You are browsing the archive for Featured Posts.

by Paul

Prepare for Change

February 25, 2019 in Featured Posts, Parish Stories

Prepare for Change

I’ll be honest. I woke up this morning and scrolled through my social media like it was a religious ritual. This is the sort of habit that can be revealing if we allow ourselves to see it. There are major forces shaping our lives without our conscious awareness. We develop habits that we didn’t consciously choose, and desires that we did not intend to long for. In fact, at times we get the sense that “the algorithms” aren’t just automating our preferences, they are automating us.

Like everyone else in the western world, those of us doing neighbourhood work have a hard time admitting to being shaped like this. We have been trained to assume our lives are simply the outcome of our rational choices. But, this causes us to miss all the hidden influences that dramatically form our lives for good or ill.

I returned to Australia this last season with the hope of learning from followers of Jesus who are getting intentional about these “background conditions” that train our lives without our awareness. Here are 7 words, 7 questions, and 7 short snapshots related to what I discovered. …Yes, I created an acronym! It’s not my normal behavior, but we all have to find a way to keep this background in the forefront as it gets a hold of our whole body, heart, and mind forming the way we live. We can either prepare the ground for receptivity to the Spirit and discipleship in the Jesus way, or we can find ourselves unconsciously trained toward other false and empty dreams.

P.R.E.P.A.R.E

P is for Postures. Are we cultivating postures that encourage us to release control, face our responsibilities, and risk opening up to relationships?

The late philosopher and writer on spiritual formation Dallas Willard once said, “You can’t will joy. But you can will skipping.” Postures begin with the body, but they can work their way into the heart. When I visited Pastor Jon Owen working in his new role at Wayside Church in Sydney, I was watching for these postures – ways of positioning the body, heart, and mind for receptivity.

Jon Owen has taken on incredible responsibility with his new pastoral role at the legendary Wayside Chapel. It would be easy for the urgent to take over the important. But, Jon has developed postures that keep him attuned to what really matters. He began our visit by taking us to the bottom floor of the church building and having us sit outside in the active cement parklet that faces the main street. Both millionaires and moneyless frequent this place. It is animated with every sort of character you can think of, and Jon places himself at the heart of it – sometimes sitting with, sometimes a hand on the shoulder of a friend, sometimes working together alongside the breakfast pop-up, sometimes laughter and joking, and sometimes pausing reflectively as if to remind himself just to take it all in and be.

For lack of a better way of saying it, Jon puts his body into positions that help him acknowledge his humanity and open up in submission to what the relational context requires.

Whether in prayer, sharing a meal, walking the rooftop garden, or sitting in meeting, Jon practices the postures that help him live into faithful presence.

R is for Relationships. Are we cultivating relationships that influence us toward faithful presence and open us toward deep understanding and openness to “the other.”

In Melbourne I spent time with two friends I have grown to admire deeply – Charlene Delos Santos and Sam Hearn. They both understand the power of intentional relationships for shaping your life in ways that information can’t. Over the years I have been able to watch and learn from their leadership with Surrender, and this trip only served to take me deeper in understanding.

While they both have developed many unique relational habits that transform their lives in profound ways, I want to focus on two in particular that are critical to our time. Firstly, Sam has a deep understanding of what I call the “neighbourhood paradox”.

You can’t sustain deep local presence without staying connected to other followers of Jesus who are living this out in their unique neighbourhood context. It is paradoxical because the last thing deep local practitioners think they need to do is leave their context in order to build relationships with people from other places.

But, Sam builds both strong and weak ties with all sorts of people like this. He listens to their stories, walks their streets, shares meals in their homes, prays prayers of hope and faith together with them, and then connects them to others who might encourage their life. And, as he does this his life is sustained, imagination returns, loneliness dissipates, and hope rises. There is nothing more powerful and helpful for sustaining and igniting your neighbourhood presence than becoming an engaged participant in a web of mutual relationships across neighbourhoods.

The second type of relational connection is exemplified in Charlene’s leadership. If we really want to prepare the background conditions in our lives, we are going to have to get serious about cultivating relationships with people who are different than us. This is going to require more work than might be imagined, but it will change our lives forever. The great theologian Willie Jennings wrote:


The crucial matter today for Christian discipleship is not what you practice but who you practice with. …Show me a Christian who sits comfortably in segregated ecclesial life, in a homogeneity of Christian practice, and I will show you someone who is formed for worldly power.

Charlene understands this at a deep level, and sometimes it seems her whole life has been aligned for just such a purpose – to awaken us to how important these diverse connections truly are, and how much commitment it is going to take to live toward this together. It is risky work helping bring people who are different together in relationship, but Charlene knows that this is where the beauty is, this is where the miracle of the gospel can emerge, this is where the very nature and beauty of God can be revealed.

E is for Environments. Are we creating, shaping, and placing ourselves in environments that connect and awaken us to God, to others, and to the land in meaningful ways?

This actually might be the most underestimated force shaping your habits and desires without you knowing it. As Marshall McLuhan once said, “Environments are invisible.” You don’t notice how they are shaping you because the environment is usually taken for granted. Environments includes the buildings we live in, and the spaces in between. Environments include the tools and technologies we use to operate in the world. They function as an environment when we work through them to accomplish our purposes in the world.

