Category Archives: Community Development

A Wider Net – Insights from Courtney Allen

Fishing Netsphoto © 2009 Garry Knight | more info (via: Wylio)Since moving into our new home at Baptist Theological Seminary, I have been blessed to meet a number of young pastors who are either in seminary or who have recently graduated and are looking for opportunities to do urban community based ministry.  One of these impressive young pastors is Courtney Allen, a 2011 graduate of Wake Forest University with a Masters in Divinity.

As a part of Courtney’s senior project, she wrote a paper titled, “A Wider Net: Beyond the Walls and the Possibilities that Lie Before Us.” In this paper she studies her affluent home church located in Jackson, Mississippi, ironically named Northminister Baptist Church.  Courtney writes, “I was interested in how a congregation initially interested in expanding their own physical facilities was formed by context, sermons, as well as ministerial and lay leadership to make a significant commitment to an inner-city ministry.” Courtney has granted me permission to share her insights, which appear below, as a part of my series on Kingdom Churches.

Northminster Baptist church of Jackson Mississippi was formed in 1967.  In 1998, as the church was contemplating a building project, Senior Pastor Chuck Poole issued a challenge – a dollar for dollar mission’s commitment.  Courtney writes, “For Poole, it was difficult to see how “in light of the Gospel” the congregation should make themselves more comfortable for one hour per week in a city where “there are people who are never comfortable.”  Can I get an “Amen!”?

The planning committee accepted the challenge and appointed an ad hoc “Special Missions Project Committee” whose proposal would be presented as a part of the combined recommendations of the Building Committee “in recognition that the expansion of the church facilities and a mission effort were theologically connected.” Another “Amen!”

In June 2001, the joint recommendation of these committees were approved and named “A Wider Net.”  The vision was “a wider place to gather within our walls as well as a wider embrace of others beyond our walls.”  The proposal from the Missions Committee included the desire to focus the church ministry efforts on a neighborhood called Mid-City .  It also called the church to commit to, “A Person. A Place. A Ministry.”, within Mid-City.

In its commitment to “a person” the church wisely understood that real transformative ministry requires relationship building.  The church committed to funding a “Community Minister” to serve as a bridge between the Mid-City and the church.   The church affirmed the importance of physical presence by committing to “a place” within the community where relational ministry could happen.  By supporting “a ministry”, the congregation used its financial and volunteer base to expand the capacity of work that was already happening in the community through various other organizations.  This commitment to “a person, a place and a ministry” is absolutely brilliant and consistent with ever successful example of community transformation I have ever seen.  However, I have never seen it stated so simply.

Courtney’s historical account details how the church faithfully carried out its commitment by hiring a community pastor who began listening to and visiting the residents regularly.  Community ministries were identified and the church became an important strategic partner for many.  Most importantly, the people of Northminster began to volunteer and through their presence brought about positive neighborhood change.  Volunteers got involved in community safety projects, housing rehabilitation, summer kids camps, care for the elderly, and community building events. Courtney shares in her paper that important transformation happened at both a community level and a church level as transformative relationships formed.

In her assessment, Courtney points to the importance of theological education in this process. She writes, “On Sunday mornings at Northminster Baptist Church, the idea that reading the gospels and following Jesus would necessitate radical and demanding change was frequently heard. The language of “no longer protecting oneself from the steepest demands of the gospel” was used with some frequency.  Courtney shares this excerpt from one of Poole’s sermons:

“We must not let the gospel lose its edge, even if it is an edge we find impossible to live up to. We must keep the gospel’s hardest edge out there in front of us all the time, because if it is always out there before us we will occasionally live up to it. We will have our moments, however rare, when we actually deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Jesus. There is no better way to live than that. Even if it should cause us to lose ourselves, that is where we would finally find ourselves. Nothing could be better than that.”

Courtney also noted the importance of theological teaching that reminded the congregation that, “Northminster ‘needed’ to be in relationship with those beyond their walls just as much as those beyond their walls ‘needed’ them. Northminster needed a wider circle of friends, where people could be engaged in meaningful relationships with people who did not look or think the same way they did.” She notes that Pastor Poole frequently said, “There is a big world out there and we need it more than it needs us.”

