I thought I would begin with a word on why I chose the themes I did – in order to explore themes of neighbourhood ministry and community development. In 1989 John Perkins called together a group of Christian leaders from across the US who were bonded by one significant commitment – expressing the love of Christ in America’s poor communities, not at arms length, but at the grass-roots level. By that time John and Vera Mae Perkins had been involved in church-based community ministry for 30 years, in California and Mississippi. This gathering of Christian leaders in ’89 became known as the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA), and since then, the strategies and theology of this association has sort of set the bar for thinking about church-based community ministry.
- The CCDA Handbook talks about 3 pillars of Christian Community Development – the 3 R’s – of relocation, reconciliation and redistribution . To the purist, these are non-negotiable foundations to any community ministry, there is no room for pretending – anything less is a sellout. Whether or not you buy into that, these pillars do represent questions and issues that need to be addressed. The poem you have in front of you, is something of a summary statement of the pillars of the CCDA.
Other individuals and groups have since come along, and added helpful pieces to the Community Ministry conversation – mellowing out the rigid claims of the CCDA – and opening up the conversation. Last week I reflected on a 4 th pillar, a 4 th R, put forward by Mark Gornik of Baltimore, Maryland– that of repentance . The idea that before a congregation engages the practices of community ministry – there is this necessity for people to hear the call to join God’s mission to the city, that deep inner sense that yes – we want to share in another’s sorrow, and we want to share in a community’s journey toward healing. Then (and only then) can we begin to make choices (individually and congregationally) – to turn – and draw near to the places where God is located – with those who are suffering. To be a community of the Good Samaritan – a community that ‘goes to the people’.
The second line of the poem before us is ‘Live among them’ – this gets at the idea of relocation – our theme for this morning . The commitment to live among the folks you hope to impact. John Perkins says that relocation is the linchpin of community ministry. Why? Two reasons…because it is God’s example to us in the Bible, and human nature suggests that it’s a good idea.
Advocates of relocation look to Jesus – our mentor and guide – who did not commute between heaven and earth! John Chapter 1 ” the Word became human and lived here on earth among us .” Jesus relocated. God in Jesus chose to become human, to become incarnate, in order to demonstrate the kind of love and hope that God had for humanity. This was work that simply couldn’t be done at arm’s length, nor was it work that could be done from within the confines of the Temple – Jesus needed to be on the street corners, along the roads, and in the homes of people.
Another foundational passage of scripture is Jeremiah 29 – an excerpt from a letter to the Israelites held captive in a foreign city. The unthinkable had happened; Jerusalem had fallen and all but the poorest inhabitants had been carried off to Babylon. Could God still be with them in this alien city? Into Israel’s confusion comes this letter from Jeremiah, the one person who had foreseen the destruction of Jerusalem. Jeremiah’s advice? The encouragement to put down roots, plan to stay – and in staying seek the peace and prosperity of the city.
In Jeremiah we hear the encouragement to get involved where we are and seek the city’s good. Jeremiah 29:7 reads ” If Babylon has peace, so will you .” A hopeful statement which imagines that the future of the people of God and the city in which they live are integrated – God’s interest is not just that congregations would grow and flourish, but the communities in which they live, serve, and worship will as well.
What is it about human nature which would invite congregations interested in community ministry – to encourage Christians to live in the neighbourhood where the church seeks to have an impact? Self-interest..we all have some of that, even if we don’t want to admit it. We care largely about what matters to us, what issues impact us personally. Where our treasure is, there our heart will be also. It is really hard to sustain an interest in community development and the long road of transformation, if our own future is not also dependent on the outcome. If our children are attending the school next door, we will care about the quality of education and services provided to the student body. If it does not feel safe to walk the streets of our neighbourhood at night, where we live – we will be more energized to do something about it. The incentive needed for involvement in community ministry is built-in, if people have a personal stake in what happens to the neighbourhood. Relocation is about throwing your lot in with the future of the neighbourhood your congregation seeks to impact. “If Babylon has peace, so will you.” An invitation to act in the interests of others, not just our own.
The asset of having church members living in the community that the church seeks to impact is having the advantage of an existing network of relationships – neighbours, parents known through school, business owners. Church members know a neighbourhood from “real-life” settings, not just Sunday mornings. Residents of a neighbourhood will understand most clearly the real problems people are facing. Being physically present on a day-to-day basis, especially if one is present in a marginal, under-resourced community, where the fabric of community is coming apart – will provide great clarity about God’s purposes that are otherwise hidden and unavailable to commuters. Not knowing neighbourhood residents personally, is a sure fire way to go through life ‘blind”. This is why we live a 10 minute walk from church – as do a number of us – that all the SMC pastors live within a mile of the church feels great to me
Okay…that being said…I want to let you off the hook a bit. If all of SMC would decide to relocate to the Lake City – that would not be a good thing. Unless it is well planned – that kind of mass population movement, even if it is spread out over a number of years, usually ends up as ‘gentrification’. Gentrification is when lower-income neighbourhoods experience urban renewal – the investment in housing, infrastructure and business development of a community. Investment in and of itself – is not a bad thing – but it can have a negative impact if it means that community residents are displaced, affordable housing options are not preserved, or the cost of services makes living in the neighbourhood only accessible to a higher income bracket…this is already happening in Lake City, and the next 10 years will be remarkable in how much this neighborhood will chance as developers look for available properties.
