”.

Of course, she reminded me that at the core of John Wesley’s theology and social movement was the principle that personal holiness cannot be separated from social holiness:  we cannot grow toward personal holiness without practicing social holiness. I said Amen!  Mary Ellen gave a thumb nail sketch of the amazing movement that Wesley catalyzed and led: a faith-based social justice, anti-poverty movement with and of the poor in 18th century England.

What now?  I listened to her critique the present state of UMC in the USA:

  • The United Methodist Church in the United States is predominantly white, middle class or upper class.  “The Poor” very often are the people we let in the side door for the food pantry or soup kitchen. 
  • In the United Methodist Church in America,   genuinely multi-class local churches-- where people who are living very comfortably rub elbows with, develop relationships with, and become friends with people who are living on the margins—are relatively uncommon.
  • Churches OF the Poor, in the tradition of early Methodism in 18th Century England, also are not common in the US.

I thought this is quite the opposite of many UMC churches in the Philippines, where the majority of churches are predominantly poor, economically poor. The barrio Methodist church that nurtured my faith in the Philippines was a Church of the Poor who wanted not to remain poor, but to live abundantly as Christ promised.

Before we broke into small discussion groups, Mary Ellen spoke briefly about recent Ministry with the Poor Roundtables held in Dallas in November and Chicago  December. Among the handouts distributed was a list, developed by participants at the Chicago Roundtable, of key characteristics, attitudes and behaviors that distinguish Ministry with the Poor from ministry to or for “the poor,” including the following:

  • Seeing the image of God in all persons; celebrating and valuing all peoples; unconditional acceptance.
  • Recognizing that people in economic need  have their own gifts or talents to offer;
  • Willingness to share power; allowing those “served” to be servant leaders themselves
  • Being open to learning from each other and  to challenge our assumptions
  • Being present with people, not so focused on programming; building community not accumulating assets.
  • Building authentic relationships, accompaniment,  maintaining close proximity
  • Being with the poor in their place and on their terms
  • Relationship-driven rather than resource-driven
  • Relationships that are transformative (reciprocal, mutual, mutually transformative), not transactional

These, for me, are related to theology of mission. We need to critically reflect on our attitudes and behaviors as we respond to the call to join in God’s mission today. The what, how and why of our mission engagement might mean life or death to those we work with.  How often, when we are trying to follow Wesley’s rule to “Do all the good we can,” do we actually run afoul of Wesley’s related rule to “Do no harm?”

Nowadays, in ecumenical circles, there’s talk about mission from the margins. How do we as church welcome ministry with/of the poor that recognizes the ministries and mission from the poor?  For example, might we consider migrant workers as the new missionaries in the USA? 

 Finally, the Tea and Theology participants were asked to consider and answer one of the following questions:

  • How is the Spirit calling each one of us to be part of sweeping the church into a new mission age?
  • What are the implications of that calling for our everyday work at Global Ministries, our personal lives, our spiritual lives, and our connection with our local churches and communities?
  • How is each one of us anointed, and how is our denomination anointed, to follow the Spirit and be in ministry with the poor?

I was delighted to hear the insights and practical applications of theology that came out of these small  discussion groups. For example:

  • “Ministry with the poor” is two-pronged: not just caring for and being “with,” but also the church’s job is to call out unjust structures that keep people poor and marginalized
  • As followers of Christ, we are called/anointed—individually and as a collective--to make a difference in people’s lives and in communities; God calls AND empowers us to respond; we must constantly examine our call
  • Engaging in ministry with the poor in global settings opens our eyes to engaging in ministry with the poor in our home settings
  • It must be ministry OF the poor, not just WITH
  • “Charity is good, justice is better.”

Catching the Spirit? Yes. But wait, I believe it is rather the Holy Spirit that catches us, for the “Spirit is always moving to sweep the Church into a new mission age.” (Global Ministries’ Theology of Mission Statement).


  1. bob jones says:
    a great blog! i love what you are doing and wish we had some projects like this going on at our church and in our community. BTW appreciate that your project is a movement "with and for" the poor which is empowering and cooperative.
    Feb 3rd, 2014

Elizabeth S. Tapia

Rev. Elizabeth S. Tapia, Ph.D. is the director of Mission Theology (Mission Theology and Evaluation unit) for Global Ministries, The United Methodist Church in New York City. She is an Elder in the Bulacan Philippines Annual Conference.

About This Blog

Read and comment on a range of personal reflections and perspectives about poverty and Ministry with the Poor. Our goal is to attract diverse voices and points of view from United Methodists and friends, including people and communities living in conditions of poverty, other experts, religious leaders, community organizers, advocates, policy makers, volunteers, and all engaged in Ministry with the Poor.