Turn 180 Is A Way of Life at The Woods UMC

Church builds connection with unsheltered people who then help church put together Christmas stockings for kids in foster care 

When Pastor Lesta Anderson arrived at The Woods UMC in 2022, he saw untapped potential both within and beyond the walls of the church. It took time and intentionality to understand the context of Grand Prairie, to meet the community and to pair seasoned leaders with new ones who bring fresh perspective and energy. 

“In revitalizing a church, I start with building teams,” Anderson said. “As a new pastor coming in, you have to be very conscientious and compassionate about how to introduce meaningful change into a system that by attrition will naturally die, and that can be a challenge. We have to find a way to include other people, we have to be willing to do some new things in order to attract new people with the energy we need.”

That revitalization is apparent as The Woods UMC added 13 new members and baptized four new Christians in 2023. 

Rev. Danielle Kim, associate director for research and development for the North Texas Conference, visited The Woods late last summer as the church's  cooling station for their unsheltered neighbors was coming to an end. She asked Anderson if he had other ministry ideas that would be a good fit for a New Faces New Spaces grant.

“It was a leap of faith,” Anderson recalled. “I told her I have this idea about ways that the church can give back to this marginalized population but they can also give back.”

Lesta Anderson and some homelessModeled on Jesus’ healing of 10 lepers in Luke 17, when one who was healed turns back to give thanks, Turn 180 emerged as a ministry rooted in gratitude and mutuality. 

“What do we do as a faith-based organization to say thank you? We turn back to Jesus to give thanks. We turn back by giving. This comes from Matthew’s Gospel, ‘Whenever you did it for the least of my brethren you did it for me,’ ” emphasized Anderson. “The population of the church that has the means, the time, talent and the gifts to do, we do that and we turn back to a community that’s in need of support at whatever level. And then that community that we are supporting, they turn back out of gratitude and want to give back too. That’s what Turn 180 is all about.”

The Woods received $1,000 from the NTC's Center for Church Development to launch this New Faces New Spaces initiative. Through his connection to Grand Prairie Homeless Outreach Organization, Anderson and other church members began going out weekly to visit homeless encampments and public spaces where folks gather. Anderson noted that they were the new faces in these spaces, and being a guest was an important part of how they approached this outreach. 

As they built relationships, heard prayer requests and came to know these unsheltered neighbors during weekly devotionals, The Woods UMC forged mutually beneficial connections with the group. Through the work of the Spirit, Turn 180 became the link between the congregation and an entirely different group of people in their community. 

christmas stockingsWhile Anderson was building ties with their unsheltered neighbors, Jennifer Gage, chair of The Woods UMC Missions Committee, was developing a partnership with Isaiah 117 which operates Isaiah House, a residence for children who have been removed from their homes by Child Protective Services and are awaiting foster placement. Most children and teens arrive with very little and stay 24 to 72 hours. When the kids leave Isaiah House for their foster placement, they depart with new clothes, pajamas and the essentials they need. The Woods sponsors the clothes bins for older teens. 

Gage wanted to add to that and provide a Christmas gift for all children entering foster care at the holidays, and this is where Turn 180 came to fruition. 

“We bought all of the stuff and our unhoused neighbors made these incredible little Christmas stockings filled with toys, bubbles, candy, a Christmas book for Advent. That is the fruits of our first venture that came to total fruition with Turn 180,” Anderson said. “So, now these kids have a Christmas stocking thanks to our neighbors. Our homeless population, through our support, would then give back to someone else that needed help. We turn back to help them, they turn back out of gratitude to help someone else that needs help. That’s the whole model of Turn 180 and it came together just like that.”

Gage was inspired: “It made a big circle, the way these homeless folks are in need at some level but they can help these children not be in that place as an adult. They have compassion for the children because of their own experiences. It was pretty neat the way it came around.” 

making generosity bagsThe Woods UMC subsequently hosted a gathering of area United Women in Faith groups and one of the projects they completed was creating generosity bags with bottled water, snacks and treats to be given out as Anderson and church members return to the encampments to express gratitude for those who served at Christmas.

Turn 180 is a cycle that continues as God blesses this community with an ever-deepening spirit of gratitude and mutuality. 

Published: Wednesday, January 24, 2024