There most certainly need to be people from SMC – seeking God in prayer – and discerning a call to move into the Lake City. Or to leave SMC and join a congregation in the neighborhood where they live. Churches need those pathways into the community and its culture. But this should not be at the expense of the residents already living in the community. The measure of success in community development is not how many people have moved in (how attractive the neighbourhood becomes to outsiders – and believe me if all of SMC moved to Lake City crowds would follow – because you are such a cool group of people), it is not about how many people move to Lake City but how many people STAY and are empowered to assume positions of leadership. Stability of a neighbourhood’s population will facilitate the developing of a long-term vision that community development needs in order to be effective over the long haul. Housing that is not developed in Lake City for low-income and homeless RESIDENTS of Lake City – will be the loss of the very leaders of this neighbourhood.
A second reason why I would not advise all of SMC to move to the Lake City is that you would lose out on some advantages needed for community ministry. The challenges faced by commuting congregations are obvious. Members’ lives are spread out; they resist participating in one more thing they have to drive to. The ability to distance themselves literally, from the pain and problems of a needy community dilutes commuting members’ motivation to address the needs. Members may also wrestle with prejudices and fears about the community around their church building. Being from another neighborhood can also be a barrier to forming relationships of affinity and trust.
But the advantage of commuting churches, is that they can draw on a broader network of human and financial resources to support their ministries. They can build bridges between communities, and be open to the mutually transforming experience of meeting someone of another economic class, faith tradition, or ethnic background.
The bottom line with regards to relocation is – how can the church be a presence in the lives, struggles and stories of a neighbourhood? Yes – moving next door is one answer – but a Christian can move into a neighbourhood and not talk to their neighbours, let alone inviting them to life in Christ, inviting them to church, or working together for community transformation. Being a presence is more than just being physically present. It is about engagement, listening and learning
If we want to know the point of view of the neighbourhood, then we must find creative ways to break out of our comfort zones – and to coax others out of theirs. Crossing borders and boundaries of ethnicity, culture, and economic place – in pursuit of direct, up-close, authentic encounters with the ‘other’.
During Lent and Advent, St. Matthews Maryland Anglican Church in Winnipeg has a ‘Soup and Stories’ program for community residents. An evening to explore the biblical story of the season, but also share a meal. Our small group at the time provided the supper, and participated in the program this past advent. A friend of ours reported afterwards that it was pretty stressful to be at a table, by herself, with community residents…what kind of questions are okay to ask?…what do you do for a living?…where do you live?…normal questions when she is meeting people like herself, but they seemed awkward, and loaded in this setting. She felt helpless, nervous…and inadequate…which is no doubt how some folks from SMC feel about the prospect of coming to a Community Meal.
How do we pursue authentic encounters with people whose experience is so different from our own? Or whose opinions we don’t agree with? Or whose faith tradition we don’t understand? How do we relate to our political…cultural…religious… economic…’other’?
Going back to the story of Grace Community Church, which I introduced last week. I think we can see some elements of the posture of authentic encounters. That of being human, living and expressing ourselves – in ways that are honest about our need for grace, and which also celebrates the gifts we have – and seeking to discover the gifts in others, their passions, their hopes and dreams. Steve, a member of Grace Community, was their first real misfit. He looked like a miniature Santa Claus who wore old, white undershirts with his ‘jolly’ belly hanging out. He had few talents or assets visible to anyone. But Steve, a Vietnam veteran and ex-drug addict, had God’s heart for the wounded. Steve had a vision for helping former drug users, so he helped Grace start a residential program for those in recovery.
The good work that Steve longed to offer, may have been overlooked if people had stayed on the surface with him. But somewhere along the line deeper questions were discussed, stories were shared, hospitality experienced…and a path of God’s missional hope became clear.
Let’s close with a time of meditation, on the words of OMD – whose thoughts represent a transformation possible in all of our relationships.
The Invitation – by Oriah Mountain Dreamer (a Native American Elder)
It doesn’t interest me what you do for a living,
I want to know what you ache for,
And if you dare to dream of meeting your heart’s longing.
It doesn’t interest me how old you are.
I want to know if you will risk looking like a fool, for love, for your dreams,
For the adventure of being alive.
It doesn’t interest me what planets are squaring your moon.
I want to know if you have touched the centre of your sorrow, if you have been opened by life’s
Betrayals or have become shriveled and closed from fear of further pain!
I want to know if you can sit with pain, mine or your own,
Without moving to hide it or fade it or fix it.
I want to know if you can be with joy, mine or your own, if you can dance with wildness and let
The ecstasy fill you to the tips of your fingers and toes without cautioning us to be more careful,
Be realistic, or to remember the limitations of being human.
It doesn’t interest me if the story you’re telling me is true.
I want to know if you can disappoint another to be true to yourself; if you can bear the accusation
Of betrayal and not betray your own soul.
I want to know if you can be faithful and therefore trustworthy.
I want to know if you can see beauty even when it is not pretty every day, and if you can source
Your life from God’s presence.
I want to know if you can live with failure, yours and mine, and still stand on the edge of a lake and
Shout to the silver of the full moon, “Yes!”
It doesn’t interest me to know where you live or how much money you have. I want to know if you
can get up after the night of grief and despair, weary and bruised to the bone, and do what needs to
be done for the children.
It doesn’t interest me what you are called, or how you came to be here.
I want to know if you will stand in the center of the fire with me and not shrink back.
It doesn’t interest me where or what or with whom you’ve studied. I want to know what sustains
You from the inside when all else falls away.
I want to know if you can be alone with yourself,
And if you truly like the company you keep in the empty moments.