“If you could wave a magic wand and change anything about your community in the next year, what would you change?” This is the question we ask as a part of our initial asset mapping of our Hillside community. I guess I should not be surprised to find that 100% of the individuals asked this question have responded “make the community safer.” As I shared in 3 Weeks, 3 Shootings, 3 Dead, our Hillside community started off the year with an unprecedented level of bloodshed.
As the surveys came in, this overwhelming “safety” concern led us to host a conversation with residents and the police to discuss how to make the streets a safer place. While it made sense to me to have a safety conversation with police, I am not sure that the residents recognized that the path to safer streets would require greater partnership with the police officers. As the officers shared details of how a neighborhood watch and community policing programs worked, I got a sense that the residents had no interest in sharing information with the police regarding illegal or suspicious activity. One resident was honest and told the police officer, “I never want to be seen walking down the street with you.” Another shared, “To survive in Hillside court, you learn to keep to yourself and stay out of other people’s business.” No one in that gathering volunteered to spearhead a move toward a neighborhood watch. While no one voiced opposition to the idea, without people willing to take the lead, this kind of program will never succeed.
I have been praying a lot about this. It was obvious that the place to start on this issue is not with “organizing” the residents, even though most everyone is concerned about the issue. There is something deeper that needs to be addressed first. There will have to be a radical cultural shift from “stay to yourself” to “we can do this together.” My friend Martha Rollins founder of Boaz and Ruth, calls this shift, discovering “the power of we.” In order to make this shift, something will have to break the bonds of fear that have fueled the “stay to yourself” mentality of the residents. Somehow the desire to love ones’ neighbors will have to become stronger than the fear of ones’ neighbors.
The deeper we get into the issues facing this community, the more obvious it becomes that the root of the problems are not material but spiritual. You cannot blame people for living in fear. They hear gun shots almost nightly. They all know people or have been close to people who have been murdered. The probability of experiencing bodily harm is high and is part of their reality. I’ll be honest, coming out of that meeting I wanted to be seen with the residents and not with the police officers. Fear is a powerful emotion.
However, I do believe that the concept of neighbors looking out for neighbors, which is the basic premise of a neighborhood watch program, is the most effective way of driving out the terrorist forces that have taken over the streets and are holding the community in bonds of fear. Where I think we went wrong is having this conversation as a first step. People are not going to take risks for people they do not know. Until people know their neighbors, they will not be willing to help protect them.
While I wish we could find a “program” that would make the streets of Hillside Court safer, we keep coming back to the same conclusion – the answer is relationships. Unless the residents build relationships with one another, they will never experience “the power of we.” Relationships take time. Relationships are not measurable. Relationships are unpredictable. I have a hard time convincing funders that by building relationships we will eventually change a community. However, I know in the depths of my soul that relationships are the answer.
Last week the Embrace team went through training in the concept of “appreciative inquiry.” The question I asked was, “Describe for us the highlight of your time with Embrace thus far. Describe how you felt, and what made the situation possible.”
While there were fifteen different people and fifteen different stories, every single story involved relationship building at some level. I took the responses of my team and came up with these collaborative statements which reflect our collective ideas regarding success in the work we do:
Embrace Richmond creates safe space where meaningful connections are formed and where deep sharing is made possible.
We do this by being present, non-judgmental, and available to the community and by working as a team with the community residents to properly plan for events and activities that engage people in works of service.
We are able to create this safe space through prayer, by getting ourselves out of the way, through a practice of theological reflection, and by remembering that we can do nothing without God’s presence moving in and through us.
No one would read these statements and automatically say, “Embrace Richmond is fighting crime, reducing depression and isolation, helping people find jobs, reducing homelessness, addressing health issues or feeding the hungry.” However, through the activities described above, we are doing all these things. Not in a programmatic way but organically and naturally out of our relationships with one another.
I have spent the past week working on our AmeriCorps grant application, a grant which is the core of our funding. I am growing increasingly frustrated with the growing emphasis on the part of funders to require specific outcomes and at the same time ignore the underlying relationship formation that is generating those outcomes. Funders want specific targeted “programs” and few recognize that relationally centered approaches are far more sustainable and produce outcomes that are longer lasting. Everyone wants a quick fix to a long-term issue.
While Embrace needs funding just like every other organization, I refuse to lose our relational core. Pray that as I write this proposal, I am able to effectively communicate the power of what we are doing to a world that seems not to value a sense of community or the power of relationships.