The truth of this mutual need is beautifully illustrated in Courtney’s capturing of the relationships that grew out of the congregation’s commitment to the Mid-City community.  Not only was the community revitalized but the church was transformed.  Courtney writes, “It feels different now than it did before Wider Net. Northminster thinks, acts, and speaks differently because of the relationship with friends in Mid-City.  As one interviewee noted, “A Wider Net is at the heart of what we do [at Northminster]…it is not just going ‘down there to help poor people.’” Language and understanding of community has shifted to include a broader swatch of the world, beyond previously understood boundaries and institutions.”

Most importantly Courtney noted that, “Institutionally, Northminster understands its function to equip congregants to serve the world rather than to serve the institution of the church. The wider circle of friends that formed is a part of the “two-way street” of need which runs between Mid-City and Northminster.”

Imagine this. Every church in Richmond committing one dollar to missions for every dollar it raises for buildings!  Just imagine dozens of community ministers funded by affluent churches bridging the wealthiest communities in Richmond to the most distressed.  That is a vision I am willing to give my life for.

As a side note, I can’t afford to hire Courtney to serve with us in Richmond but I feel certain at least one church here in Richmond can see the blessing that a “Courtney Allen, Community Pastor,” would bring to their staff.  Courtney is just one of many young pastors I have met recently with this call upon their lives.  Interested in funding in full or partially a community minister to serve as a bridge to your congregation?  Please let me know via email at wendy@embracerichmond.org.

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A Church Resurrected: Interview with Pastor Sammy Williams (Northminister- Part 3)

Over the past few months, I have been writing a series of blog posts about Northminister Church.  This series grew out of a post I wrote titled, “A Search for Kingdom Churches.”  My definition of a Kingdom Churches are churches that:

  1. Seek to release their people and resources out into the world instead of consuming them for their own needs.
  2. Are truly investing in the kingdom for the long-haul as a way of life, not simply doing missions events.
  3. Do more than give money or stuff, but that build relationships that are transforming not only the city, but also the church.
  4. Support Kingdom work without getting the credit or having some other ulterior motive like recruitment of church members.

My series about Northminister started with a brief conversation with Pastor Sammy Williams. As Sammy shared stories with me about how his church is loving its neighbors, he continually gave the credit to others like Jeanne Murdock, Cassie Matthews, Karel Harris and Terry Smith.  However, I have been around church life long enough to know that leaders such as these, do not spontaneously emerge.  It is only through pastoral leadership that individuals with such great passion and heart are empowered to do what these amazing ladies have done.  You can learn more about Jeanne Murdock’s and Cassie Matthew’s ministries by reading my interviews with them from earlier this year.

I decided to interview Pastor Sammy Williams to try to understand why God was drawing all these leaders to this one church and why these leaders had been able to flourish in the culture of this congregation.  Sammy gave me the answer in the first two minutes of our interview.  He shared that for many years, he had been mentored by Gordon Cosby, founder of Church of the Savior in Washington DC.  I have written about Church of the Savior many times and have shared insights gleaned from their printed materials but I have never had the privilege of meeting Gordon Cosby.  I knew right away that the relationship between Sammy and Gordon was the key to why this ordinary urban church that was on a path to death was experiencing an extraordinary movement of God.

Sammy shared the history of the church with me:

When I came to Northminister in 1986, the congregation was  80% retired.  But there was this small group of people in their 20’s who were just alive and who just knew that God wanted to do something with this church.

Northminister was referred to at the time as an “ex-neighborhood church.”  Northminister started out as the Barton Heights Baptist church and was located on North Avenue in the heart of Barton Heights.  They were looking to move in the 1940’s because they had outgrown their building.  Everyone also knew that African American’s were beginning to move north in the city. The thinking of the white community was that black families would never move north of Brookland Park Boulevard.  The church purchased what is now the whole subdivision around Northminster.  They formed a corporation, subdivided the property, and sold lots to members.   They spent 10 years developing the subdivision and building the church.

When they moved into the building in 1956, the Pastor had a parsonage across the street from the church.  Every Saturday after lunch he would leave his house and walk the neighborhood and get home in time for supper.  He said he would have spoken to 2/3 of his members in that short walk.  At their height, the church had 1400 people in Sunday school.

