Heather Evans is the Pastor of Reach and Fresh Expressions at Grace Church in Cape Coral, Florida. After bouncing back and forth between being on church staff at Grace Church and public school teaching, Heather felt a calling to go all-in on ministry. Her passion is to minister to the “people that no one else wants or sees.”
Heather is the leader of a Fresh Expressions community, a ministry that seeks to create new or different forms of church for a changing culture. After she was introduced to the concept of Fresh Expressions, she had a deep desire to reach outside the walls of the church and received a vision for a dinner church at Suncoast Estates, a local trailer park community.
The dinner church, which came out of Grace Church, began as a summer program for the kids in the community and evolved into an after school program. Heather and her team noticed that one of the key elements missing in the lives of the children was regular family dinner time, so they began teaching kids basic cooking skills as an activity, and then together the families would share a meal. This evolved into a practice of eating dinner weekly, followed by a spiritual conversation.
As a group, they also began a practice called “Pows and Wows.” Heather describes Pows as, “How is the world punching you in the gut?” and Wows as, “How is God showing off?” Over the years, community members have forged deep connections and relationships as they’ve shared what’s going on in their lives.
From there, Eat, Pray, Love was launched in August 2016. Heather says her goal was to have 80 people and to hopefully mention Jesus once by Christmas. By the time Christmas Day rolled around that year, they had 160 people regularly attending and had baptized eight. They are now a thriving and vibrant Christian community.
Prayer is and has always been a large part of their ministry to the Suncoast Estates community. Heather says they always pray and do Pows and Wows as a community before dinner. The need for prayer is so large that there are often folks waiting at the doors to get in.
Telling the story of Jesus is also a central component to the ministry. They are very upfront about the fact that they will be talking about Jesus after dinner and that time is optional. Meals are not contingent on staying for the whole time. Heather said that she often doesn’t read the Jesus story from the Bible but tries to contextualize it by asking questions like, “What would it look like at Walmart? Or at school? What do you think God might be trying to tell you through this story?” Heather is also careful to communicate that Jesus won’t magically take away her problems, but that because she tries to be like Jesus her life is better for it.
Heather says that Eat, Pray, Love is a place to enjoy a hot meal and share life together. They can’t meet everyone’s needs like paying bills, but they can offer a space for authenticity, where people come to know that their lives matter and that God loves them. Heather stresses authenticity as one of the biggest factors in this ministry—for both community members and the leadership team. Everyone needs to be able to share their own struggles, baggage, and joys in order to build relationships with the community. “Being vulnerable is a necessity,” she says.
When asked for any helpful advice for people looking to engage in this kind of ministry or ministry to people who are not desired or seen, Heather says, “Get out of the building. You’re never going to know how to serve people and know their needs if you can’t go there.” One of her guiding mentalities is, “If they matter to Jesus, they matter to us.” Her other piece of advice is to listen. Listening is how trust is made in relationships. “People already have a desire to know God, but it works much better when there is a relationship behind it,” she says.
God of all peoples, we know there is not a single person whom you do not want or see. Give us eyes to see, ears to listen, and hearts to love. Help us to nourish our neighbors, listen to their stories, and share our own. Give us courage to be vulnerable and authentic with one another, and to follow the Spirit’s calling, even when things are uncertain or scary. Give us the heart to form beloved community wherever we go. Amen.