We begin our missionary conversations for Advent 2020 by meeting Ben Lasley, a Global Missions Fellow with the General Board of Global Ministries serving Arch Street United Methodist Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Growing up in North Carolina, Ben was active in his United Methodist church where he developed his relationship with Jesus Christ. In Philadelphia, he serves as a community organizer, coordinating a meal service for those experiencing homelessness and overseeing a community garden.
Ben's enthusiasm for his work is contagious. He says it helped "activate my faith." It isn't always easy. There are many challenges, but when we are willing, God works in and through us.
Hear the rest of our 2020 Give Love missionary episodes.
- Make a Give Love donation to support the mission work of The United Methodist Church.
- Read Ben's story 'Joy in mission' and see some pictures.
- Learn more about the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries.
- Find out what a Global Mission Fellow is and how you can become one.
- Explore the ministries of Arch Street UMC.
- Feeling called to ministry? We have resources to help you explore your call.
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This episode posted on November 27, 2020.
Joe Iovino, host: Welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape, United Methodist Communications and UMC.org’s podcast to help us keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Joe Iovino.
Today we begin our Give Love series: four conversations with United Methodist missionaries for the Advent season. We’ll release one each week of Advent. And today we begin with Benjamin Lasley.
Ben is originally from North Carolina, and today he serves the Arch Street United Methodist Church in downtown Philadelphia, as a Global Mission Fellow with the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries. In this conversation, we talk about his ministry at Arch Street and the differences in moving from North Carolina to Philadelphia.
Joe: Ben, welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape.
Ben Lasley: Thank you for having me.
Joe: Thanks for taking the time to talk with me today. You’re originally from North Carolina. And now you’re serving the Arch Street United Methodist Church in Philadelphia as a global mission fellow with the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries. Tell me about your ministry at Arch Street.
Ben Lasley: I’m a global mission fellow, U.S.2, with the Board of Global Ministries. In that capacity I’m here for 2 years as a community organizer and volunteer coordinator with Arch Street. So in that capacity I help direct a homeless meal serve. Every Sunday we feed between 150 and 200 folks. Then during the summer I also direct a community garden in North Philadelphia where I help out at a community center.
Joe: That sounds like an exciting ministry.
Ben Lasley: Yeah, there’s always something to do. It never stops. But I think that’s the best part about it.
Joe: How is Philadelphia different than growing up in North Carolina?
Ben Lasley: I grew up outside of Greensboro, North Carolina in a small suburb. Now, living in North Philadelphia is extremely different. I’ve been to large cities before, but I’ve never lived in one. And I think Philadelphia is a great example of one of these very historic, gritty, passionate cities. And it’s very different where I don’t have a car here. You know. I take transit. I take the bus. I walk through all these skyscrapers and look up. You know, I’d only look up to trees or suburban homes before. So it’s a huge step in how I live now.
Joe: What led you to go into becoming a global mission fellow?
Ben Lasley: I attended a United Methodist Church virtually my entire life. Went to UNC Chapel Hill and went to the Methodist campus ministry there. And I helped direct their mission trips there while I was a student. I went on a Mercy and Justice trip to DC and visited Church and Society. And I met a global mission fellow who talked up the program. And I said, No, not for me. I will not be doing that.
Then my senior year rolled around. I was unsure what to do. I graduated a year early. So I still wanted some type of education, some type of a job. So a fellowship. And I had known about this fellowship. I really enjoyed the commitment to social justice, and that it had a United Methodist heritage to it. I was also considering the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps as well. So I decided and here I am.
Joe: Do you consider this kind of the first step in a life-long journey of mission?
Ben Lasley: I feel like that changes every week. I would love to be involved in mission work, especially in this past year as I’ve been here, particularly social justice. I don’t think that’s going to lead me to a formal ordained career. But I think I would always like to be involved in a local or a regional representation of Methodism.
Joe: When you were growing up in your church was your family a church family or was that just something that you guys did every week?
Ben Lasley: Yes. We went to church. I went to youth group. I went to Sunday school. I went to small group on Wednesdays. My mom directed the Wednesday night out. I went on mission trips every spring break, and then I went during the summer. So I had perfect attendance.
Joe: Was there a moment when your faith kind of became more yours than what you were being taught?
Ben Lasley: It was the summer after my senior year in high school. And I had gone on a backpacking trip. I was in Boy Scouts in high school. And we were backpacking in New Mexico and it was unparalleled beauty. We didn’t see other people for days. We were hiking in the mountains. And it was just this…this beauty, this creation.
I had gone on a mission trip with my youth group to Puerto Rico. And I just saw widespread, systemic poverty, and environmental racism. Seeing that paradigm of this beauty in New Mexico and then this environmental racism and manmade destruction of this environment was just revolting. I think I knew then that I really wanted to do something environmentally focused, which I study in college political science and environmental studies.