The sanctuary was completed in 1963.  Shortly thereafter, the first African American family moved north of Brookland Park Boulevard.  All the white families began to leave.  So what I inherited in 1986 was the remnant.  It was roughly a 300–member church. While the church started to attract new people, I was doing 30 funerals a year. So we were basically staying level.

We did some strategic planning in 1997.  That task force came back with their report and the first line of that report was – the family secret.  The family secret was that if something radical did not change this church would not survive the deaths of the present members most of whom were retired.

For several months thereafter we facilitated listening sessions.  This was radical for us.  We would come and worship at 9:00 and then break into small groups of 50.  We talked about selling the property and moving to Hanover.  We looked at the cost and the value of selling our building.  When the congregation looked at our beautiful building and the reality of what we could afford to build, the question became, “Are we really called to leave this neighborhood?” There really was a sense that we should stay.

The final proposal we adopted was that we start a new church in the present location. We realized that we were missing two generations and we knew we really needed to reach folks 25-35 years of age to stay alive.  We realized that to attract that demographic we needed a more contemporary worship experience.

I had never been to a contemporary service and had no desire to go to a contemporary service back in 1997.  I remember walking by a contemporary service at a CBF conference and thinking, “Why would anyone want to do that!”  One summer I went to 7 contemporary worship services.  Everything was contemporary but the sermon was the same.  I started asking, “How can we get the sermon to match the culture of the rest of the service?”  Over time I learned to preach in a whole new way.  We started attracting adults who had never been to church.  I taught the new member class and these new members were like blank slates.  They were hungry and I found that they energized me. After doing this new worship service for a year, I realized that I had a “new church” that I really loved and that really energized me.

When we decided to start the contemporary worship service none of us had a clue how to do that.  We put out a call to anyone interested in helping with a contemporary service and God sent eight people.  We had guitar players, drummers, keyboard players and vocalist and I was shocked – they were really good.  They were sitting in our sanctuary and their gifts were going unused.

One of the difficulties I have as a Pastor is that we are taught to compare. The models that are out there all focus on church growth.  One summer I visited 10 of the top churches in Richmond.  They were all excelling in what the world defines as success.  However, only one of them was truly racially integrated.

After that summer, I realized I much prefer what we have at Northminister.  It is not the model for church growth. I have been there 24 years and we have about the same number of people as we did 24 years ago.  The big difference is that we are less than 20% retired.  When I came to the church less than 5% of the members lived in the neighborhoods surrounding the church, today roughly 25% live around the church.  When I came to the church the congregation consisted entirely of European American’s and today roughly 20% of our congregation is African American.

Today I have two very distinct churches.  The early service consists of the remnant of the church I inherited and the later service represents the church God has birthed within the original church.

I recently had a conversation with my staff about a church I heard about in town and their response was “They are the cool church.”  So I asked my staff, “What one word would you use to describe us?” They decided the word “peculiar” fit us best.  However, the one word I pray we become known for is the word “authentic.”

The model that I would like to pattern Northminster after is Church of the Savior. Gordon Cosby is my pastor and has been mentoring me for many years.  Gordon is the most deeply connected-to-God person I have ever met. I go up to spend time with him about once a month.  When I asked him how he got to be the person he is, he said “All my life I have been in small groups with my people and they have taught me the most important things I know.”

I would say that Sammy has clearly been shaped by his mentor Gordon Cosby.  While Sammy would say that Northminister has a long way to go to even come close to being in the same category as Church of the Savior, he has seen what very few pastors ever see.  He has witnessed the resurrection of a church.  He credits this new life to all the leaders like Jeanne, Cassie, Terry and Carol and the compassionate ministries they have birthed for bringing the spirit of unity, hospitality and welcome that permeates this church.  However, none of this would have happened had Sammy not been willing to let go, release control and trust that these women were responding to a clear call from God.

I want to thank Sammy and the folks from Northminster for restoring my faith in the institutional church.  While many of my blogs focus on my perceived short comings of the inherited church models, Northminister is a beautiful example of how God is birthing fresh expressions of the church even within the walls of the existing institutional structures.

