Church plant growing spiritual fruit in a food desert
Pastor & writer
Church planting & multiplication
After his roommate locked his keys in his car, John Kricorian glimpsed God at work in Southside Richmond, Virginia.
It only took an hour of struggling and frustration.
Before the divine moment, he and his roommate persevered. They changed angles, tried different wires and methods and car doors, all without success.
There was no way they could get into the car. But then, a neighbor walked out his front door.
“One of our neighbors who has a job in roadside assistance got us in the car within a minute,” said Kricorian. “That’s how I learned his name. Something redemptive is happening in that connection, and I believe it’s happening to both of us as neighbors.”
For Kricorian, who is on the church planting core team of Garden City Church, Christ’s days among people is an example for living. Christ was no visitor, Kricorian said, no man just passing through. Instead, Christ’s life and ministry, his service and friendships among people, made a difference.
“That’s the kind of connection we’re looking for,” he said of the new Converge church. “We’re looking to connect as neighbors.”
One part of Converge’s mission is opening the front door. Converge churches are finding ways to welcome people into the family of God.
What links cyclocross, Afro-Cuban dance and church?
Several strong, athletic men surround Tyler Yoder in Richmond, Virginia. Every man is tense in body and spirit.
With one foot on the ground and another resting on a pedal, their ears await the starter’s whistle. Finally, the shrill blare comes, and pedals mobilize the tension to turn the gears. Yoder’s mind and muscles engage, forcing the tires forward. Handlebars clang in the crowded press of cyclocross racers.
Cyclocross blends road cycling, mountain biking and steeplechase. Racers add knobby tires to their road bikes. Then, competitors pedal multiple laps across asphalt, mud, leaves, grass and gravel. Every so often, racers dismount to carry their bike over high wooden barriers, up flights of stairs or very rugged hills.
For Yoder, who co-pastors Garden City Church with his wife Kendra, cyclocross is what he’s really into. It’s his hobby but also a path into the community in Richmond.
Nobody’s sure when or how the blend of different bicycles and running, climbing and biking started. But, in cyclocross and Richmond, something now exists because someone saw an innovative way to create a new sport and a community.
Meanwhile, across town, Kendra found community at an Afro-Cuban dance studio near their home in Southside. There, a blend of music and movement merges cultures and histories. Again, people are forming a new experience out of distinct and separate realities. Something new ― something not quite yet ― comes from something that already is.
The Yoders are hoping their newly planted church, Garden City Church, will be similar to cyclocross and Afro-Cuban dance in that the residents of the community will be drawn to something new, based on something that is already true ― the gospel. In a section of Richmond hoping for a new identity, this couple is weaving their hearts and hopes into the city's woes and wonders.
Richmond is a cigarette town
There's been a lot of talk about revitalizing Southside Richmond since the 1980s, Yoder said.
“Not a lot changed until the last five years,” he said.
The FBI's recent arrest of a couple developing 25 properties south of the James River leaves neighborhood residents unsure what to expect.
The Yoders have learned a lot from neighbors and African American pastors in Southside since moving there in 2018. Tyler said his neighborhood is about 90 percent African American, but the Anglo couple has taken jobs in the neighborhood and put down roots.
The Yoders see how Converge emphasizes Biblical diversity and tearing down the walls of division in Converge’s Mid-Atlantic district. They are on a team of pastors who pray monthly and encourage one another. Yoder said most of those pastors are black, which helps him view the Bible from different perspectives.
In Southside Richmond, there are many black-owned businesses and two neighborhood associations. One association is not very progressive, Yoder said. The other is more likely to support all development.
“People are stuck in a holding pattern, [they're] just not sure what's next,” he said. “There's not a ton of cohesiveness in the community.”
Many Richmond residents remember the past, which isn't hard to do. Phillip Morris still owns massive tobacco drying warehouses that sit empty in Southside.
Thousands used to work for the cigarette manufacturer, and thousands more wanted a job with the company. Southside warehouses have sat empty for years, although one building has been renovated and reconfigured into affordable housing.
“Richmond is a cigarette town,” Yoder said. “The Phillip Morris of today is a far cry from the Phillip Morris of yesterday.”
There’s still some cigarette making, Yoder said, but it’s hard to get a job at Phillip Morris. Nowadays, you have to know someone to get a job there.
