Several years ago I was blessed with the opportunity to meet Pastor Tomas Ruiz who has faithfully lived and served in Los Braziles—a neighborhood in Managua, Nicaragua—for more than 20 years. He planted his church with twenty-five members and the church stayed roughly that same size for the first seven years.
Tired from many years of hard work with little tangible fruit, Pastor Tomas began to listen to neighborhood residents. It soon became clear that on many occasions he and his church had offended the community by wrongly judging and condemning them while engrossed in the activity of their self-absorbed programming. One morning he stumbled upon the story of Jesus and Bartimeaus in Luke 18:35-43 and was deeply convicted for the paternalistic manner in which he had looked down upon his neighborhood.
I had the opportunity to listen to Pastor Tomas explain to me how for many years he and his twenty-five member church tried to figure out what they should be doing to “bless” and “reach” those living in the proximity of their building. For years they had tried unsuccessfully to reach their neighbors by imposing on them the ideas they had conjured up in their sequestered conversations.
When reading the story about Jesus and Bartimaeus, Pastor Tomas recounted how he came to realize that he and his congregation had been “doing” a ministry that was dis-incarnated from the real needs and dreams of their own neighborhood. In Jesus’ question to Bartimeaus—"What do you want me to do for you?"—Pastor Tomas found a life-giving, power-swapping question that set him up for a missional pivot. He called the entire community to a meeting over dinner.
After the food was served, he stood up and passionately begged his neighbors for forgiveness on behalf of the church. This paved the way to ask them the same beautiful question Jesus had asked of Bartimeaus.
Shortly after the dinner, the church members circulated through the community to ask their neighbors, “What can we do as a church to serve and bless you?” Amid the many ideas was a plea to help clean up the streets from the garbage and mud holes that were causing so many problems for the neighborhood, including severe illnesses among children from mosquitos breeding in the many potholes. The church members reconvened to compare notes from what they’d learned and collectively committed to begin their response by engaging the situation of the mosquito-infested potholes.
The three-week cleanup was carried out with an amazingly important twist: They chose to work on the streets during their regular Sunday morning worship time. They used the act of picking up garbage and filling up holes as a genuine act of worship before God, a form of worship that was visible and in solidarity with the lived experience of their neighbors. The church’s ministry was rejuvenated by asking the community what they could do to be a blessing instead of deciding for themselves under the guise of prayer meetings or strategic planning sessions.
As the result of a beautiful question, Pastor Tomás’s church, Faro de Luz (Lighthouse), began serving the community with renewed fervor and vision. Several years later, Pastor Tomás identified 250 “disciples” in the old, but now reinvigorated sense of a parish (Pastor Tomás used the term disciples instead of “members” because for him every resident of the community is a “member”).
They were able to construct a multi-use church building, a neighborhood school of some 300 students, a neighborhood computer center, a gymnasium, and a micro-enterprise project making iron products. In addition, they were able to purchase land for a baseball diamond and soccer field for the community and worked with the neighbors to build secure homes for neighborhood families.
The act of living into integral mission for Pastor Tomás and his congregation was born out of asking their neighbors the same beautiful question that Jesus had asked one of his neighbors 2,000 years ago. As a result, the wall separating congregation from neighborhood was deconstructed and the building materials re-purposed into holistic bridge-building into integrated missional community.
Eventually, Pastor Tomás was voted in as the legal representative of the barrio Los Braziles before the city government of Managua because of the trust and respect that had been built. His church in Los Baziles went on to successfully plant several other congregations in neighboring communities via the asking of beautiful questions and responding with their lives.
"Always the beautiful answer who asks a more beautiful question" —ee cummings