A ministry offering community support becomes a pastor’s new mission field. 

By Natalia Connelly

Years ago, despite swearing that he would never be a pastor—his father had been one—George Werkema heard a call. He began work at a church in downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan. Then one day, without warning, his position was eliminated.

That very same day, Werkema received a phone call. Werkema had been worshiping, though not working, at Richmond Reformed Church, where the caller also attended. The man needed help, and had thought of Werkema.

“He says, ‘I’ve got a little ministry but all it is, is on Wednesday nights, you sit through a message, you get some nasty chicken that’s been frostbitten,’” says Werkema.

Convinced they could do better, Werkema joined the ministry’s efforts and brought a revised ministry proposal to Richmond’s consistory that envisioned a place for community services like laundry facilities and computer and shower access.

With Richmond Reformed’s backing over the next decade, Matthew’s House Ministry has become what it is today: a place of support for people without a home, providing access to showers, laundry facilities, clothing, hot lunches, and groceries. The main meal is no longer frostbitten chicken; local food pantries ensure the ministry can serve daily lunch and provide free groceries. Werkema is now executive director.

The ministry also owns several houses for people in transition or recovery. Other resources include drug and alcohol counseling, Bible studies, computer skills training, résumé building, and business incubation services. Matthew’s House has a holistic focus on spiritual growth, education, employment, and social and economic functionality. The ministry is supported by Richmond as well as other local churches and community groups. Many people served by Matthew’s House worship at Richmond.

Dave and Lisa Matthews got involved with Matthew’s House more than eight years ago, when they were on a walk in the neighborhood and happened upon the building, which, coincidentally, had their last name on it. They went in and saw someone inside.

“I said, ‘What you doing in my house, man?’” says Dave. “[He said,] ‘I’m Pastor George.’”

This encounter led to a turning point in the lives of Dave and Lisa Matthews. The day they met Werkema, they were two days drug free.

“Everything that we prayed about to God, we came into Matthew’s House and it was there,” Lisa says. “When we met Pastor George we were going through addiction and we had to start all over again. … We just surrendered. I just said, ‘God, I give.’ And that day everything just started opening up.”

Attending Narcotics Anonymous meetings and worshiping at Richmond Reformed Church were the first steps of recovery for Dave and Lisa Matthews. For a time they used the laundry services at Matthew’s House. Soon Werkema was loading up their mattress and helping them move into a house down the street. Today, Dave and Lisa are independent, giving back, and still drug free. Dave leads the Narcotics Anonymous meetings, and Lisa coordinates the women’s spiritual retreat.

“I love our church,” says Lisa. “Our church has helped us grow through this process. Pastor George has helped us grow through this process. Because we have been through many struggles.”

Dave and Lisa have also developed a close relationship with Richmond’s pastor, Christopher Westerbeek. As more people from Matthew’s House have attended worship at Richmond Reformed, the makeup of the congregation has shifted. There is more racial and socioeconomic diversity, leading to new conversations within the congregation.

While the church has grown and diversified with attendance from the Matthew’s House community, other members have left. Giving is also a challenge, as many new parishioners have little or no means. Nevertheless, the ministries continue in faith.

“There’s been ups and downs, and there’s been some real struggles,” says Werkema. “But there’s been some mountaintop experiences too. We’ve had baptisms of immersion, to sprinkling, to professions of faith. It’s been not what I would call a ‘normal’ RCA church.”

Werkema and Westerbeek consider themselves partners in the joint ministry of Richmond Reformed and Matthew’s House. Together they have brought others, like Dave and Lisa, into leadership.

“My job is to confess the Word and let others know,” says Dave. “I’m grateful to be in a position that I can be here today.”

Natalia Connelly is a freelance writer and student at Western Theological Seminary.