John McKnight has said that he knows of few people who have implemented Asset-Based Community Development more courageously or completely than Mike Mather. In this excerpt from Mike’s latest book, you get a sense of what John means.
One Sunday a neighborhood woman showed up for worship, then sat in the pew afterwards, weeping. When I asked her what was the matter, she told me that her son was about to get kicked out of school. She asked me to talk with him.
I stopped by her home on a Tuesday night. Donna was sitting in a chair. Across from her, lying on the couch, was her son, Adrian, watching television. As soon as I cam in, she started crying about how much trouble he was in and saying that he was no good.
I turned to her son and said, “At our church we believe that every person has something to offer, and we believe it’s a sin to waste it. Is there anything that you do well enough that you could teach someone else how to do it?”
He was still watching television, lying flat on his back. He didn’t look at me as he said, “I play football.”
At this his mother stopped crying and became very animated. “Oh, yeah,” she said. “Before he got in all this trouble, he was playing both ways—offense and defense. The coaches love him.”
At that point Adrian sat up. The television was still on, but some of his attention was on me. I asked, “Do you think you know how to teach younger kids how to play football?”
He said yes, and then wove stories about blocking drills, and linebacker hits, and how to keep someone from fumbling.
I said, “That’s not a bad idea. But it’s February in South Bend right now, not a great time to be outdoors playing football. Is there anything else you could teach people?”
“I fix things. If the remote control breaks, I fix it,” he said as he played with it in his hands.
I thought, Wow. I’ve got nineteen years of education, and if my remote control breaks, I go buy a new one.
“Can you fix anything else?” I asked.
“Well,” Adrian said, ”me and my neighbor, we fix bikes.” I asked him how the brakes and gears work, and he told me in enough detail that I knew he could do it.
“I have a friend who likes to repair bikes,” I said. “Do you think you and your friend are interested in joining forces with my friend and doing something about it?”
He said yes, and the next day I went by his house with my friend. Adrian and his friend were there, and I prayed with all of them: “Gracious God, bless these three as they share their love and knowledge of bicycles with neighbors near and far.”
Over the next couple of months, they started what they came to call the Major Taylor Bicycle Recycling Center and School in an unused garage at a church member’s home in the neighborhood. (In the early 1900s, Major Taylor was an African-American world-class cyclist from Indiana.)
With a grant they received from the St. Joseph County Community Foundation, they bought three sets of tools, bike helmets, and seats. My friend had connections at Notre Dame, and they got several bikes donated from the end-of-the-year sale at the school. They cleaned the bikes up, repaired the ones that needed it, and then sold them.
The first bicycles they repaired for a customer were for a Notre Dame professor, and they got two pizzas and three cases of pop for the work. After a few months, they developed a fee structure, but they would occasionally repair someone’s bicycle for free if they knew the cyclist couldn’t afford the repair. As word spread, people would often give the shop bicycles in various states of repair or disrepair. Some of them Adrian and his coworkers sold, and some of them they salvaged for parts that they used in their repairs or sold to customers who needed a pedal or a kickstand or a seat.
On Saturdays, Adrian and Co. invited kids from the neighborhood to come to the shop. They’d teach a brief bicycle safety class, give an exam, and then reward the participants with new helmets that an elderly couple in the neighborhood had bought for them to share with local children.
Shortly after the bicycle center got started, I received a call from someone at a development corporation on the opposite side of South Bend. They wanted to know if they could meet with the founders of the Major Taylor Bicycle Recycling Center and School. I drove the three kids over to the meeting to talk with them. When I heard what the development corporation wanted to talk about, I was surprised. They pointed to the abandoned gas station across the street and asked if Adrian and his friends wanted to move the shop into it. They said the owner gave them the property and when they heard about the bicycle shop they thought the young people might be interested in the space.
In reply, Adrian and Co. said nothing. I asked a few questions and tried to press the three kids to say something, but nothing came out of their mouths. I was embarrassed and a little angry with them.
On the drive back to their homes, I asked the guys what was wrong. One of them asked, “Who controls the money if we take their offer?”
I said, “Well, I suppose you do. But I don’t know.”
Then he asked about the development company’s motivation. I told him what I thought to be the truth: “I don’t know. But all your life you’re going to have to work with people whose motivations are unknown to you, and you’ll have to figure out, whether you know the motivations or not, if you want to take them up on their offer.”
One of the young men, who was fourteen years old at the time, piped up with the most practical question: How would they get over there in the winter? Winters are quite cold in South Bend, with a lot of snow. The guys could ride their bikes in warmer weather, but how would they get to the other side of town in the winter?
And then they said, “We want to stay in our own neighborhood.”
Now I understood their silence. On every level—practical, financial, and spiritual—it made more sense to stay where they were.
Their last question held the biggest bombshell: “Don’t they have any kids in their neighborhood?” This raises an issue that I wasn’t thinking about at all. Of course, there were plenty of young people in that neighborhood. Why wasn’t the development corporation listening to those kids and building on what they offered? Why, when looking for promising kids to invest in, did they go outside their own neighborhood?
Our neighborhoods are full of people young and old, who are bakers and bicycle lovers and entrepreneurs and artists and more. If I could see my neighbors and their gifts, if I could shine a light on Adrian and his friends, others could see the same in their neighbors. Our streets aren’t dark and dangerous; they’re bright and imaginative.
Our neighborhoods are full of people young and old, who are bakers and bicycle lovers and entrepreneurs and artists and more. Our streets aren’t dark and dangerous; they’re bright and imaginative.
Adrian and Co. continued to run the Major Taylor Center for years, until they were adults. Years later, a group of young people in Ghana read their story and were inspired to start their own bicycle shop. And as I moved away from my fix-it mentality, I noticed that, more and more, people like Adrian and Co. were teaching me to trust the miracle waiting to leap out of the people I had thought needed help.
Adrian had a talent and wanted––really wanted––to offer it. He loved working with his hands; he loved working on bicycles. He enjoyed collaborative efforts, like playing football. His problems with school went away as he focused more and more on what he wanted to do, and he even found that people at school––students, teachers, and staff––were interested in who he was and what he was doing.
Everyone I meet has something that gives their life meaning, even if they don’t think about it, or see it, in the moment. To find out what that something is doesn’t take very long. It’s as simple as changing the question, flipping the script, from asking “What’s wrong with you?” to “How can I be a part of this thing that you love, and how can you share it with others?”
- Six Principles: Why We Do What We Do and What We Expect from Others (Mather)
- Adelita’s Gift: The Value of Asking the Right Questions (Mather video)
- Death and Resurrection of an Urban Church (Faith and Leadership)
- Building Community, Economy and Mutual “Delight” (Harges, Thompson, Neiss interview)
- Wednesday at Broadway: Tacos, Art, Abundance (Doner)
Adapted with permission from “Noticing People’s Gifts,” in Having Nothing, Possessing Everything: Finding Abundant Communities in Unexpected Places, by Mike Mather (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2018). All rights reserved. Home page image: Edna Winti