“To tell the story of what God is doing you’ve really got to start with the woman at the well,” explained Laura Johnson, minister of Outreach Ministries at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church here.
“It says in John 4:28-30 that the woman went back to the town and said to the people, ‘Come see about a man’ … and they came from the town and made their way toward him. That is really what the ministry is based on.”
That ministry has been unfolding in the past five years.
“In 2007 when I received a call from the director of the Heritage House, I was expecting a request for funds,” Johnson said, recalling the conversation with the director of the drug and alcohol treatment center for women. “I was surprised when the director, a Jewish woman, asked if I would be willing to come lead a Bible study with women in recovery.”
Those first Bible studies at the Heritage House were in a building called Condo D — rather tight quarters, shared also with the TV, but the only communal space at the center.
“Most of the women there at the Heritage House were court-mandated to be there — they had been arrested for drugs or burglary, but all based on alcohol or drugs, and many had violated parole,” said Johnson.
Johnson and another woman from St. Andrew’s went each week to lead the Bible study. They realized early on that if they were going to get any women to come, they needed to provide childcare.
“We started with one woman and her kid, and one of us would have to hold the kid,” recalled Johnson. “But what we also realized was that the women coveted breaks from the kids — some of them came just to get someone to take care of their kids for a bit.”
“Looking back, what we did was bring the gospel into their culture on those Friday afternoons,” said Johnson.
The Bible study began to outgrow Condo D. “Once a month we started doing a big lunch, and brought the girls off property to my backyard,” said Johnson, who worked along with Ron Brown from Teen Challenge, an international Christian rehab program, to host the monthly lunches.
“Ron said to me one day, ‘What are we going to do when the girls get out of the Heritage House?’ That is when our Monday evenings started — the girls would bring their kids to my house, we’d do a craft with the kids, Ron would play his keyboard and we’d do a Bible study,” said Johnson.
These Monday evenings started with five or six women but soon began to grow.
“Every week one of the girls would bring a friend or a roommate or someone they would meet. There was a realness to that time — we could talk about sobriety and their court cases — and they were experiencing something that was real and I think that drew people in,” said Johnson.
Over the next three years, the Monday nights outgrew one home after another as more women and children began to come.
“One of the things that really led it to grow was when Marsha, one of the original members of the study in Condo D, was driving near the Village of Hope, a part of the Orange County Rescue Mission,” said Johnson. Marsha spotted a woman out walking for exercise and recognized her from Heritage House and from their time in jail together.
“So, Marsha told Tiffany about the Bible study and Tiffany came the next week with her three kids,” Johnson said. “That’s how the word got spread to the Village of Hope, and now we have 40-50 people coming from there every week.”
In addition to those 40-50 people from Village of Hope, Tiffany also invited, Carlos, her boyfriend and the father of her child. “At first we didn’t know what to do about the men, so we sent them with the kids,” said Johnson. But as more men — boyfriends, husbands and friends — began to come, they realized they needed to create a space for them as well.
“We finally got so big that we needed to move to the church,” Johnson said. They were to meet in the chapel on the church’s campus. The only problem was that the chapel was full of neat, orderly, and very immovable pews.
“We realized that we were not going to be very gracious hosts of them with the pews,” said the Rev. Rich Kannwischer, pastor of St. Andrew’s.
So Kannwischer, along with the session after one meeting, had the pews taken out. It’s enough to make some ‘decently and in order’ Presbyterians shudder.
“It was a risk financially because we didn’t have it budgeted, but ministry was compelling us to do something in the name of hospitality,” said Kannwischer.
It’s a risky hospitality that is reaching out to the ‘traditional’ congregation at St. Andrew’s as well. Several members of the congregation are now coming to the church on Monday nights too.
“When you look out and see all these different people eating dinner together in the fellowship hall on a Monday night, it is a wonderful visual — it is like the wedding banquet,” said Johnson. “The thing is, we didn’t start with a program — the ministry had its own momentum. We didn’t even have a name until a year and a half ago.”
The name — Northeast of the Well — came naturally. “I didn’t mean to create the name. I felt like I was the woman at the well, like we all were,” said Johnson.
“It’s not just about the woman strung out on heroin who comes to see Jesus — it is when she goes back to her community and says, ‘Come see about a man’ and invites them to come see for themselves,” Johnson said.
Erin Dunigan is a freelance writer, photographer, and pastor who lives in a small coastal community in Baja California, Mexico when she is not following her wanderlust out into the world.