Neighborhood Fellowship Church‘s founding couple Jim and Debbie Strietelemeier discuss their vision for renewing their neighborhood, their nationally recognized development model, and their passion for the needy.
Walking up to Neighborhood Fellowship Church on a Sunday at 10am or 3pm, you will hear the tinkling of piano, riffing of guitar, and chorusing of voices reverberating out to greet you through the sanctuary doors. Once inside you will note wooden pews filled with faces ranging from young to old, from brown to black to white. You will see the small Latino family on the side bouncing their gurgling baby next to the young white couple in maxi dress and khakis. In the pew behind sit the leather clad, tattooed bikers beside the single mom managing her three children. At NFC, all are welcome.
This desire to be welcoming infuses everything that NFC does. When Jim and Debbie Strietelmeier first envisioned their church, they wanted a place where the unnecessary expectations of church going were put aside. They had known too many people, as they were growing up in Indianapolis, that didn’t go to church because they worked late, couldn’t pay for the commute, didn’t have the right clothes, were too hungry to pay attention etc. So, Jim and Debbie decided that NFC should hold services at 3pm, dress should be casual, a meal should be served after, and they would place the church near the city bus route.
Jim and Debbie’s capacity to adapt and serve is what makes Neighborhood Fellowship Church notable. Initially established in their living room in 1996, the church was small in the beginning, a few neighbors and friends. But soon, Jim and Debbie became known in the neighborhood as people willing to lend a hand. Their days were filled with running their small church, giving hungry strangers food out of their pantry, and running neighbors to the ER often (mostly because of acute untreated conditions).
Jim and Debbie carved out their ministry by doing. As they continued to give of themselves, friends from up North at Zionsville Fellowship Church, as well as from around Indianapolis, began to help them strategize an infrastructure to address their community’s needs. So were planted the seeds of what would become a multi-faceted conglomerate of community-oriented services housed in a single building off of 10th street.
From a living room to a three-storied brick building, NFC grew astronomically over the next nineteen years. They now house a stop in food pantry, and, through partnerships with IU, Butler, and the University of Indianapolis, established free medical, legal, ophthalmological, pharmaceutical, dental, occupational and physical therapy, and nursing clinics as well as social services advising. They host an “overcomers” group for those fighting with drug addiction, created a k-12 school for kids struggling to graduate. They have a bi-weekly women’s ministry. They have a CNA job’s training class. Furthermore, their leaders are foster parents as well as adoptive parents to children from the community. All in all there seem to be few human needs NFC is not equipped to address.
But, for Jim and Debbie, these initiatives were intuitive extensions of the faith-centered call they felt on their lives. They cite two messages from the Bible to explain why they do their work. In their words, “The Bible’s foremost commandment is to “love God and love thy neighbor.” Next, “The scripture is clear about the people we are supposed to help. They are the hungry, the naked, the stranger in the land, don’t turn away from your own flesh and blood, the thirsty, those in prison, orphans, and widows, the sick, and the broken hearted. Take care of these people (Isaiah 58, Matthew 25, James 1, and Luke 4).”
With these mantras as their backbone, Jim and Debbie have trouble understanding why their work is considered notable. In 2012 IU awarded NFC the “Community Award for Excellence in Civic Engagement”. It noted their multiple services to their neighborhood and the Indianapolis area. The award is meant to mark organizations that have made “positive differences” in their community. Yet, Debbie and Jim were baffled. “We got an award for acting like Christians” Debbie says laughingly. “Can you believe that? It’s considered so extraordinary that a church would be doing good among the poor, that it gets an award. This work should be normal, should be assumed, and should not be award-winning. Don’t get me wrong; it was really nice of them [IU]. But isn’t this what churches are supposed to do?”
Considered by many to be activists for good, Debbie and Jim are excellent examples of making more deposits than withdrawals into the community around them. When asked how they would describe a good citizen or community member, Jim had this to say:
“Look around you and do what’s in front of you. If you follow these two commandments: Love God and love your neighbors as yourself, then you are going to be a good citizen. Those that are selfish are not good citizens. Those people solely committed to family; they’re decent enough. But, the people committed to loving their family as well as their neighbor, well, it’s then that a community starts to heal. If I can make my neighbor’s crisis a crisis for me, then it becomes a help to him. When it’s a crisis for me it can become a solution for him.”
Needless to say, the work Debbie and Jim are doing alongside IU, Butler, and the University of Indianapolis at NFC is excellent. They have taken their own words to heart and in bearing up with their neighbor’s troubles have strengthened and healed a community that once was considered among Indianapolis’ most dangerous.
This article was originally published on The Sagamore Institute’s Indiana Citizen blog and can be read in full here.