The Common Good
June 2011

The Church of No Lost Causes

by Ed Spivey Jr. | June 2011

A little Methodist church has a big heart for the left out and the lonley in the shadow of the nation's capital.

A few years ago a woman was getting off the bus on Route 1 in northern Virginia, just across the river from Washington, D.C. She remembers feeling a little lost. The bus driver noticed and asked what she was looking for. She thought for a moment, then answered, "God." The driver pointed across a parking lot and said, "God's right over there." She looked at the nearly empty office park and saw a large sign: "Rising Hope United Methodist Mission Church."

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Methodist it was, but it wasn't much of a church by traditional standards. It was a former insurance office, and despite a few dozen folding chairs and a piano, it still looked like a place you'd go sheepishly to explain a car accident you hoped was covered. But this was a marked improvement over the station wagon that pastor and founder Rev. Keary Kincannon had used only a few years previously to reach out to the poor and suffering in the unlikeliest of places: Fairfax County, one of the wealthiest areas in the United States.

With a median household income of $106,000, Fairfax County in northern Virginia might not be the first choice for an idealistic Methodist seminarian who wanted to serve the poor. But having grown up in the region, Kincannon knew there was an invisible underside to the prosperity. He had long felt a calling to what he describes as transformational ministry, in a church for the lost, the lonely, and the least of these.

That storefront church was part of a journey that has culminated in an established and well-recognized ministry. After years of organizing and fund raising, Rising Hope Mission Church is a state-of-the-art church for and of the poor.

Route 1 in northern Virginia is a 17-mile stretch of strip malls, gas stations, and fast food restaurants. On weekdays it's crowded with commuters going somewhere else. Few people notice, much less stop at, the nondescript building set back from the road that is Rising Hope's current home, and those who do probably don’t drive a car. They walk or they take the bus, Fairfax County's notoriously slow and inconvenient public transportation. Or they get picked up by other church members.

Rising Hope is in a former office building that has been refurbished and modernized to accommodate the dynamic needs of its members, nearly two-thirds of whom are -- or have been -- homeless. "We're a small church with a big mission," Kincannon tells Sojourners.

In an average year, Rising Hope reaches out to nearly 8,000 individuals. Its food pantry serves more than 2,000 families annually. And, after seven years in its present location, the kitchen serves 18,000 hot meals a year to the hungry.

Rising Hope's ministries also include a 25-bed hypothermia shelter serving 125 people each winter. The church’s weekly gatherings include worship, Bible study, mentoring, and substance abuse counseling. The spiritual and the practical are always connected. "In this community, you really can't have one without the other," Kincannon says. There are job fairs and job interview preparation, budgeting and financial classes, HIV testing, jail visitation, empowerment classes, emergency housing referrals, and more.

In the summers, Rising Hope offers vacation Bible school (Camp Rising Hope) and scholarships to a rural Methodist camp for children and youth. Each program comes with the material support needed for disadvantaged children, including meals, school supplies, and Samaritan's Feet, which provides sneakers for hundreds of neighborhood children.

Kincannon is used to sounding the drumbeat on behalf of the poor. Before founding Rising Hope, he worked for 11 years as a housing advocate. As director of the D.C. Coalition for the Homeless and founder of the Churches Conference on Shelter and Housing, he helped write and publish ministry manuals for local churches interested in reaching out to the homeless. With coalition partners, he organized churches and neighborhoods to secure D.C.'s tenant-friendly rent control and "repair and deduct" laws.

Ultimately, Kincannon returned to his native northern Virginia to put his old station wagon to better use than driving between meetings in the nation's capital. Instead, he drove to homeless shelters, McDonald's, and other places where the homeless gather. He hiked into an illegal homeless campground to interview people about their needs, listened to stories, and eventually drew them to worship. The Rising Hope worship community was as homeless as its members, traveling from a donated room in a low-income apartment complex to a series of street-front locations and rented offices. To the United Methodist Church’s Virginia Conference, Kincannon is an innovative leader who inspires its financial and organizational support. To his congregants, he was simply "Pastor Dude."

Beyond the outreach to area churches, Kincannon meets regularly with local business and government leaders hoping to help reshape the region into a more compassionate place for the needy. Through Rising Hope's Ministries of Justice, the church was a founding congregation of Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement, a faith-based community organization that advocates for affordable housing, health care, and immigration reforms. "This is just one of the ways Rising Hope is seeking to give voice to the disenfranchised members of our community," Kincannon says.

Sunday worship at Rising Hope always begins with the singing of the old Christian rock song "Jesus Is the Rock, and He Rolls My Blues Away." From the feel of the worship, it's clear that Jesus has found a home there. The people who come on Sundays willingly admit to having found a lifeline in Rising Hope. The "Recovery Circles," 12-step-like Sunday school sessions, are designed for people looking for a second chance. Or a third.

Sundays start with "Breakfast and Beatitudes," a fitting beginning for people who wake up knowing their need for God, and pancakes. "We're very clear on the path of our ministry to people. They come here hungry, poorly clothed, and often homeless. They come with immediate needs and we try to meet them," Kincannon says. "In the midst of meeting those needs, however, we also point them in directions far outside themselves. Members of our congregation -- many of whom are poor -- actively reach out to other poor and homeless people, inviting them to be a part of our work and our lives, sharing in the empowerment that God has blessed us with."

Rising Hope has had a unique impact on the D.C. metro area, according to Vance Ross, deputy general secretary of the General Board of Discipleship of the United Methodist Church and a former pastor in the region. "Rising Hope exemplifies both the origins of the church and where the church ought to be now. In an area where poverty exists in the midst of enormous wealth and power, Rising Hope is truly following the inspiration of the Christ who came to an occupied people." Ross adds that Rising Hope's mission to the poor is a model for his entire denomination. Its congregants span the ethnic and racial gamut -- a reminder that poverty and hard times are not confined to one segment of the community.

Charlene Kammerer, United Methodist bishop of Virginia and longtime supporter of Rising Hope, praises the church as a place of sanctuary, welcoming people regardless of background, economic status, or sexual orientation. "Rising Hope is a living witness in the saving grace of Jesus Christ. It gives people a hope for a future far different from their past. Whenever I visit I am just filled with joy."

Serving the poor is not just an outreach mission for the little Methodist church on Route 1; rather, it's the passion that drives the whole church. To "Pastor Dude" Kincannon and the church's congregation, the New Testament call clearly is to reach out to the least, the lost, the lonely, and the left out. But when they arrive at Rising Hope, they become none of the above.

Ed Spivey Jr., art director of Sojourners, formerly played guitar for the Sunday worship services of Rising Hope Mission Church, www.risinghopeumc.org.

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