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Style Weekly Interview

Thought you all might enjoy reading this interview in the latest edition of Style Weekly:  Just click the image below to get to the article

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Dream Releasers

I know why the caged birds sing?photo © 2007 bradleyolin | more info (via: Wylio)Telling people about Embrace Richmond in a way that captures the spirit of what we are all about is one of the hardest things I have to do as an Executive Director.  We are not a social services agency, we are not program driven and we are not cause focused.  We are a community focused, relationally driven, community of faith.  I was reading through some of the early writing that I had done back in 2003 before I entered seminary and started Embrace. I ran across this story taken from Wayne Cordeiro’s book titled Doing Church as a Team.   This story was one of the early inspirations for what became Embrace Richmond and I think it captures the spirit of the work we are doing in a beautiful way.  This is Wayne’s story;

Wayne was a child growing up on an army base in Japan.  One day his family went for a ride outside the base.  When they stopped for lunch an old man at a booth caught his attention.  He was selling tiny birds that resembled a finch, in bamboo cages.

He asked the man how much and was shocked to learn they were only 100 yen each, about 36 cents.  It was too good a deal to pass up so he bought one.  As he walking back to show off the purchase to his family the old men called out to him in Japanese “Don’t forget to bring the cage back when you’re done!”  “Bring back the cage when I’m done?  I’m not planning to eat the thing.  I just want to take it home as a pet.”, Wayne replied. “Oh no,” said the old man  “You don’t understand!  The 100 yen is to take the bird to the edge of the valley and release it, so it will be able to fly freely!”

This was the last thing this young boy wanted to do.  He felt that was the dumbest thing he had ever heard of.  But he did not have much of a choice, the old man was keeping close watch to make sure he got his cage back.  So he walked over to the edge of the ravine overlooking the valley below, opened the cage door and gave the bird a couple of nudges.  Edging it’s way suspiciously toward the door of the cage, it suddenly launched into flight with a jubilant chorus of tweets and whistles. 

Cordeiro writes “looking back on the experience now, I would have paid 100 times more if I knew how important that moment would be to me years later.  That day I learned the precious lesson of being a dream releaser.”  He goes on to say

“The Church is laden with treasures, dreams and precious gifts, yet too many precious souls are going to their graves with songs left unsung, gifts yet unwrapped and dreams unreleased.  We all have dreams in our hearts just waiting to be released.”

I think this story is an excellent metaphor for what Embrace Richmond strives to do.  We encounter a lot of beautiful caged birds.  Birds caged by addiction, mental illness, poverty, unemployment, depression and loneliness.  I used to think it was our job to open the doors to the cages and let people out but after years of doing this kind of work, I have come to realize that they already have the keys.  They just need someone to remind them of that fact and encourage them to unlock the door.

That last sentence sounds like an easy task but it has proven to be a very painful process for many who have grown so accustomed to living in a cage that freedom appears threatening or unattainable.  While the little finch in Cordeiro’s story soared through the air, many of my friend’s wings are so underused that they often fall to the ground several times before they learn to fly.  Our role as dream releasers is to be there when they fall and encourage them to keep on trying.

The first time I read this story, I dreamed of being a dream releaser.  Today I am truly blessed to work with the most amazing team of “dream releasers” imaginable.  So thank you Janie, Qasarah, Susan, Sylvia, Vanessa, Chinary, Antionette, John, Charles, Josh, Brian, and Ashlee.  Thanks for helping my early dream of creating a dream releasing community come true.

If you are interested in being a “dream releaser”, please email me at wendy@embracerichmond.org.

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From Believers to Followers

My friend Lee made a good point on my blog about Christian Unity.  He quoted Jesus story of the Good Samaritan as an example of Christ call to live our faith, not just believe or say the right words.  I think if Christians put more emphasis on “following Jesus” and less on “believing in Jesus” there would far greater Christian Unity.