McLuhan also said, “The medium is the message.” In other words the technology you habitually use to read these words in front of you, shapes you more than the message I am trying to communicate.

Environments can be shaped for healing and connection, or they can be designed for power, distraction, and brokenness. This becomes self-evident with these words from Ray Oldenburg’s book The Great Good Place. “Most residential areas… have been designed to protect people from community rather than connect them to it. Virtually all means of meeting and getting to know one’s neighbors have been eliminated. An electronically operated garage door out front and a privacy fence out back afford near-total protection from those who, in former days, would have been neighbors.”

Elliot and Sarah Keane understand how important environments can be for shaping our lives and sparking our imagination. Their leadership at Richmond Baptist in Adelaide, and across their neighbourhood is a living demonstration project of the power of designing environments for transformation, love, and healing. I will never forget my tour of their church building with Sara Keane.

Everything was an ongoing living experiment in rearranging, painting, building, molding, turning, and tweaking the context to bridge the community, awaken desire for the holiness, connect people to true beauty, and rewire our imagination for shalom. Even the process of creation; incorporating the gifts, dreams, and resources of many people from across the congregation and neighbourhood, lent to the transformation experience.

P is for Practices. What are the intentional habits, traditions, and patterns we need to build into our lives to help our bodies remember the kind of person we want to be and become?

My dear friends Simon and Bonnie Uphill have crazy beautiful lives. They have intentionally placed themselves in a context where the everyday life in the neighbourhood hits them full on. Between fostering three young boys, working at the school down the road, leadership with their neighbourhood church, and their full life together with friends and neighbors, things can get a little chaotic.

On the one hand, building in the right practices is a matter of survival. On the other hand, practices are the magic that turn the ordinary into the sacred, illuminating the beauty and goodness of their everyday lives.

A cup of tea in the morning, prayers and stories with the littles before bed, spaces for both of them to get some exercise or enjoy some sport, a special day with each child, breathing. Each of these intentional moments, and many more, build a rhythm into their lives that help make them into the kind of people they desire to become at each all throughout the day.

A is for Apprenticeships. Do we commit ourselves to full-bodied learning from guides whose life demonstrates a way of being or tradition that we need to inculcate?

If you spend any length of time with Nick and Anita Wight you are going to discover very unique and life giving ways of being that are foreign to the western imagination. The White’s found a way of being reflected in the lives of many of the aboriginal leaders and groups that they knew they needed to learn from. There are many ways to speak of it (less about outcomes and production, more about land and family, less linear more circular etc). I’m not going to pretend I can clearly articulate what drew Nick and Anita in. The point is that Nick and Anita apprenticed themselves to people they respected.

They submitted to ways of spending time and practicing life that were unfamiliar to them in order for these to get under their skin, into the hearts and come out as habitual ways of living. It shifted their imagination below the level of rational thinking.

By submitting themselves to follow their guides, to practice what they practice, to invest in deep presence together, to grow through real time and friendship, Nick and Anita inculcated into their lives, characteristics they could never have developed any other way.

R is for Readings. Do we practice deeply listening to the stories of other people’s lives. Do we listen to their readings of the world, they’re “take” on how things fit together?

I stayed for several days with my longtime friends Geoff and Sherry Maddock while visiting in Melbourne. There is something very unusual about their lives. Most people assume their perspective is right, and then judge everyone who disagrees. But, the Maddock’s thrive on multiple readings. They never stop listening to the stories of other ways of seeing the world. If you spend too much time with them, it can be frustrating to the ego. Every time you think you have the final viewpoint, the ultimate “take” on something, the Maddock’s produce an alternative reading that helps you see the world from another angle. Whether they give you a book, stretch out a yarn, take you to a new context, ask you to look at a piece of art, or even get you to try to hear the story that plants are trying to tell – you are always going to have to acknowledge it’s more complex than any single proposition.

Like the prophet Nathan who tells the parable to David that helps the king acknowledge his culpability, stories like these have a way of sneaking up on you because they get you out of your head and into your body and emotions.

E is for Experiments. Are we actually trying live experiments that put our whole body into the action, or do our ideas just remain abstractions?

One of my favorite visits during my time in Sydney was traveling with longtime friend and mentor Michael Frost to get some time with Rev Dr Karina Kreminski in her neighbourhood. In Karina’s book Urban Spirituality she writes,

“I wanted to cultivate a missional community that would emerge from the streets, spaces and places in my neighborhood rather than importing pre-packaged, ready-to-go, instant and polished products from the supermarkets of Christian culture into my neighborhood.”

This meant starting a series of ongoing experiments that have required tremendous courage and risk. Karina had to let go of her pre-planned solutions and try some on-the-ground experiments that would open up her life to the realities and possibilities of her unique neighbourhood and help her whole body awaken to her part to play there. One of my favorites is The Happiness Lab – “a fun, local six week course exploring what it means to be a person who thrives in life.” People from every walk of life in the neighbourhood join together to mutually explore this theme and learn from one another. These type of experiments require breaking open our bubbles of controllable answers and investing in experiments that shape you in ways you can’t articulate.

Conclusion

In the world of speed, mobility, and distraction that most of us are embedded in, it is easy to find ourselves being shaped by powers that we did not intend. These seven words can be offered up as prayers of longing to God and intentional checkpoints along our journey to insure that we are being formed in a way that opens us up to the Spirit’s movement and the love of neighbour and enemy. It’s time to prepare for change.

