Finding Ways To Say Yes To “Withness”

FUMC Paris montage

Pictures from CitySquare Paris' Facebook page

Rev. Rob Spencer shares the importance of walking alongside students in the Paris community

Six years ago at Annual Conference, we were challenged to be a church that provided mentors for elementary kids in our community. The One + One initiative was rolled out and our Lay Member to Annual Conference, LeAnn Barbee, said that she would take the lead once we returned home. It didn’t take us long to have more than 50 mentors lined up to spend one hour a week, every week, with an at-risk child in Paris.

One of our first mentors, Merilyn Sutton, who has been mentoring every year since 2015 said, “Mentoring has really opened our eyes and hearts to wonderful people we wouldn’t know otherwise.” 

These types of relationships have helped so many of us to fall in love with children who have lived in poverty all of their lives. Poverty is very real in Paris. The national rate of children who qualify for free or reduced meals is 44 percent. In Paris, it is almost double at 78 percent!

Spending time with these children helped us to begin to see so many of the challenges associated with living in poverty.

I think a new word we need to begin using as we are in ministry with others is, “withness.” Withness helps us learn what it’s like to walk alongside them and transforms not only their lives but also ours, as well. Withness brings us alongside these children as we participate in the journey toward a more hope-filled future. These relationships have helped create a desire in First UMC Paris to take our poverty-alleviation efforts to a new level. 

In attempting to do this, we immediately found ourselves overwhelmed by the task before us and recognized we needed experienced help and guidance. This gave birth to the beginning of our relationship with CitySquare in Dallas, as its CEO, Larry James, began to coach us. Two years later, in 2017, CitySquare Paris came into existence.

Oak Park UMC was a key partner along the way as it allowed CitySquare Paris to open an Opportunity Center and use about 75 percent of its facilities on the underserved west side of Paris. CitySquare Paris now provides many services to its neighbors. Case management, walking alongside our neighbors, is one of our primary services. We have great partnerships with Paris ISD, the City of Paris and Paris Junior College.

During 2020, despite the pandemic, more than 2,300 community members used our Opportunity Center attending various programs and activities. Already this year, more than 350 neighbors have used our free shower and laundry services, 59 neighbors sought shelter in our facility’s Warming Station during the extended cold spell and more than 150 teenagers have participated in our Teen Center.

CitySquare Paris also is building a WiFi-prototype Internet Service Provider, entering affordable housing construction and bringing Graves Farm under its nonprofit status to help us provide meaningful experiences in nature with at-risk kids.

To date, we have received well over $800,000 in funding. Two of our key partners, beyond many in Paris, have been the Texas Methodist Foundation and the General Board of Global Ministries. We are so thankful for their support as they have provided close to 40 percent of our ministry dollars! 

This all started by saying yes to withness!

Rev. Rob Spencer is the Senior Pastor at First UMC Paris.

Published: Tuesday, August 17, 2021