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An interview with Pastor Dan Powell

Powell-authorboxDaniel Powell, pastor of Calvary Open Bible Church in Dayton, Ohio, is leading a charge to bring hope to Riverside, a depressed suburb of Dayton. We sat down with him to discuss his initiative, Hope4Riverside (H4R).

Message: Describe the cultural climate of Riverside.

Dan: Dayton has a great history. Everyone knows about the Wright brothers, inventors of the airplane who lived in Dayton. It also has been granted more patents per capita than any other U.S. city. The city was booming as late as the ’90s but was hit hard by the decline in automotive manufacturing. Through the ’80s and ’90s I was very involved in the business community and fortunate enough to work for one of the more than fifteen Fortune 500 companies headquartered in Dayton. Now only two of those fifteen are left. The economy is struggling. Nine years ago it was dubbed by Forbes as one of the ten fastest-dying cities in the United States.

Montgomery County, the county in which Riverside is located, is known as the drug overdose capital of America. All of a sudden we have all these parentless kids because parents are dying of heroin overdoses. Children’s services agencies are being overrun.

In the Mad River School District, more than 70 percent of students qualify for free or subsidized lunches. Fifteen percent of students are homeless. Tonight they might be sleeping at Grandma’s; they don’t know where they will sleep tomorrow. Some literally live on the streets.

To address this crisis we started a mentoring program through H4R, which is now in its second year. Ten churches are involved with the program, with approximately 30 mentors meeting with students in all four of the elementary schools, one of the middle schools, and the high school. Our motto: “One hour a day one day a week can change the life and the child, and that is no small change!” We are building the mentoring program so it is transferrable to other suburbs. We are currently helping launch this program in three other school districts.

We’ve had people speak prophetically into our lives about being a spiritual father and mother to our city. We have had our own dreams, but sometimes you have to let things go because God has something that in the end will be larger for His kingdom.

Message: How did you get pastors to come together?

Dan: In the fall of 2014, I took every pastor in the city out for lunch or breakfast (in groups of three) and shared my vision. (Calvary funded this for me.) I would ask the question “How is what you’re doing working for you?” (I had asked this of myself as well.) I had some credibility since I had pastored in our city a long time.

These meetings were spent selling the vision of what Riverside could look like. After one year of some quick wins, we decided to try something we had never done before. In February 2016 we hosted the first annual community-wide worship service at the high school with over 500 people, including city officials, school officials, business and other key leaders, in attendance. At one point in the service we had 16 pastors representing 12 different denominations standing on the platform joining hands as we prayed for our city. It was a powerful and humbling experience.

Dan Powell (far left) meets with fellow pastors and other city leaders.

Dan Powell (far left) meets with fellow pastors and other city leaders.

Message: How did Hope4Riverside start?

Dan: In the spring of 2015 we began to host bi-monthly community meeting luncheons which included the mayor, pastors, the local school board and administrators, and members of the city council to strategize efforts to transform our city. The focus of these meetings is a commitment to work together for the common good of our community. At our first meeting when we went through introductions, it was interesting to hear how many pastors would say, “I always drove by that church but never knew the pastor; nice to meet you.” Even though we were all “part of the body of Christ” our churches were functioning as silos. Bringing the churches to work together is probably the coolest thing God has done here.

Message: You have said, “We can’t say we are concerned for our community if we are not concerned for the other parts of the body of Christ.”

Dan: The Holy Spirit nudged me with this thought after a meeting with a young man from a mega-church located in another suburb. His church was struggling. They were looking to launch what they thought was the “silver bullet,” a mentoring program. I asked him how many other churches were in his community, and he had no idea. He simply wasn’t concerned about the other churches in town. We can’t say we’re concerned about our community if we are not concerned for the other churches in our community. We are all on the same team.

I have to be just as excited if someone is saved and goes to “their” church as I am when that person comes to ours. The Bible says all heaven rejoices when one soul comes home, irrespective of where that new believer worships on Sunday. We need to rejoice also!

One of five simultaneous outreaches in the city’s parks.

One of five simultaneous outreaches in the city’s parks.

Message: How do you keep from becoming a toxic charity?

Dan: It’s a conversation of tension. As we help meet the practical needs of the students, we are trying to have students give something back to the school. It is different helping the kids than the parents. Little kids can’t fend for themselves. Chad Wyen, the school superintendent, came to me last spring and said, “This week I had to hold a kindergartner because her mom had died from a heroin overdose. I had not been prepared to deal with that.”

The doors and opportunities that God has opened continue to amaze me. In working with the different societal pillars, we have learned that everyone has different motivation. We are humbled to have a great working relationship with all pillars in our society but some seem to just want to give the stuff away. In my opinion, they want to “put a Band-Aid” on the problem. While meeting legitimate “immediate needs,” we are also looking toward city transformation.

Message: How is the community responding?

Dan: The Church now has a “chair at the table” at almost every level of community activity. We get invited to everything. Most folks are happy to see us. As we continue to show up to serve, people have been more receptive to us being there. It’s about being the hands and feet of Jesus.

