L1- “Know Thy Neighborhood”
Rev. Russell LaGrone discusses his strategy and passion for community building in the Near Northside of Houston.
St. Mark’s newest clergy member already has his eyes – and heart – focused on his new mission field just miles from his new church on Pecore Street in Houston. The area is dubbed “Near Northside” and is considered a forgotten space between the upscale Heights area and the low income Fifth Ward area near the towering Houston skyline. Russell is getting outside of the church walls to facilitate unlikely relationships between the least, the last and the lost and provide a community to “do life together” in an environment where the gospel can be lived out.
Although his new appointment is still very new, he has already joined forces with Rev. Emily Chapman and lay leader Janet Allen to explore some unique outreach opportunities in Near Northside. Having experienced the rewards of a ministry in southwest Houston called the Fondren Apartment Ministry (FAM), Russell felt God calling him to develop a similar community in St. Mark’s virtual backyard.
FAM’s intentional community facilitates relationships between refugees, immigrants and local Houstonians in a missional Christian community including shared meals, prayer, worship and support. For the residents of all ages and nationalities, this faith-based “experiment” has yielded transformation, encouragement and friendships more common to a “house church.”
Now that Russell feels called to create an environment for these kinds of relationships in Near Northside, he will draw on his experience and lean heavily on the Holy Spirit’s leading. He envisions himself on the starting line of an incredible, yet unpredictable journey. Russell is asking himself, “How do we do this? Where do we start?” and adds, “Determining the next steps – that’s one of the charming and scary things about a ministry like this. We will need to practically build the plane as we fly it.”
His spiritual path to this point in time has prepared him for such a time as this. Russell received his call to ministry while working as an electrical engineer, and got to know Rev. Hannah Terry while they were both exploring the ordination process. When Hannah guest lectured for his evangelism class at Perkins, he was so intrigued to learn about her role in the Fondren Apartment Ministry (FAM) that he took a day off work to shadow her and visit Community Night there. “That was October 2013 and I continue to describe that as my personal Aldersgate moment,” Russell shares. “I found this sacred chaos playing out before me and realized this was the kind of ministry I want to do. I even set up part of my Perkins internship within FAM, which deepened my pastoral experience in this type of environment.” As St. Mark’s starts its own Near Northside community, the church will continue in partnership with FAM.
Adds Russell, “I deeply appreciate this time of deep focus on listening for the movement of the Holy Spirit – which is necessary because there is no formula for this. I love that Intentional Communities are deeply relational and that we are empowering laity to live in the neighborhood in a life-giving way.” He expects prayer, hospitality and justice to drive this new ministry’s success.
As a leader, Russell tends to go in a certain direction and encourage others to join him. He is also an encourager when others have new ideas and projects. “To grow as a leader, I learn by doing and by talking to mentors,” he shares. “I also tend to derive leadership principles from books that aren’t always about leadership topics. I’m reading a book about how our brains work, and from that I’m learning other important aspects of leadership.”
Russell is not going into Near Northside with zero relationships. “One of my first connections is with a Near Northside resident named Grace Bukuru, a refugee from the Congo, who I am helping to learn English,” he shares. “Now that I am in this new appointment, I am adopting pastor Emily’s ‘never eat alone’ recommendation. This will help me quickly get to know church members and neighborhood insiders.”
Rev. Hannah Terry, Executive Director of FAM in southwest Houston says, “It’s been a joy to watch the Holy Spirit at work with Russell and Grace, who met through Russell’s life in the FAM community and Grace’s participation in FAM gatherings. I cannot wait to see how God will multiply intentional Christian community in Near Northside. This type of expansion and growth demonstrates our UMC connection at its best.”
Russell is excited about the hands-on, entrepreneurial adventure that awaits him at St. Mark’s. He enjoys talking about this kind of ministry so early in the process because it allows others to experience the experimental side of it and learn how these types of ministries get started. Adds Russell, “I am comfortable taking risks and look forward to seeing how God leads us in Near Northside.”