Joe: Yeah, it’s an interesting combination. You see them coming together in a career in what direction?
Ben Lasley: I feel like that also changes every week. I was considering grad school. With everything going on with cost, if it’s online, I think I’m just kind of waiting for another sign to point me a direction.
But hopefully one day I’ll be involved in environmental policy-making, urban policy-making. I think that’s also been a huge step towards career goals since I’ve been here in Philadelphia.
Joe: How do you see that as an expression of your faith?
Ben Lasley: I think I’ve always seen faith as a step within the community. So it’s not just something of me sitting down in isolation and reading or praying. I’ve always struggled with that—having the motivation, finding spirituality. And where others can, that is amazing. But what I’ve always seen is how to put it into action.
So in Philadelphia, I think, it’s really helped me activate my faith, where I’d always learned about religion, I’d always learned about Christianity, but actually doing this fellowship and participating in missions and participating in the meal serve, participating in the community garden has really helped actualize my faith.
Joe: I like that phrase—activate your faith and kind of getting you to where the service is not separate, but an integral part of your expression of faith.
What’s the most exciting thing that’s happening right now in your ministry?
Ben Lasley: I actually had an amazing meeting this morning, about potentially opening up a farm stand in front of our community center this fall. We have been doing one this summer where I managed four communal plots in our garden. Everything I’d harvest from those plots to give out for free on Thursdays during the summer. Of course, summer’s gone and that’s ended. So, I haven’t been able to do that.
Since there are no grocery stores in my neighborhood – we live in a food apartheid area. And so to be able to hopefully partner again with the local food trust organization to be able to kind of reopen another farm stand in our area, yeah, I’m ecstatic about it. I’m so excited to see where this partnership goes, and to bring fresh food to my neighborhood.
Joe: And it’d be something you’d be able to give away or sell cheap to people.
Ben Lasley: To partner and give away food bucks. So, you would give 4 dollars, essentially for free. And then you can use your SNAP benefits. That’s a big thing because a lot of farmers’ markets are inaccessible because they want cash or checks, and a lot of people who are on food stamps, that’s not a reality.
Joe: You used a phrase in there that I’m unfamiliar with. Help me understand. I think you said it’s a ‘food apartheid’ area?
Ben Lasley: I think we commonly use the phrase like a ‘food desert.’ There’s not a grocery store or a comprehensive outlet for food. Not just like canned goods, produce, fresh fruit, everything that you would find in a grocery store.
Food apartheid kind of builds on that. It’s more intersectional, looking at policy that has been over decades, redlining, looking at grocery stores, and that sort of thing, and kind of how racism plays into that as well. That it’s intentional acts. I think as 2020 in the last couple of years have revealed this weaving in intersectionality into different injustices.
Joe: That must be one of the great frustrations of where the ministry that you’re in right now is seeing that kind of injustice that’s happening.
Ben Lasley: Yeah, and especially with COVID an uprising in grocery stores shutting down. So for a period there’s a Dollar General about a block away from me that’s kind of the only place where you can get food. It’s not a grocery store. You can get canned goods. You can get frozen goods.
In June, in the wake of all the uprisings that Dollar General shut down for 3 months. There was no place to get food at all. And to sit here and while I was having that farm stand during the summer that helped, but still being in a community where there is no access, it’s extremely frustrating, especially because I can leave this community when I go into work in Center City, I can get to the grocery store. But that’s not reality for my neighbors.
Joe: You said you lead a program that feeds 150 to 200 people regularly. Tell me more about that. Has that grown recently? Are people coming more often because of this hardship?
Ben Lasley: It’s called Grace Café. It’s a community meal served – we used to have it in the fellowship hall of Arch Street. We would also have nurses coming in and a legal clinic. And we do 150 to 200 every Sunday.
With COVID it’s been outside since March. We’re going to continue it due to the rising COVID cases. We saw a huge uptick initially. We got up to like 254. Then it kind of settled down which we believe is due to stimulus checks. There was also an encampment in our city where people are living in tents, and they organized this resilient community. But now we’re seeing our numbers back up as that encampment has been disbanded and colder weather is setting in.
Joe: So, what are some of the other struggles that you guys have? Or what are the challenges and needs of your ministry?
Ben Lasley: One challenge is resource availability. As we continue this meal serve to the fall, it’s safest to be outside due to sizing regulations and being in a church you can only have 25 in Philadelphia. And so we’re forced to continue to have this to-go meal serve outside, which we are doing because it’s the safest thing to do. I think this weekend the high is gonna be 45, maybe 50. And so as we continue in the winter we need a way to have a dignified meal served outside. And I don’t know it that’s means space heaters, and creating the space where … for a lot of our folks who don’t have homes—who are housing insecure—who can’t come inside our church as they always did. How can we be this community outside the church and provide the warmth when you’ve go on any website to order a space heater and it’s backordered ‘til March?