Published by Sam Hearn from the Neighbourhood Collective in Australia

by Sam

The Power of Associating

May 14, 2018 in Featured Posts, Parish Stories

by Sam Ewell

When we started Neighbour Nights back in October 2017, we began with a simple question: Instead of taking an issue-based approach to community organising which starts with neighbourhood problems (ex: Why is there so much litter and why isn’t City Council dealing with it?!), what is possible if we bring neighbours together around food to talk about their gifts and how to share them? Another term for “bringing neighbours together around their gifts” is associating, and the theme of this blog: the power of associating.

In the previous blog post, we focused on gifts and the importance of gift mindedness as a posture for cultivating flourishing community-led development. If we think of gifts as the raw material for cultivating community, then we can think of associations as the way those gifts are exchanged.

In fact, the power of associational life lies in its simplicity. In The Abundant Community, John McKnight and Peter Block describe it this way:

“An association is fundamentally a group of people who have a shared affinity. Associational life begins with a group of people who are drawn together for some reason, and that reason is what makes it work. Say they all like dogs, so they have a dog club. Or they all like reading fiction, so they have a book club. An association is often a fulfilment of one’s individual likes and purposes. It is a place for having something in common, standing on common ground…” [1]

In other words, whether by a common location, common function or common interest, associations are vital to neighbourhood life because they are the primary social process by which gifts get expressed in community.

As a once-a-month repeatable gathering, Neighbour Nights has become such an association in Summerfield. In fact, in addition to creating a context where individual residents can share their gifts, it has become a kind association of associations, space where:

•    Existing associations such as Christ Church Summerfield and Summerfield Residents Association can connect and partner;
•    The Real Junk Food Project Birmingham can raise its profile and recruit participants;
•    Winson Greeners can get the word out about monthly litter picks;
•    City Hospital Greenhouses (our neighbourhood horticultural initiative) can promote its workdays and organise workshops around the latent skills of residents.

And herein lies the paradox of community organising towards associational life in the neighbourhood: some organisation is necessary in order to associate and create the environment for gift sharing and getting things done, yet too much organisation ends up destroying the social fabric of associations!

 

Eight months in, we are recognising that there is a balancing act in this kind of community organising. On the one hand, we know that just living in proximity is not enough. Proximity might make us neighbours in a formal, sociological sense, but by itself, proximity does not create associational life. Associational life must be convened, literally “called to come together.” But on the other hand, we could try to move beyond convening to managing the relationships and outcomes between these associations. The temptation here is to make all the exchanges predictable and more “efficient” in a managerial sense. But predictability and efficiency come at the cost of losing neighbourliness, and we are committed not to be managers on task, but rather “being neighbours on purpose.”

For Companions for Hope, “being neighbours on purpose” is shorthand for intentionally designing just enough structure to become “an organising agent rather than a service-providing system.”

Why? Because we believe that service provision does not satisfy the core longings of community. We believe that beyond service provision (as important as it is), there are the gifts of the people and the power of association to make those gifts sharable.

Therefore, I see the associations that come together through Neighbour Nights as a form of community gardening in both senses of the term: gardening in the community as well as a gardening of the community. The gifts of the people are like seeds, powerful yet dormant unless exposed to the right conditions; the associations are the ‘microclimates’ that provide these seeds with enough soil, water, warmth and light to grow.

In this way, Neighbour Nights is one way we have learned to garden together with our neighbours…

-Sam

This is Part 3 of a 4 part series by Sam Ewell and the Companions for Hope an Intentional Christian Collective as they learned from Neighbour Nights in Summerfield, Birmingham, UK. Republished with permission.
Part 1: Cultivating Abundant Community From the Ground Up
Part 2: From “Problem Solvers” to “Treasure Seekers”

[1] John McKnight and Peter Block, The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighborhoods (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2010), 71.

by Jodi

Our Children’s Children

April 25, 2018 in Featured Posts, Parish Stories

Jodi Theut reflects on the importance of patience, and living now for future generations.


On a cold, rainy Thursday evening in March, several hundred curious residents packed into the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD) to hear a presentation by the newish Director of Urban Planning for the city.  We were hanging on his every word as projects were outlined for this next season of the city’s history. He started out by highlighting much of the good work that has gone on in the downtown and midtown areas of Detroit—“the heart of the City,” and explained now energies were finally shifting to the neighborhoods—“the soul of the city.” The Director called this next season “The Big Payback” for residents in the neighborhoods who have stuck it out through good times, bad times, and very very bad times.

One project getting a lot of attention is a recently announced plan to connect the neighborhoods to Detroit’s thriving riverfront. The proposed plans prioritize everyone having access to amenities, limits the amount of private development, and seeks to form greenways from the neighborhoods down to the banks of the Detroit River. This vision facilitates a new commons linking the heart and the soul of the city.

I quickly started imagining myself enjoying the flourishing landscape being described—hopping on one of those greenways in the North End neighborhood to cruise on down to the River’s edge. Of course, my imagination was big enough to imagine my neighbors enjoying it too, but really my first thought was how amazing it was going to be for me.

And then the Director mentioned something about a 40-year timeline.

