Good Works: Hospitality and Faithful Discipleship, Keith Wasserman, Christine D. Pohl. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2021.
Summary: A profile of the key themes that have shaped the hospitable community of Good Works, Inc., a ministry providing shelter and support to people in rural southeastern Ohio.
Athens, Ohio, befitting its name is the home of the oldest college in Ohio. Ohio University was founded in 1787, sixteen years before Ohio became a state. Beyond the rolling contours of the scenic campus lie the foothills of Appalachia in southeast Ohio. In contrast to the gorgeous countryside, southeast Ohio is the face of rural poverty in Ohio. Forty years ago, a young convert to Christianity and his wife set out to provide shelter for the homeless and offer support for those in need, inviting them to experience the love of Christ and see the gospel incarnated in the community that became known as Good Works.
Through friends and a brief encounter with the founder, I’ve heard of the year in, year out faithful work of this community. So it was with great interest that I read this account by the founder, Keith Wasserman, and Christine D. Pohl, a professor at Asbury Seminary whose scholarship has focused around hospitality. The two met when Keith did coursework at Asbury, where she became intrigued with the work and Keith enriched in his vision of hospitality through their interaction.
The book is less a history of Good Works, Inc. than a description of key themes that have shaped its development. Yes, you do get the outlines of the growth of the ministry from the Wasserman’s basement to Timothy House on Central Avenue that serves as a 24 hour homeless shelter (the only one in southeast Ohio) to the complex of building on Luhrig Road out of which the rest of the community ministries take place. But the themes are of overriding importance and each chapter includes prayers and questions that challenge us to consider what shape these themes ought take in our own situations.
The most important theme shaping the life of Good Works is worship. Worship is not a few songs, prayers, rituals and readings on a Sunday but must overflow in the service of and love for others out of love for God. They write:
“Although worship takes different forms, loving God and loving our neighbors are always at the heart of it. The recipients of our love–God and neighbors–are connected, but loving God is our starting place, and the ordering of our loves should not be reversed. If we think that our task is to love our neighbors with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love God as ourselves, we’ve wandered into bad theology–and troublesome psychological terrain” (pp. 18-19).
The second theme is integrity. Good Works likes to say “our program is integrity.” By this they mean engendering a high level of trust with the people they serve and among the staff who serve them. It involves both truthfulness and faithfulness. One of the cardinal practices among leadership is that of “Clear.” “Clear” means talking with each other without delay about grievances and disagreements. “Are we ‘Clear’?” is asked in every leadership meeting.
The third theme was on keeping perspective and one of the striking parts of this chapter was Keith’s description of spending a few days every few years in a different city, experiencing what it was like to be homeless there and to see homelessness from the perspective of the homeless. The chapter also talks about how they help each other keep perspectives amid hard interpersonal encounters.
A fourth theme of Good Works is relationships in community. Good Works does not see itself as a social agency but as a Christian community into which they are inviting those who seek their help. The shared meals and fellowship of Friday Night Life epitomizes this theme. They describe a continuum of relationships from associating to serving to loving to knowing and the movement that occurs from coming for help to become a leader serving others while continuing to remain in an accountable community with relational “guardrails.”
Leadership in community is the fifth theme and this is one of the best descriptions of leadership shaped by the way of the cross that I have read. Leaders live within a number of tensions:
- assessing individual situations and institutional needs
- dealing with failure
- humility and teachableness
- being above reproach and approachable
- truthfulness in love
- character and adversity
Wasserman also discusses longevity and confesses that at least sixty percent of the work needs to be joyful to be sustainable for him.
The sixth chapter, written by Pohl explores how hospitality is what makes Good Works good. A key in all of this is mutuality, a fellowship of giving and receiving that acknowledges that all people are gifts to one another. An appendix follows detailing the various settings in which Good Works mission and ministry of hospitality takes place.
I appreciate the approach taken in this book. I can see the temptation to try to copy the outward ministry of Good Works in other settings without first being shaped by the inner character of this work The mantra, “if we don’t have integrity, we don’t have a program” is one I wish every Christian ministry would take to heart. I am struck that I don’t hear a theme of scripture but rather the themes toward which scripture points us, even as scripture is often used throughout as basis–themes of worship, of truth and fidelity, of community and mutuality, of servant leadership, of hospitality. Good Works has touched thousands of lives in southeastern Ohio. Beyond that, it offers a vibrant alternative to our comfortable but uninspiring churches infatuated in politics because they’ve lost the joy of being in mission. Good Works simply is an object lesson in what it is to be the church.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.