The fourth Thursday of every month, our Hillside team hosts a community fellowship event.  It is generally some sort of pot luck with Embrace providing the main course.  We celebrate birthdays, play games and just have fun with the team of Hillside residents who volunteer with us throughout the month.  However, the highlight of these fellowship events is always welcoming new leaders onto our leadership team.  In February, it was Windell’s turn to be inducted onto the team.  I have never seen anyone smile as big as Windell did when Janie pulled his official Embrace Richmond t-shirt over his head and he got a big embrace from both Janie and I.  He then went to his neighbor Debra, and gave her a big hug and said, “Thank you for telling me about Embrace Richmond.  This has been such a blessing to me!”

I sat and listened as Debra sang Windell’s praises.  She shared how she had been ill recently and how Windell came to her house every day to check on her.  How he went to the pharmacy and got her some medicine and went to the grocery store for her and how he came by regularly to lift her spirits.  She also shared that Windell did this for many people in the community.  In a community where most residents have been taught to stay to themselves, Windell is going against the cultural tide and breaking down walls of isolation that separate neighbors from one another.

While most people have images of gun wielding thugs when they think about Hillside Court, I have images of all the Windell’s who are just trying to make their community the best it can be.  In the nearly two years we have been walking the streets of Hillside, praying for the community, gathering the residents, and helping them tackle some of the challenges they face as a community, I have met a number of people like Windell.  They are people who choose to do the right thing, not for money, not for fame or glory, but just because it is the right thing to do.  They are people who simply want to be a “good neighbor.”

When asked, “Which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40)

We spend a lot of time in the church talking about and learning practices to help us live the first part of Jesus reply, “loving God.”  However, we spend very little time learning how to be good neighbors.  You might recall that Jesus was asked in Luke 10:29, “Who is my neighbor?”  Rather than give a simple answer to this question, Jesus replied

“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.  But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denariiand gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’”

The part of this story that always speaks to me is that it was not the religious leaders who actually lived the religious teachings, but someone who was not even a part of the Jewish faith.  When I look at Windell, I see the good Samaritan.  I have no idea what Windell’s religious beliefs are, but he obviously lives out the second half of the Great Commandment better than most of us.

This month, Patrice officially joined the team.  Patrice is featured in the picture above standing next to me.  You may remember Patrice’s name from my post a few months back.  She is the one who stepped up during our listening meeting on safety to lead a team dedicated to supporting Hillside families.  Since that day, Patrice has worked hard to fulfill the commitment she made that day.  Like Windell, Patrice simply seeks to be a good neighbor and honestly she puts me to shame.

If asked, “What is the role of the suburban church when it comes to under-resourced urban communities?”  I think Jesus would answer, “to be a good neighbor.”  The Samaritan addressed the emergency need of the man on the road and then insured that he would be well cared for by the innkeeper.  In the same way, we are to help people in crisis but also to support the innkeepers who can provide ongoing care and support to those in need.  In other words, we are to help insure people like Patrice and Windell have what they need to be successful in caring for those who have been deeply wounded in their community.

Windell and Patrice both serve as “Care Leaders.”  Care Leader’s are kind of like “innkeepers.”  They look out for the people in their part of the Hillside community and they basically model for the rest of the community what it looks like to be a good neighbor.  We are honored to have such an amazing care team.

A few weeks ago, two more young people were gunned down in Hillside court.  For the first time, I actually knew the families of both the victims.  Among the first people to visit the families were members of the care team.  In a community with so much pain and heart break, there are these “Samaritans/innkeepers” in the mix and it makes my heart rejoice. I can’t wait to see who God raises up next!

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The Virus is Spreading and I Hope You Catch it

masque anti virusphoto © 2009 ZYG_ZAG | more info (via: Wylio)The one thing I brought back from my cruise that I would have liked to leave on the boat is a nasty little virus that has left me with a sore throat, runny nose and overall yucky feeling.   My husband caught it on Friday, I came down with it on Saturday and then the girls got it on Sunday.  I probably infected my entire staff on Monday and all of Hillside court on Tuesday.  If you are one of my victims, please forgive me!

Viruses are rather amazing organisms.  You can’t see them because they are so tiny but they can infect grown healthy men and bring them to their knees.