Math has never been my forte, but when I added my age to those forty years, it wasn’t long until  my mind’s eye realized the only thing I might be hopping on in forty years is a motorized scooter.

Gulp.

So, like, I might not really benefit from, enjoy or even see the dreams for my place realized? Not only did it force me to come face-to-face with my race towards midlife, but it also made me pause to ponder how so much of our neighborhood love, the big and small dreams of our todays, are not just about now, but also for—and maybe mostly for—the next generation.

And I don’t even have kids!

Wandering out of MOCAD, I found myself humming a chorus from Handel’s Joshua oratorio sung just after the Israelites are led across the Jordan River on dry ground. “Our children’s children shall rehearse Thy deeds in never-dying verse…” My friend and fellow-alto Katharine who sat next to me that year in the Fort Street Chorale was expecting her first child, and so the line seemed to hold even more meaning (plus Ed, our fearless conductor, was quite particular about our annunciation), so this chorus has always stuck with me.  Our children’s children shall rehearse Thy deeds in never-dying verse…our children’s children, our children’s children…

If you look up the scripture that inspired Handel’s libretto, the verses describe how Joshua erected a monument using the twelve stones that they had taken from the Jordan, saying:

“In the future, your children will ask, “What do these stories mean?” Then you can tell them this is where the Israelites crossed the Jordan on dry ground.  He did this so all the nations of the earth might know that the Lord’s hand is powerful, and so you might fear the Lord, your God forever.”

What are the stories being written in our places today that will speak of God’s goodness tomorrow? These verses from Joshua now come to mind as I engage with the life of my neighborhood and the city. It makes me long to hear the stories of Old Detroiters and the ways God has shown up in big and little ways.  It also invites me to look at the New Detroit projects with more of an eye for how today’s work is contributing to a future Detroit.  How do my stories, my neighbors’ stories, and the story of Detroit point to God’s redeeming love?

In The New Parish book, we’re reminded, “The literal shape of our communities is open to change if you have the vision and insight to shape them.  While it may take decades to change the zoning, install new parks and gardens, and build housing for the twenty-first century, the opportunity is there if you take it. At the same time, there are thousands of smaller changes that can make a huge impact. Sometimes these acts can end up inspiring the bigger projects as well.”

It will take some time for the greenways to cross from the North End to the Riverfront, but what if between now and then my neighbors and I nurture gardens, design playgrounds, listen well, and build the fabric of care between here and there bearing in mind a call from Wendell Berry to “Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias. Say that your main crop is the forest that you did not plant, that you will not live to harvest” for our children’s children, to the glory of the Lord.

Five Hopeful Signs that Dare Us to Be the Church

April 6, 2018 in Featured Posts, Parish Stories

If you take five minutes to scan through your facebook feed or even the headlines of the news, it sure does seem like there are good reasons to start freaking out.

Easter day bombings in Pakistan, ISIS terrorist attacks in Brussels, Global Climate Change. Mass Migration. Growing Inequality. Nations constantly at war. Societies perpetually distressed.

Oh, and, Um…Donald Trump.

And if Trump doesn’t make you leery, or if perhaps you lean to the other side of the political aisle, it might make you uneasy that a Socialist just had a rally in a baseball stadium.

But, regardless of whether you are Republican, Democrat, or something in between, if you care about the future of the church you probably also find yourself shaking your head in bewilderment these days.

As some churches battle with each other on political issues, the tsunami of both the “nones” (the quickly growing demographic of folks opting out of Christianity) and the “dones” (those who, because of their faith, are opting out of institutional church) continues to swell. If you are paying attention, you’ll notice plenty of hand wringing in both the pews and denominational boardrooms all across North America. People fear things are getting out of control. And maybe they are.

So where do we find hope?

In recent years there has been a diligent hunt for signs of life within Christendom. But if we are honest, our search has left us wanting and confused (or do you need to check Facebook again?).

We find ourselves asking: Are there any signs of life beyond the forms and structures of church that have dominated the mainstream Christian imagination?

Most of us know that there is a rapid decline in what is commonly measured as “church growth and success.” That is, decline in membership, shrinking attendance and aging congregants. Church leaders are scrambling to attract more people to their church community, particularly Millenials, in order to increase their cultural impact. Yet these approaches don’t seem to be addressing real problems that God is inviting the church to help alleviate.

Perhaps we are asking the wrong questions and looking in the wrong direction.

While some may grieve the conclusion of church forms of the 21st century, there is, in fact, great hope out ahead of us. The next chapter of God’s story of renewal might be happening so close that it’s difficult to see. Just look more intently and you’ll notice that in our backyards, across our streets and in the very center of our cities, towns, and villages, God is birthing something profoundly beautiful. Beyond our church growth charts and measurement sticks there is a movement bursting up from the ground, a counter narrative to the anxious grip of the past. A movement is growing to reclaim the ancient idea of the parish for the 21st century. When we say the word parish, we mean that people are weaving their lives together in actual places large enough to live much of their live (live, work, and play), but small enough to be known as a character within the story of that place. In neighborhoods, suburbs, villages, and towns followers of Jesus are learning how to be the church in the everyday context of their actual lives.

Here’s what we’re talking about: People everywhere are coming together to follow Jesus and join God’s renewal in every neighborhood, every sector and every culture. We could call it ecclesial kenosis. Communities of faith are taking shape by letting go of the small story of church growth and embracing the big story of joining God right where they are.

