A Day in the Life
Before she even tells us that Monday nights are her favorite night of the week at Braddock Street United Methodist Church (UMC), you can see it on her face.
Joanna Dietz is a deacon and minister of Mission and Service at the church in the middle of Winchester. It’s a position that takes her an hour and 10 minutes to get to everyday, but it’s a commute that doesn’t bother her.
“I have an hour-and 10-minute commute every day to and every day home from,” she said, “and I love that it does not bother me at all that I have that commute. I just love being here.”
Her position is rare to find in many places in Virginia. It’s being done by lay people at Floris UMC in the Arlington District and at a few other locations in the conference.
Before Nick Ruxton, conference videographer, and I traveled to Winchester to see what a typical day was like in her ministry in Winchester, I had to sell her on the idea, which wasn’t a particularly hard sell at all. She loves the idea of the conference seeing what individuals are doing in ministry, especially deacons, a position which is sometimes hard for people to understand.
“One of the unique and beautiful aspects of being a deacon is how we connect out in the world while connected to the church,” Dietz said. “And each deacon does this in a different way.”
We walk with her on the downtown Walking Mall of Winchester to see where the church is working and their community partners. On the way, we meet Shorty, a man Joanna met not long after starting the job. They both greet each other and ask how the other is doing. She then runs into a group of people whom she invites to that night’s dinner, reminding them of the time and place, 6 p.m. at Braddock Street, and the menu, hot dogs.
Downtown we see the Our Health buildings, just one of the many organizations Braddock Street UMC is working with.
Monday night dinners
At 5:30 that Monday night, we gather with Joanna outside the church, greeting those waiting for dinner. Joanna tells us that all different types of people attend: church members, homeless people and elderly folks wanting companionship over dinner. The number of people can vary anywhere from 60 to more than 120, which determines whether or not there are second helpings.
Signs on the windows of the first floor entrance to Braddock Street UMC tell dinner attendees not to start gathering until 5:30 p.m. But in our walk back to the church, we see the crowd gathering early.
Joanna Dietz, right, greets dinner guests.
The rule is there because a number of scuffles and altercations have taken place, bringing police to the church. That’s when Joanna started going out to greet people. Some church members expressed concern, but Joanna felt it was important for her to do so.
“I’m the safest person out there. There has not been one fight outside since I have gone outside with them,” Joanna said. “Not one. Because relationship has been formed and they know what the rules and expectations are and they don’t want to break that trust that we’ve built over the time that we’ve had together.”
One of the many connections she has made is with a woman named Joyce. With a teal puffy jacket and a hat fitting snugly on her head complete with little MinnieMouse ears on top, Joyce is the first to greet Joanna as she walks outside into the crowd of people.
Joyce talks to Joanna about her cat that just died and is eager to get a picture with Joanna. There is relationship for Joyce in this place. When I ask her how long she had been coming to Monday night dinners, she talks about the community.
“This is my church,” she says.
At 6 p.m., Joanna invites the crowd upstairs after giving them some instructions about how the tables are set up a little bit differently — two of the regular five tables are being cordoned off for a later event.
Dinner is served buffet style, and attendees sit down and talk to one another. Some church members mingle with members of the community; some will attend a poverty group meeting after dinner.
It is a time for conversation and relationship. But even for Joanna, who has worked in poverty before, this experience was a bit daunting at first.
“Coming into a room with between 60 to over 120 people that you don’t know,” she said, “who are strangers and you know there’s a huge social divide between you and them is intimidating. For the first three months, I would walk up for a conversation and sit down and have no idea what I was saying.”
But it’s all about taking steps into the uncomfortable, she said. “Taking those steps out and sitting down at the table, breaking the ice, going there and not just the first night — because the first night is still scary. It’s the second and third and fourth, forcing yourself to be uncomfortable until you are finally comfortable in that situation.”
Minister of Mission and Service
One of Joanna’s tasks in this position is what she calls the “thin places” in the community which began by first understanding the Braddock Street congregation in her first month and learning about the United Methodist Women, mission committees and the opportunities. She turned her attention the next month to other churches in the area and their pastors and mission coordinators.
This was important, Joanna said, because Winchester District churches are close not only in proximity but also in relationship.
“When we see a need, we don’t attempt to address it by ourselves, we bring it to the whole church community to see how we can make a difference,” she said. “I think a lot of times churches try to do it on their own, and that’s not how things are done in Winchester. We can only accomplish so much on our own. ”
In her third month, she met with community partners like Evans Home and Our Health and got to know each individual and what they do.
Through this effort, Joanna was able to begin piecing together all the people who were involved and wanted to make a difference in Winchester and could start the connections and conversations needed to address the “thin places” in the community.
Her position in the community is as a conversation starter and, for many other churches, a liaison to the community and community partners who often come to her about what they can do. This is also true of the members of Braddock Street.
A retired social worker at the church recently came to Joanna asking how she could use her gifts in ministry. Joanna was able to connect her with a child safety center that was in need.
“As a deacon this position really does fill out all the ways that I am called,” Joanna said. “A deacon is called to service, worship, to compassion and to justice. We live into that by equipping the laity to go into their call for themselves. A lot of times people come to me and they know they want to serve, they just don’t know how.”
Winchester’s 'thin places'
The “thin places” in Winchester are very clearly homelessness, mental illness and addiction. Joanna sees them as interconnected issues.
“Homelessness comes because of mental illness and addiction,” she said. “Right now, the dialogue is how do we come together as a community to address that as we are seeing what those needs are. We have a coalition that is really focused on the addiction aspect. Heroin is huge in Winchester. It’s beginning to bring all those groups together by having this conversation.”
Joanna is the first to point out that the church was already heavily in mission before she arrived.
“Braddock Street is filled with phenomenal volunteers. That is not something they needed help with. Things are working all by themselves. Going into the community has been the biggest piece in growing our mission. Someone to go out into the community was the piece we were missing the most — what’s out there and where do we need to be?”
Relationship building is key to what Braddock Street does and how Joanna is effective in her position.
“Being able to walk down the street and know people’s names and coming up and giving hugs and hearing how their day has been,” she said, “that’s been a huge aspect of what we have been doing.”
Renewed call to ministry
Struggling with her call after being in music ministry for 20 years, Joanna applied for the position, but was unsure if it was right for her — until the interview process.
“Every question they asked me,” she said, “instead of leading me to an answer, led me to a story of a way that I had already been involved in mission and had been living out my call as a deacon. It was like all the pieces came together. And it clicked, this is my new home and where I am called to be.”
In the community and on the streets of Winchester, Joanna’s call is something she is learning how to live into and the type of ministry she said she feels God is calling her to.
“It’s really interesting as clergy,” she said, “that God continues to equip us and lead us in the ways we need to go in our journeys. Just because we become clergy doesn’t mean the journey is over. It continues on.”
– Madeline Pillow is editor of the Virginia United Methodist Advocate.