Joe: Oh wow. Yeah.
You talked about dignified meal service. Say more about that.
Ben Lasley: Yeah. I think too many times people who are food or housing insecure are discriminated against, or looked down upon. So many people will be standing or sitting in a corner, and we’ll just walk by them. We won’t give them any mind.
So, what we really try to do at Grace Café…before COVID they would come downstairs to the fellowship hall. They were welcome at any point to come into the church on Sundays. A lot would attend worship, though that’s not a requirement. They could sleep in the pews. They could catch up on their community, charge their phones, use the restrooms.
So they’d come downstairs. We’d have volunteers, probably around 25-30, and serve them like it’s a restaurant. You’d have tablecloths set down, flowers in the middle. They’d be served coffee. We use real plates to try and give them a dignified setting that normally society doesn’t give them.
Joe: That’s important. But like you said, that’s gonna be difficult to do outdoors in the winter when a lot of us, when we do go out we’re picking up food, right? and bringing back to our home and eating. Do you guys see any solutions that you’re thinking about, or what are some of things you’re planning?
Ben Lasley: We are in the process of ordering tents to kind of create the space while having one wall open for air flow. It’s raining currently in Philadelphia. I want to make sure none of my community they have to wait in the rain. Or if it’s snowing and it’s December.
So we’re working and trying to find…talking to restaurants, talking to our community members, and helping to see if anybody has any fresh ideas.
Joe: That’s great. So you’re kind of crowd-sourcing it a little bit, as you try to figure this out?
Ben Lasley: So, you know, that’s what we have to do. We have to lean on our community when times get tough.
Joe: Absolutely. And it’s good that you can kind of ask those questions and see what answers that you get.
How are you seeing the people at Arch Street get involved? How is this part of their church experience?
Ben Lasley: Grace Café has been around for 10 years. And so we have a lot of volunteers who have been here for the 10 years, and some who it’s their first time. We have church members coming in. We cook all of our meals. So in addition to handing out the meals, I also help direct the food service.
One of my favorite people in the church usually helps out almost every Sunday. And we are downstairs, putting 80 pounds of chicken, on a tray, you know, that’s mission. That’s part of what our church does. And so some come help cook with us. Some help hand out the meals. A lot of our folks might not feel comfortable volunteering in person with rising COVID cases, and they might be in a group that’s more susceptible. So, they’ll bring in like, okay I have some men’s pants. Can you use them? Donating supplies. So we have a bunch of different ways that our congregant members are banding together to participate.
Joe: It’s an amazing ministry, just to hear that those wonderful things are happening, and the ways in which you guys are reaching out to the community. I love hearing the story.
How do you keep your spirit in shape?
Ben Lasley: The big shift, when I moved from North Carolina to Philadelphia is I don’t have a car anymore. I love to go hiking. I love backpacking. So, the first couple of months here was a huge struggle.
What I found, though, is that moving to Philadelphia, it’s great for biking. So usually, at least once a week, sometimes I don’t want to, but I have to force myself to get out of the house and go biking. So last weekend I biked down to the Navy Yard which is a huge naval station in Philadelphia. It’s about a 15-mile bike ride, roundtrip. But it’s just good to get out and kind of see different environments. And that’s what I’ve had to do,
And listening to last podcast with Rev. Phillips when she was talking about feeling and seeing and sensing… You know, nature is in the city. It’s not just…. If it’s a park in the city, you know, the environment is everywhere, whether it’s the birds everywhere, the wind. I think Rev. Phillips talked about that.
So it’s getting out, seeing different environments. She talked about a sense of touch. I think the smell, like smelling the leaves, I feel like I have the sense of being able to smell rain when it comes. And so biking through a mist. It’s terrible to bike because it’s pelting you, but not even that if feels soothing, but it smells soothing. It’s like this washing that I find so refreshing.
Joe: And you find kind of spiritual renewal in those kind of activities.
Ben Lasley: Um hum. It’s a good way to exercise, to get out all these complicated emotions we’re all having during COVID, and being able to hopefully, healthfully process that, and get out and seeing spaces.
Joe: Well, Ben, I really appreciate the time that you’ve given us today to learn about your ministry and about you and the wonderful work that you and Arch Street United Methodist Church are doing. Thanks again.
Ben Lasley: Joe, thank you so much for having me. It’s been a blast.
Joe: That was Ben Lasley, a Global Mission Fellow from North Carolina who is serving the Arch Street United Methodist Church in downtown Philadelphia, through the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries. To learn more about the General Board of Global Ministries’ Give Love campaign and to make a donation to support their ministry and work, go to UMC.org/podcasts and look for the notes page of this episode. We’ve put links on the page to help you make that donation and to learn more.
Thanks for listening. I hope you’re having a blessed Advent. I’ll be back next week with another conversation with a missionary, that will help us keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Joe Iovino. Peace.