The signs are everywhere! Out in the streets, the storefronts, small businesses, parks, porches and playgrounds… life is happening, abundantly. God’s love in Jesus is renewing the world and through it, the church is taking root in some of the most innovative ways we’ve seen. In suburbs, in city centers, rural communities and small towns all over North America and likely all over the world, the people who make up this movement are countering darkness with light, forming deep human connection and contending for God’s shalom in everyday faithful ways. They’re not only reclaiming a sense of place, but partnering with God to alter the paradigm for what it means to be the church.

At a recent retreat gathering of pioneering place-based churches, we rummaged through treasures of stories and statements in an attempt to convey what we’ve experienced as the most common threads of practices, values and distinctives that seem to be evident in this movement of God in neighborhoods all over.

It became apparent that these were indeed signs of life worth celebrating and marking. We’re calling them signs because they’re not meant to prescribe a particular method or propose a formula for doing church differently. Rather, these signs are drawn from stories, pictures and expressions of what God is already doing to love the world.

The Five Signs of the Parish Movement

1. Centering on Christ: Formed by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we seek to share life together as a tangible expression of Christ’s body in our parish. Saying that Christ is at the center is not just a statement of belief but a commitment to a way of life together. As communities we commit to love one another and grow together with Christ within the grime and beauty of our everyday stories.

2. Inhabiting Our Parish: Rooting our lives in our neighborhood, we seek to join God’s renewal in, with, and for our place. Rather than trying to be all things to all people, we are learning to accept our limitations as a gift from God, live with intentionality, be known by our actual neighbors and tangibly love those around us. We seek to participate in God’s renewal by listening to, serving, and caring for the land and the people where we live, work and play.

3. Gathering to Remember: Trusting that God is at work, we draw together in worship to remember the larger story of our faith, rehearse the kind of people God desires us to be in the parish, and encourage one another in love and discernment. We have discovered that the more active we are in joining God’s renewal in our neighborhoods, the more crucial it is for us to gather back together to grow in our faith, strengthen one another and remember that we are a part of the massive story of God.

4. Collaborating for God’s Renewal: Joining God’s renewal within the broken systems of our world, we seek to reconcile fractured relationships and celebrate differences by collaborating across cultural barriers and learning to live in solidarity with those in need. It’s never been more important to foster unity between all the diverse followers of Christ within our local contexts. Just as important, we are learning to collaborate with neighbors from other traditions, faiths and experiences as we journey alongside the suffering and pain of those around us. If ever there was going to be a robust movement of unity in the 21st century church it will likely be lay-led, local, and in the neighborhood. When unity and trust grow between us, it is amazing how we can work together and build peace for the common good.

5. Linking Across Parishes: Actively connecting with other Christian communities across parishes regionally and globally, we grow in mutual learning, friendship, and life giving partnership. We live in the most interconnected moment this world has ever experienced. We are learning how desperately we need one another if we are going to step into the challenges and opportunities set before us. Not only do we need to trust God but we are committed to learning how to trust one another as well. This is not an easy task, but there is no other way to be faithful, much less effective, if we don’t learn how to link up at an unprecedented scale.

We should say in conclusion that these five signs are not a new gimmick or fad. After all, the Church through the ages has certainly been living into these themes since the beginning. But it does feel like there is something new in the air. And while there may be plenty of confusion and frustration swirling around our broader culture and within the church, we find ourselves brimming with hope. If more and more communities take on this God sized dare to faithful presence in our neighborhoods, then we couldn’t imagine a brighter future.

By Tim Soerens and Christiana Rice

by Sara

The Temple House Community

June 8, 2015 in Featured Posts, Parish Stories

A few years ago, The Salvation Army acquired six houses in a struggling St. Louis neighborhood. The houses were initially used for transitional housing, but the federal funding ended and the houses remained.

Unwilling to abandon six homes in an area where occupancy rates were already plummeting, someone had an idea. What if we filled these houses with students and young professionals who would serve in the neighborhood in exchange for housing?

The result, while good, was essentially an Americorps type program. Our community lacked depth and a real sense of mission in our neighborhood.

I moved to St Louis about 18 months ago to establish the Urban Mission Center and to guide Temple Houses into deeper commitment to each other and to our community. The process has been slow, sometimes awkward, and often hard. But we’re beginning to recognize the formation of authentic community.

We’ve a long road ahead, but the journey is sweet.

www.urbanmissioncenter.com

“God’s temple is sacred, and you together are that temple.”

1 Corinthians 3:17

by Andy

The Inclusive Front Yard

April 17, 2015 in Featured Posts, Uncategorized

Like most yards in our neighborhood, we have a public sidewalk in front with either grass or a garden bed with shrubs marking the line of our property. It’s quite clear what’s “mine” and what’s public. People walk their dogs through the neighborhood but know it’s a “no, no” to let your dog do its business in the middle of someone’s property. We walk by and admire what each other has done, but these are not yards to really stop and enjoy. While I’ve yet to see a “Keep off the Grass!” sign in our neighborhood, neither are front yards an invitation to community.