Today, I witnessed another type of virus.  It started during our morning meditation when Antionette shared that she had been dreaming of this day for two years.  You see today, we launched our first mobile food pantry.  For those of you who do not know, the mobile food pantry is basically a food pantry on wheels.  For two years, we have been working with the Hillside tenant council, RRHA and local churches to try to address food scarcity in Hillside Court, but a lack of secure space and a lack of funds prevented us from moving forward.  The cool thing about the mobile food pantry is that you don’t need space.  The truck rolls in, you distribute the food on the sidewalk and the truck takes everything that is left over away.  It is an amazing site to see.  The other cool thing is that it is fully funded by the Central Virginia Food Bank which is such a gift to a community like Hillside court where there are no organizations who could afford that much food.

The virus then spread from Antionette to our  volunteer team as we reflected on the story of Jesus feeding the multitude in John 6 with the lunch of one small boy.  We got to be the disciples and distribute this gift which was truly direct from the hand of God.  As we reflected upon how this miracle arrived in our community and all the prayers we had prayed for food resources over the years, Vanessa helped us see that miracles are times like this.  No one on the outside would see the miracle but we all knew that is what we were witnessing.  I believe it was that time of praising God for this miraculous gift that infected the team with an attitude of gratitude.

It was then the team who infected everyone who walked in the door.  As Antionette greeted our guest with a smile and instructions, they felt welcomed and invited into the joy of the day.  As Sylvia and Vanessa processed applications and verified ID’s they extended dignity to our guests. As Chinary entertained those who were waiting with a game of charades, they could feel her positive energy and their frustration with having to wait in line turned into joy.  As Ann took their vouchers and John helped load their bags, they did so with a smile and cheerfulness.  All the way down that line, the spirit of joy translated into a spirit of gratitude from those who received.

By some miracle, we served every family and had a small amount left over to meet emergency food needs between now and the 1st of the month.

One of my favorite stories from today came from Janie.  There was a young single mom with a newborn baby and a toddler.  She was trying to hold the baby, the toddler, and two bags of groceries at the same time. There was a healthy, young man just standing around watching her struggle.  Janie went up to him and asked him to help her with her food.  He smugly said, “It will cost you .50 cents a bag.”  Janie looked him in the eye and said “You mean to tell me that you are not willing to help this woman and these kids out?  I am very disappointed that a young man as healthy and strong as you are would refuse to help this poor woman.”  Ashamed he grudgingly said “Oh, ok…I will help her.”  After he took the bags to her home, he returned to the food pantry, found Janie and said, “Thanks lady, that felt great.  Thanks for setting me straight and for making me help someone else.”  Janie then asked him if he had been through the line and he said, “No, I don’t live in Hillside.”  She said, “We have enough for everyone, grab a bag.”  He smiled at her and said, “Isn’t that just like God.  I finally help someone else and God has a blessing waiting for me.”

Viruses can infect grown men and turn them into grateful servants.

Throughout the day, the greatest blessing to me was the number of folks who came up to me and asked how they could get involved at Embrace.  They saw that the person greeting them was a resident of Hillside, the people behind the tables were residents of Hillside, the people unloading the trucks were residents of Hillside.  So many groups come into this community and “do for” the community but no one ever invites this community to “do for” themselves.  That spirit of gratitude quickly became a spirit of giving when they realized they could be on the other side of that table.  In a neighborhood where a culture of “taking” rules the streets, I know it was nothing short of a miracle that this virus of gratitude and giving is taking root.

On the applications for the mobile food bank, we asked folks if they would be willing to serve in the community and roughly 100 individuals said “yes.”  Watching people go from recipient to giver is one of the greatest joys in the world.  I can’t wait to see what God does with all these newly “infected” folks.  It is getting very exciting in Hillside Court!

Are you smiling?  Is your heart filled with joy?  I guess I should have warned you, I infected this post with the virus.  Now go and infect someone else!

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Shut Up, Listen, and Trust: My Translation of Psalm 43:10

The community of Hillside Court witnessed three shootings and three murders in the first three weeks of this year.  While Hillside has always been a rough community, this was over the top even for them.  As you can imagine, the community was gripped by fear of their neighbors and equally paralyzed by their distrust of the police.   As we did a community interest survey’s and asked the residents, “If you had a magic wand and could do anything for your community, what would you do?”, the unanimous response was “Make the neighborhood safer.”

