By Rachel Eldridge
Unity. Reclamation. These are tough goals. It’s easier to think about them than to do them, far simpler to dismiss them as buzzwords than carry them out, day by day, in the messiness of life. But for Mary and Cornelius Dollison and Kirby Avenue Church of God, unity and reclamation are part of life itself.
“‘Working together, involving all’ has been my motto, and I strive to live it every day,” Mary wrote in a recent column in her local newspaper, expressing gratitude for a Lifetime Achievement Award she recently received.
Instead of leaving a low-income community during its toughest times, Mary and Cornelius chose to love their neighborhood and live a missional life right where they were (and still are). Over the years, Mary has taught in the public schools, co-founded an innovative educational nonprofit, mentored countless students, and helped organize a tool bank and food pantry that serves more than 150 families every month. Through it all, her husband Cornelius Dollison has been by her side, as has the faith community at Kirby Avenue Church of God in Muncie, Indiana.
Handel Smith, chief domestic officer for Church of God Ministries, fondly remembers a visit to the Dollisons’ home church. “The congregation is small,” he says, “but it’s a small army. If every church in America were doing what Kirby Avenue were doing…wow! What a way to impact the world for Jesus Christ!”
“It is incredible what can happen when God lets us work together,” Mary says. Through her investment in the Whitely Community Council (an effort to empower and promote a safe and healthy neighborhood), seventeen churches across Muncie regularly join forces to show Christ to all people. In case after case, the Dollisons share examples of making Jesus—not the church—the subject.
“When the kids come to school, we’re there to greet them,” Cornelius says, explaining how the couple, their pastor, Kirby Avenue parishioners, and others from the neighborhood association have partnered with the local elementary school. Church-goers from all denominations are out front in the mornings, encouraging children with signs that read “We believe in you!” and “Have a great day!” “We get a lot of hugs and a lot of fist-bumps,” Cornelius says with a laugh. “That’s how we win people for Christ. They know we care.”
In another instance, the Dollisons and the community council raised funds to save Muncie’s historic AME church. And, as always, their influence trickled down to the younger generations: Mary spoke proudly of two young African American men who achieved their Eagle Scout awards through landscaping the church yard and repairing the parking lot.
These students are a reminder of all the other students the Dollisons and the Kirby Avenue congregation have influenced over the years. “We’ve been at Kirby Avenue for more than fifty years, and we’ve seen us grow and grow, and we’ve seen us go down in numbers,” Mary says. “But whether or not we get numbers, we just want to get souls. The young people who came through our doors as children are now spread all across the country, and they’re still living for the Lord. We’re planting seeds.”
Jonathan Mitchell, Kirby Avenue pastor, agrees, saying the key is working together and trusting God. When he came to Kirby Avenue a year-and-a-half ago, he “had a three-year plan to get to know my congregation, know their gifts, and know where to serve. But that went out that window,” he quips, “because these people were already serving everywhere!” Now Pastor Mitchell encourages and joins his flock in intentionally working with other churches in the area, attending a Bible study with pastors from across the city, and serving on a board of local community organizations. He likens it to Pentecost, where followers of Christ were joined in prayer and sent forth in service through the Holy Spirit.
“The Holy Spirit united them, and that’s the same Holy Spirit who unites us today.”
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