I was first stimulated to think about this when I learned about Springwater Community and the “little free libraries” dotting the Lents neighborhood in Portland, Oregon. Here, in front yards, was an invitation to stop…to open a tiny door and either leave or take a book. This simple expression of community, of sharing, really began to open my eyes to front yard possibilities!

The Design

Last fall we gathered a whole lot of plain cardboard boxes, flattened them out and covered all the grass in the front yard. My folks had just removed a couple of dead trees from their yard and the chips from all the branches provided a nice thick mulch over the cardboard. It sat this way over the winter as I pondered and prayed about what it could become.

God was challenging me to explore what it would mean to live more fully into the plans and purposes of God every day of the year, right in my neighborhood. What would it look like to design our front yard with God and neighbor in mind?

And that’s where my vision for the front yard was transformed. As I sat looking out over the yard, I began to ask questions like:

  • What does our front yard reveal about what we value?
  • How do front yards create barriers to community?
  • As we walk through our neighborhood, what inspires us about other people’s front yards? Why?
  • Are there front yards that make us feel excluded or unwelcome? What are the elements that provoke those feelings?
  • Are there front yards that feel more inviting? Why?

Refinement

What do we value? Personally, I know I need solitude. our backyard is a place of prayer and deep reflection. Others are welcome there, but usually only by invitation. But I also value community. Over the years I’ve had a lot of opinions about what community is, or should be. It’s easy to let our opinions run away with me until “community” becomes some collection of people who conform to my standards and ideals. But that’s not community.

Community comes to us on a multitude of terms. My involvement helps shape it, but so does the involvement of each of the others who participate. Community is not my backyard sanctuary where I’ve pre-defined the conditions. Community is often messy, welcoming of the other right where they are. What would that kind of community look like in my front yard?

Inviting

We began exploring what it would look like to have an inviting space. We don’t want this to be a space people feel they must be personally invited into, we want this to be a place that draws people in. A space that says “Welcome”. Whether we are in the front yard or not, we want people to feel this is a place of rest, of quiet conversation, reflection, and community.

Although we have only 40 feet of front yard garden space, we created two paths from the sidewalk into the garden. The paths fan out at the sidewalk, a kind of visual invitation to venture in. Paths radiate in waves like rays from the sun. Nothing is straight, but flowing and natural. We didn’t want it to feel like a formal garden but a place to casually explore.

front.arial.7.31.2014.labled

The design

Soon we added a bench next to a micro-library along one of the paths – an invitation to come in, to sit, to share. We also have plans to include a you-pick tea garden with a variety of mints, lemon balm, and herbs for the taking. Later we may even add vegetables and flowers to share.

A Grand Experiment

This is really all a grand experiment. We don’t know where it will lead. Already God has touched and challenged us to rethink what it means to love God and love others in the context of our landscape. As we’ve explored what can be done, I’ve found myself more open to how this all applies outside the confines of our own yard. Curious neighbors have stopped by to find out what we’re up to, which has led to some wonderful conversations and new ideas for the space. While talking with our neighbor to the south, we were inspired to purchase together two espalier apple trees to plant on the border between our yards. Soon we’ll be sharing the fruit of friendship!

And really, as I reflect on what God is cultivating in us through this redesign of physical space, I’m realizing that the cultivation and nurture of friendship is not limited to a garden or a yard but is a challenge to each of us whether we live in urban centers, suburbs, or way out in the country. Perhaps the most authentic of gardens are the ones that break down the barriers between us and them, and mine and yours. And maybe the garden is simply a metaphor to encourage us to more intentionally cultivate community from the barren soil of alienation and loneliness and to nurture friendship from soils contaminated with fear and suspicion.

by Paul

Theaster Gates: How to revive a neighborhood: with imagination, beauty and art

April 4, 2015 in Featured Posts, Uncategorized

Parish Collective Co-Director Tim Soerens has long followed the wonderful work and thought of Theaster Gates. Don’t miss this Ted Talk and the powerful Q&A at the end. 

“Theaster Gates, a potter by training and a social activist by calling, wanted to do something about the sorry state of his neighborhood on the south side of Chicago. So he did, transforming abandoned buildings to create community hubs that connect and inspire those who still live there (and draw in those who don’t). In this passionate talk, Gates describes his efforts to build a “miniature Versailles” in Chicago, and he shares his fervent belief that culture can be a catalyst for social transformation in any city, anywhere.”

Chilly Chili Cook-Off!

February 1, 2014 in Featured Posts

Last night, in the middle of winter, a couple dozen neighbors in lower Lents did a walk-about tour among six houses to taste everyone’s home-made chili. What fun! Everyone had scorecards and there was a tallying of votes by the end. Highlights included Leigh’s white bean and rabbit chili and, though I didn’t get to try it, Jacob’s All-Texas chili. I enjoyed that we all got to visit the homes of such different folks: a long-time resident, newlyweds new to the ‘hood, and a couple that’s squatting in a long-abandoned (and therefore candlelit) house.

All in all it was like rapid-fire hospitality. Really fun!