We heard this cry and thought that the right answer was to have greater collaboration between the community and the police, so we invited the police to come and share information about a neighborhood watch program.  It became clear very quickly that this was not the right answer at this time for this community.  We heard things like “I am no snitch”, “I don’t ever want to be seen with the police”, and “The only way to stay alive in this place is if you see nothing and say nothing.”

I was baffled. In my neighborhood, if there is a safety issue, you call the police.  I quickly learned that Hillside Court has its own culture and it is a culture driven by fear.  We heard stories of police brutality and harassment and I quickly learned why there was such a high level of distrust by the community.  Most everyone I know in the community has a family member or close friend who is in jail and many have had their own run in with the law.

I thought I had the answer but I clearly heard God saying, “Shut up and listen!” at every turn.

I am thankful to Jay Van Groningen of Communities First Association for his skill and experience in doing community development work.  We decided to use Jay’s community listening approach to hear the community’s answer to this perplexing issue and I was astonished at what I learned.

Two weeks ago we conducted our first public “listening session” in which we gathered concerned citizens together and asked them these questions in this order.  We then recorded their responses on a flip chart.  More than 30 residents showed up to participate.

1.) What do you like best about your neighborhood?  This solicited responses like affordability, senior residents who care for the neighborhood, outside groups like Embrace and local churches that help the community.

2.) If you could wave a magic wand and make your community safer what would you do?  This is where it got really interesting.  It was apparent within a few minutes that the majority of the citizens were concerned, not for their own safety, but for the safety of the children who are often playing in the streets with no adult supervision.  As we listened, it became obvious that many of the older residents blamed the younger single mothers for not supervising the children.  Thankfully there were several younger single moms in the room who voiced their need for a break and the fact that they had babies and could not possibly care for the babies and watch the older children at the same time.

3.) What are you willing to do to help make the streets safer for the children? We had individuals volunteer to monitor the bus stops, others said they would help build more playgrounds so it would be easier for the moms to see the areas where the children were playing, but the most exciting outcome was a group of older moms and grandmothers who offered to support the young single moms, to help them with their children and to mentor and encourage them.  In total we had 10 people volunteered for specific tasks.

4.) Who is willing to take a leadership role and insure this all happens?  I think I shocked everyone when I said that Embrace would support the community but that we had no intention of leading the initiative.  This community is so used to having outside groups come in and “do it for them” that though we never indicated that we would, that was the assumption.  There was a moment of tension as everyone looked around the room and then thankfully Patrice boldly raised her hand.  Joe and Debra soon followed and we had our leadership team.

5.) Will the rest of you commit to support and pray for this team and these leaders?  Throughout our time together the issue of prayer and the need for spiritual renewal had come up.  Everyone in that room knew that this small band of people had a momentous task ahead of them if they hoped to make the streets of Hillside safer for the children.  It was during this time of prayer that I heard God clearly say to us all, “Be still and know that I am God, psalm 43:10” Or, my translation, “Shut up, listen, and trust.”

I don’t know if this newly formed Community Action Team will succeed.  I honestly don’t think that is as important as the fact that we gave the power back to the community.  Walking into that meeting, they felt powerless over the criminal element that was terrorizing them and powerless over their own fear of the police.  They heard everyone telling them what to do and no one taking the time to listen to them.  They felt dependent on outsiders who come and go as funding streams change.  However, at the end of that meeting, I could feel a sense of ownership and pride in that room and it was a glorious thing to witness!

Long ago someone told me that if we do things for people that they can do for themselves, that we are “dis-empowering” them and creating dependency.  This community can do all the things they noted were important.  The key is to get out of the way and let them.   I honestly was shocked that a meeting about safety led to a support group for single moms, bus monitors and playgrounds.  However, the more I have reflected upon this conversation, the more I see the wisdom and Divine hand in it all.  I think we would all be better ministers if we learned to “shut up, listen, and trust” a bit more.

Please pray for our community leaders, the children of Hillside court and those who have historically terrorized our residents.  Pray for safety especially as we move into the summer months which historically have high crime rates.  Also pray for our Embrace team and I as we seek to “shut up, listen, and trust” more in the future.

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