From Midwest farms to a Mid-Atlantic ministry
Yoder grew up in Bayport, Michigan, in the 1990s, when the population was about 500. His family raised beef cattle, black beans and sugar beets.
Growing up in church, Tyler and Kendra learned to follow Christ and discovered a desire to do ministry together. She grew up in Hopedale, Illinois, and met Tyler at a Christian college in Kansas. He studied youth ministry and business while she majored in English and completed a teaching certification in art.
Eight years ago, Yoder interned at a church after finishing his youth ministry degree. He did a lot of reflecting after observing how that church and pastor tried to accomplish the church’s mission. What he sees in Acts motivated him to be open to other shapes of pastoral ministry.
“It felt like the role of the pastor was something that could be done by the rest of the church,” he said. “I don’t necessarily feel called to full-time ministry in that capacity.”
What would church look like if Acts were now?
Kricorian, who joined the core team after meeting the Yoders through mutual friends, is confident Christ is building his church through a new method.
Garden City Church will be a movement of house churches. The first group began to meet during the pandemic. As the house churches multiply, they all will gather for corporate worship one Sunday a month.
“House church is particularly good at engaging with the community in a very personal way,” Kricorian said. “It’s very good at being incarnational of Christ in the neighborhood.”
He sees small groups in conventional churches as different because they visit a community like Southside, whereas house churches live in a community.
Yoder is thankful as he recognizes what God has done to stabilize him and his wife in Southside.
“God has made this place as close to our hearts as can be. He’s given us community here,” Yoder said. “God has done so much helping us make Richmond home so that we can be here for the long term to follow his call in our lives.”
For Yoder, that call among house church leaders is to serve them for their needs. He’s not pursuing activities that occur in a building or in such a way that the pastor does all the ministering.
“With the house churches, I want to be able to equip other people to lead house churches well,” he said. “In Acts, it was everybody in the church having all things in common, not just the pastor going around and going to everybody.”
Since both Yoders grew up in churches with a building-based format, they've sought training about a more decentralized church. Converge Mid-Atlantic staff helps the Yoders with coaching and resources.
Through Converge, the Yoders heard of the V3 Network of missional house churches. Dan White formed the V3 Network to train others to start missional house churches. Before V3, White planted a church with Converge Mid-Atlantic and pastored churches.
“Getting us connected with V3 was huge for us so we could feel equipped to do missional church planting,” Yoder said.
Another choice this church-planting couple made is to be bi-vocational, meaning neither of the Yoders plan to be a full-time pastor of Garden City Church.
Tyler installs tile in kitchens and bathrooms, and he drove school buses until the pandemic closed schools.
Kendra works at Brewer's Cafe, a coffee shop that hints at change among the strengths and stumbles in Richmond. Brewer's Cafe is owned by a Richmond native who moved back to contribute to Southside’s future through the coffee shop.
Based on a book the Yoders saw, the idea of a garden city inspired the church's name. They trust God can stimulate fruitfulness and growth of Christ-followers in Southside.
Eight blocks north of the Yoders’ home sits the main street shopping district that was vital for the African American community in the 1960s and 70s.
That same community is now a food desert, meaning residents can’t buy fresh food or vegetables in the neighborhood. Many of the stores are boarded up. Lots of homes and businesses are empty parcels. Yoder said the city owns 96 vacant plots around the neighborhood.
“People are struggling a lot with decades of waiting for change,” Yoder said. “It’s just been slow. Really slow.”
Garden City Church leaders believe God will keep connecting neighbors through locked car doors, dance and cyclocross. They trust Christ that they aren't just passing through but rather putting down roots in the community where their church will serve.
Yoder has hope that house churches will contribute to what many are doing to reshape Richmond's “now” and Richmond's “not yet.” Like cyclocross and Afro-Cuban dance, a new combination of historical practices in the church offers vitality and community in Richmond.
He said Richmonds’s metro area is among the most unchurched cities in America. It is rich soil for planting seeds of the gospel and harvesting disciples of Jesus, to grow a garden of Christ-followers that will work to spread the hope of Jesus throughout Richmond and beyond.
“Most of the people here have great memories of the church, and their associations with the church would be positive,” he said. “But they've not experienced new life in Christ, and they're not following Christ.”
Ben Greene is a freelance writer and pastor currently living in Massachusetts. Along with his ministry experience, he has served as a full-time writer for the Associated Press and in the newspaper industry.