I’ve been quoted a few times saying, “It’s amazing what happens when the Church shows up with a towel draped over her arm and a basin of water in her hand.” The key is not showing up just once; it is a long-term investment.

One of the greatest outreaches I participated in this year was the city’s bulk trash pick-up day, directed by the city council and held in one of the local parks. The city had contracted with the trash company, which provided semi-truck-size dumpsters placed in the park’s parking lot. Local citizens could drive through the parking lot with all their bulk trash, and a wide array of city leaders (including me) would unload the trash into these dumpsters.

This was a six-hour event in which around 800 families drove through the drop-off site. It was an opportunity to work with the mayor, city council, police chief, zoning manager, and other key leaders in the city. When you are standing shoulder to shoulder with other leaders and they know who you are, that you are helping the community and that you’re meeting people in the community, you are showing city leaders that there is a common good that everyone can work toward. Your concern is for the city, not just your own agenda.

At one of our recent bi-monthly H4R meetings we had representatives from the governor’s office in attendance. The next morning the mayor texted me to let me know that the governor’s office was donating 300 new coats for H4R to distribute to students. That type of favor and open door is happening on a regular basis.

Cars line up to dispose of their larger trash items.

Cars line up to dispose of their larger trash items.

Message: How do these efforts affect other churches?

Dan: This gives pastors an opportunity to ask folks to get outside the four walls of their church without asking a lot of them. Some have said, “We have people participating in outreach who have never previously done any outreach.” The mentoring program is an opportunity for retired people to get involved. Although members are often scared, afraid they will have to do algebra, it’s really just a reliable adult showing up in the student’s life the same time every week. You have to be consistent because everyone else has let these kids down.

From a higher perspective, this has given churches that have struggled to find a purpose and smaller churches an avenue to do things they could not do alone. We try to move the location of the bi-monthly meetings around so it’s not about us. This gives the pastor and the congregation of churches with few resources the opportunity to make a difference.

Schools and other organizations will give the Church opportunity to serve. They will do the leg work. They’ll supply the resources. We just need to show up and serve. I believe true service is not coming with our agenda but helping others accomplish theirs for the common good of the city.

In the summer of 2017, School Superintendent Chad Wyen had an idea to hold five simultaneous outreaches for the school supply drive in five parks throughout the city. We divided up the churches and assigned them to the different parks. The churches provided some school supplies, but we also received several thousands of dollars in cash donations from many businesses in the community to pay for additional school supplies, food, drinks, and ice cream. We held a kickoff in the morning, and then Chad loaded up all of the school administrators and teachers and bused them to the five locations. Pastors, teachers, and school administrators were working side by side. It brought energy to the teachers and provided a great connection with them – not to mention the great impact it had for the families in the community.

Message: Years back you and your wife were led to pray over the city. Tell me about that.

Dan: Theresa grew up in Riverside. I grew up in another suburb, but we have both lived in “Dayton” all our lives. We’ve had people speak prophetically into our lives about being a spiritual father and mother to our city. We have had our own dreams, but sometimes you have to let things go because God has something that in the end will be larger for His kingdom. For twenty years we’ve done prayer walks through the city. I bike a lot. The trails go through the heart of our city so I do prayer riding as well. Many Sunday nights Theresa and I drive through our city praying, stopping at specific sights, getting out of the car and praying. There are about six city-wide prayer events across the whole Miami Valley to which I am always invited and take the opportunity to participate in.

Message: How do you keep the gospel central?

Dan: We talk about the gospel of Christ in our bi-monthly community meetings. If it is a meeting I am leading, irrespective of participants and location, we are praying. But I think we share the gospel by engaging and living it.

Dan with the mayor of Riverside, Bill Flaute, who is a big supporter of the community service projects.

Dan with the mayor of Riverside, Bill Flaute, who is a big supporter of the community service projects.

Too often we fill our church schedules so full we do not have time to reach out. (I believe one of the biggest oxymorons in the church is when we invite the community to our campus for an “outreach”.) If we would lay some of those events down, go out, and genuinely help the city and their projects we would have a greater impact. The reality is that when we take this approach it is less work and less cost and produces a higher impact. In the most recent school supply drive we gave away over 800 backpacks full of school supplies, along with food for hundreds of people. Most of the churches in our city could never begin to do something that large on their own.

Message: What would you say to someone who reads this article and thinks “This is a great idea but seems way too overwhelming”?

Dan: You need to hear from the Lord and contemplate the question, “How is what you are doing now working for you?” We are building this model with the intent of working with churches in other Dayton suburbs. It was a lot of hard work having those lunches and breakfasts with pastors two years ago, but it was necessary. It still is a lot of hard work. You need to hear from the Lord what God is calling you to do. If we want our congregations to look outside the four walls, every pastor has to see himself or herself as a pastor to their city – not just to their congregation. How do you reach your city? If all we’re doing is serving the people that come to our church on Sundays, we might as well go ahead and dig the grave.

Pastors need to see their city, not just their church, as their congregation. John Wesley wrote, “I look upon all the world as my parish.” If the pastors see their city that way, their people will follow them in reaching their city.

About The Author

Dan Powell

Daniel Powell, pastor of Calvary Open Bible Church in Dayton, Ohio.