How Food Can Bring Us Together

November 4, 2013 in Featured Posts, Uncategorized

Themes: Food, Local Economy, Cooperative Economics

Chris Smith and Englewood Christian Church have struggle with living in what they call a food desert in their neighborhood.  A food desert is a place where not a lot of healthy food options are available.  So they came together and formed an Indy Food Co-Op called Pogue’s Run Grocer.  This is the first community-owned grocery store in Indianapolis, which started in 2010.  Since they opened several years ago, the neighborhood has found some sense of relational connection in eating healthier.  The store sells everything they have affordable, organic and local.  The need for a co-op was great in Englewood after other grocery stores pulled out and left because the local economy was not doing well.  So Englewood Christian Church wanted to respond to their local economy crisis with a solution for more food options.  They didn’t want to just leave the parish to shop somewhere else.  They wanted their place to help them sustain life through good food that would nurture their bodies.

 

Pogue’s Run Grocer has been one of the best environments to run into neighbors spontaneously.  One day someone may be shopping for affordable, local, organic food and they may see many people who they know.  So this so-op is much more than a grocery store, it is a way for the people of Englewood to connect with each other through a basic need of life, food and eating.  Somehow food has brought the Englewood Christian Church into greater integration within their parish.  And it all started with responding to a real need in actual everyday life in the place that they inhabit together.

 

The food of Pogue’s Run Grocer has been a sacrament of everyday life in the community.  Neighbors are more content to live in a place that is no longer labeled a food desert.  Providing more food options has unleashed the imagination of Englewood Christian Church for a greater spiritual growth together through celebrating life by the food they partake in.  Many people from the neighborhood live within walking distance to the store and this makes life a little easier.  Much collaborative work has been done around the store which builds community where others feel more belonging and purpose.

 

Pogue’s Run Grocer is an example of creative solutions to complex problems.  The Englewood Christian Church has had an influence in bringing some food security to their context where it seemed there was none.  Most of the citizens of that place rejoice that a simple thing like food can make their lives more whole as they see how the sharing of life through food can bring us together.  Englewood is learning that they cannot live without food and they cannot live without one another in relationship.

Raising Children in an Urban Neighborhood

November 3, 2013 in Featured Posts, Uncategorized

Themes: Raising Children, Urban Context, Poverty and Homelessness

 

Christiana Chase Rice is a part of NieuCommunities in the neighborhood of Golden Hill, San Diego.  She has two daughters ages three and five.  Their names are Anika and Naomi.  She has been exploring what it looks like to raise her daughters within an urban context.  Christiana is constantly trying to understand the story of her neighborhood and realizes that the poor are a part of that story.  In Golden Hill, there is a lot of homelessness.  The homeless usually live in Golden Hill for a very long time and are not that transient compared to others who live there.  She invites them into her home sometimes and sees them in alley ways and public parks.  She is teaching her daughters to see the poor as real people.  As that is what she is practicing herself.

One day when Christiana and her daughters were walking to the park they saw Raymond, a homeless man who had lived in the neighborhood for twenty eight years with an addiction to drugs and alcohol.  They had gotten to know him a bit throughout the years and became fairly comfortable interacting with him on a regular basis.  So as soon as one of Christiana’s daughters saw him that day she ran up to him in excitement calling out to him in friendship.  She saw a human instead of an addict, just what her mom had taught her.  Christiana got a little nervous, not knowing if Raymond had been drinking that day.

 

As the little girl ran up to Raymond, he picked her up and held her.  Christiana kind of got frightened at first and then relaxed a bit.  It was a moment of awe and wonder, but also a moment of horror.  Christiana had to see the human person Raymond was and let this all happen trusting that her daughter would be fine.  Raymond held Christiana’s daughter in his arms for several minutes.  As he was holding her she gave him a big hug and then he put her down.  This was the first time that Raymond had received a hug from a child in a long time.  Raymond had been touched by a child out of love.  This made him feel like he was human again in the midst of all the shame and rejection he had experienced in his life.  After this experience they all spent some time together talking, laughing and playing at the park.  Christiana could tell that Raymond was having one of the best days he had experienced in a long time.  He didn’t have to escape his pain in the moment.

 

Christiana saw that day how her daughter reinforced her passion for seeing the homeless as human.  It all came so unexpected to her.  It snuck up on her so mysteriously.  But God has been teaching Christiana to raise her children in an urban neighborhood with courage.  She is learning not to fear what the cultural narratives are telling her about the “safety” and “comfort” of raising children in the suburbs.  Christiana feels that her girls will be more authentic as they grow up within a diverse urban context in everyday life.

Creating Collaboration Together in the Parish

November 3, 2013 in Featured Posts, Uncategorized

Themes: Collaboration, Partnership, Poverty, Hospitality

 

Mark Votava moved to the neighborhood of Downtown Tacoma, Washington about nine years ago to become a part of the Downtown Neighborhood Fellowship.  His life has been about exploring a way of life about becoming a local practitioner of relational care within the parish in which he shares life together with others in.  After living in Downtown Tacoma for the first five years or so, Mark was discovering that Downtown Tacoma has a lot of poverty in it.  At first, he did not know much about being in relationship with others who have addictions, mental illnesses or might be in a situation of homelessness.  But he soon became interested in becoming friends with these kinds of people who seemed so “different” to him.  He started to learn about all the organizations in his neighborhood that worked with others in poverty.

 

The Downtown Neighborhood Fellowship was looking at partnering with existing organizations in the parish who had already been there for many years caring for people in their local context rather than starting something new.  So Mark soon became aware of the Tacoma Catholic Worker in which he was living just three or four blocks away from.  He started to learn about the co-founder of the Catholic Worker, Dorothy Day, by reading a bunch of books about her.  The writings of Dorothy Day inspired Mark to see Christ in the poor among him.  Mark became friends with his neighbors, the Tacoma Catholic Workers, and eventually moved into one of their hospitality houses called the Guadalupe House.  He learned that they have eight houses within a block of each other and share a big community garden together.  The Tacoma Catholic Worker has been in Downtown Tacoma for the past twenty five years.  One of the founders is an eighty four year old  Jesuit priest who has a deep love for those with mental illnesses.  At first, this was odd for Mark to be in relationship with those who are much older than him and who have mental illnesses.  But it gave his life a deeper sense of purpose to be in relationship with the poor of his neighborhood.

 

The Tacoma Catholic worker, as Mark describes it, is an urban village that practices hospitality to the poor, marginalized and oppressed in the neighborhood.  They strives to be merciful to the poor through caring for their basic needs like providing food, clothing, housing and genuine care through relationship.  Mark has been living in community with the Tacoma Catholic workers now for the past three years.  He has been learning that he cannot escape the poverty that is around him and most learn to be shaped by it through all the people he shares life with.  In a society that teaches us to run from poverty this can be hard at times, but the experience of practicing seeing Christ in the poor is very life-giving and powerful.  Although listening to the poor can be frightening, it can also show us the life of Jesus among us in many ways.  Mark is learning not to be so afraid of the poor.  He is learning to see his commonalities with them instead of just his differences.

 

Mark is learning how to better share life with others through being a part of the Tacoma Catholic Worker and the Downtown Neighborhood Fellowship simultaneously.  He doesn’t see these as two communities, but as one parish working together.  The Downtown Neighborhood Fellowship has found much collaboration with the Tacoma Catholic Worker over the past several years because they are both becoming neighbors and friends together in the same parish.  The Downtown Neighborhood Fellowship is slowly becoming mentored by this relationship with the Tacoma Catholic Worker where so many intersections have been happening.  They are currently renovating a neighborhood common space together in the back yard of the Guadalupe House, partnering on supporting one another in hospitality to the poor and have formed a group called the Madrinas, who are made up of women seeking to care for the common good of the neighborhood together.

The Liberation of Walking More

November 2, 2013 in Featured Posts, Uncategorized

Themes: Walking, Relational Connection, Simplicity, Slowing Down

 

Mark Votava who is a part of an innovative local church called the Downtown Neighborhood Fellowship recently sold his car this past summer because he wanted to live more locally and walk more.  This has been very liberating for Mark as he has found a way to slow down and connect with his parish each day through walking.  Mark has now centered his life on being faithfully present through walking in solidarity with his neighborhood.  Simplifying his life in this way has led Mark to save money by not having to dedicate income to pay for insurance, gas and repairs.  This frees him to work less hours so that he can be more present relationally to his neighbors.  He has saved hundreds of dollars in the process of not having a car and gets way more exercise daily.  Mark always felt the pull on him sitting in an isolated car by himself driving through the neighborhood or on the freeway to get him places far away from his local context.  Mark went through an extensive discernment about experimenting with living without his own motorized form of transportation and he doesn’t miss his car that much.

 

The Downtown Neighborhood Fellowship is based on a local way of life in the parish where others live in proximity, so walking actually becomes a core spiritual practice in  life together.  Mark has reimagined walking as a form of what he calls an on-the-ground practice based theology where it puts him in contact with his neighbors more often in everyday life.  And this is where his spirituality takes place with God through his neighbors.  When Mark walks down some of the streets in Downtown Tacoma, he might run into up to five or ten people on any given day.  It is healing to walk down the street and people recognize you, acknowledge you and chat with you.  Mark is becoming known more in his parish because of his persistence to walk places rather than drive.  He is coming to understand the spirituality of walking.

 

One day Mark was walking in the neighborhood on an especially nice, sunny day in Tacoma.  Sometimes Mark does this as a form of reflection with no apparent destination in mind, but just to be outside and appreciate the beauty of it all.  He happened to run into his friend Matt who works in the neighborhood and was taking a stroll on his break.  So they walked together around a public park in the neighborhood enjoying each others conversation.  On their walk through the park, Mark greets another friend Nancy and passes another friend Peter who happen to be passing by.  He also encounters Dotti on the sidewalk randomly.  He walks past the bakery where some friends Liz and Sean work to say hi.  Mark might pass by some neighbors that he doesn’t really know and just says hello anyway in the hope of maybe getting to know them better.  This is a typical day for Mark where sometimes he sees more people than other days, but he is cultivating a habit of seeing others in his neighborhood through walking in the parish.

 

Walking has transformed Mark’s way of life where this practice is shaping him to have the imagination to love his neighbors as Jesus taught us.  Mark is understanding that walking can actually be a form of relational solidarity with others in their pain and joy in life.  Walking creates the environment for awareness of our neighbors in the place that we live.  Mark is discovering that when we walk we slow down to see what is hard to see in our cars.  We see the built environment more, we see other people’s faces, we see the birds flying in our neighborhood, we see the trees, we feel the sun and rain on our faces.  We experience so much of the texture of life when we simply walk.  It is noticed and valued.  We become more mindful relationally and begin to enjoy life more.