Category Archives: Unity Works Reading

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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Filed under Community Development, missional church, Theology, Unity Works Reading, Urban Ministry

Is it Safe?

Lion of the Dublin zoophoto © 2004 Tambako The Jaguar | more info (via: Wylio)

 

Do you remember this scene from the movie “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe?”

“Is he a man?”, asked Lucy.

“Aslan, a man?”, said Mr.Beaver sternly. “Certainly not. I tell you, He is the King of the wood and the son of the Great Emperor Beyond the Sea. Don’t you know who is the King of Beasts? Aslan is a lion – The lion. The Great Lion.”

“Ooh”, said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he…quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion!”

“That you will deary and no mistake”, said Mrs.Beaver. “If there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”

“Then he isn’t safe?”, said Lucy.

“Safe?”, said Mr.Beaver. “Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? Course he isn’t safe…..but he’s good. He’s the King I tell you.” – The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.

I did not get the profound significance of this statement until the second or third time I watched The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.  I meet many Lucy’s in the work that I do.  When I go out to Churches and invite Christians to venture into the inner city to spend time with Christ among the homeless population, the first question is always, “Is it safe?”  I never know how to answer this question because following Christ is always a dangerous proposition.

You do not have to spend much time in the Apostle Paul’s letters to realize just how dangerous being a Christ follower is. One of the best examples is 2 Corinthians 11:24-26 where the Apostle Paul writes

“Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea,I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers.”

I love this passage because no matter how bad things get for me; I have it good compared to Paul!  So why is it that we as Christians today think that we can follow Christ and still play it safe at the same time? There is certainly much biblical evidence to the contrary.

However, I cannot judge the Lucy’s of the world.  “Is it safe?” was my first question when I heard God calling me into the city to spend time with a young homeless mother named Stephanie who had just exited the local shelter.  I knew in my first encounter with this woman in the safe comfortable confines of my local church that Christ was present as she and I shared our stories.  I knew that the call to visit her at her home was of God and yet I almost allowed fear to keep me from choosing the good over the safe.  I almost allowed the enemy to steal the tremendous blessings that grew out of that first act of faithfulness by convincing me that my safety was more important than my obedience.

I will never forget my heart pounding as I drove into the city and the ominous words of my husband who urged me not to go because “this city is a dangerous place”.  I had him on the cell phone the entire time I was searching for Stephanies’s apartment.  Like Mrs. Beaver pointed out, there are few who can go before the King without their knees knocking.  But the minute Stephanie opened that apartment door and embraced me as her sister in Christ, all my fear vanished.  God does not remove our fear, but if we are faithful to persevere in spite of the fear, God will reward our faithfulness.

I think the larger question is “Is it safe to ignore the call of God?”  I am not big into the use of “fear of God” as a reason for people getting involved.  Instead, I see the real risk not in God zapping us for being disobedient but the greater risk is in us missing out on the blessings that God has in store for us.

Do you remember the scene in Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian where Lucy after looking for Aslan throughout the movie, goes alone into the forest and finally finds him.  She throws herself, arms stretched wide around his enormous neck, and embraces him with such love and devotion.  Can you imagine all the blessings Lucy would have missed out on had she been too scared to approach Aslan?

In Matthew 25:40, Jesus said

“The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’”

When we choose to seek Christ among the least, we are assured to find him there and while he is not safe, he is always good.

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So what does Embrace Richmond do again?

It is really demoralizing to speak for 45 minutes to a group of pastors about your ministry and then get asked, “What do you do again?”  Even worse is to have people come up and tell me about the great furniture they have to give me for a furniture bank I have not run for more than two years.  I guess it is just human nature for people to gravitate toward the tangible things and to have trouble grasping the concept of development focused ministry.

In our materialistic American culture, far too many of our responses to poverty involve “giving fish” and far too few of our responses go to the level of “teaching people to fish.”  Even fewer of our responses get to the root causes of why some communities have no fish or “the condition of the pond.”

I want to thank Jay Van Groningen of Communities First Association for sharing this “fishing” analogy with me.  Jay coaches dozens of community development professionals across the country and apparently I am not the only person doing this work who finds it challenging to articulate the process in a way that others can easily grasp.

So here is yet another attempt to articulate what Embrace Richmond does.  We teach people to fish (individual development) by empowering them to address the lack of fish in their community (giving fish) and together we address the systemic issues that have eroded the relational, economic and spiritual fabric of impoverished communities (condition of the pond).

Still clueless?  Maybe a couple of stories will help.

Two years ago I met Antionette Morell (3rd person from right above).  She is a resident of Hillside Court who shared that she did not know her neighbors and felt isolated and lonely.  We invited her to come to our listening conversations and we learned that Antionette had a dreamed of making Hillside court a friendlier more connected place.  She had a dream of welcoming new residents with welcome baskets, getting to know her neighbors, getting the residents together for fellowship events.  For a year Antionette has served as a key volunteer in Hillside Court doing all the above.

Last week we brought Antionette on as an AmeriCorps member.  As an AmeriCorps member, she will be trained as a community organizer.  Antionette will meet the needs of her neighbors (giving fish), she mentors other residents in how to be good neighbors through our block captain program (teaching fish).  Most importantly Antionette will be breaking down the isolation so often present in resource poor communities.  Antionette is changing the condition of the pond by helping her neighbors build social capital.  It has been proven that individuals with strong social networks are better equipped to advance economically.  In her own small way, Antionette is breaking the strong hold of poverty in her community.

Still don’t get it.  Let’s try one more.

I met John (3rd person from left above)  last summer when he was selected to receive furnishings through our “welcome home” project.  On the day we furnished John’s Hillside home, Antionette gave him a welcome basket and I invited him to come to our community gatherings which he gladly did.  We learned that John felt strongly that everyone should have access to enough food.  You might remember John from the post Jesus brought Sweet Potatoes.  For more than six months, John has been a faithful volunteer on our health and safety team and two weeks ago he joined our AmeriCorps team as our “Food Security” project coordinator.

Like Antionette, John will be trained as a community organizer.  John will be coordinating our monthly trips to the grocery store, will lead our mobile food pantry project as well as our community garden partnership with Shalom Farms.  John will recruit his fellow residents to help him and in so doing, he will break down the walls of isolation, depression and fear that separate people in the Hillside community.  It is these walls of isolation that is allowing people to kill one another with no one calling the cops.  By breaking through the isolation, the residents will discover “the power of we” that is essential to stopping the violence.  In his own small way, John is saving lives by feeding the hungry in his community.

Please join me in praying for Antionette and John’s ministry to the Hillside Community.  They are truly missionaries and street saints in one of the most challenging communities in our city.

So what does Embrace Richmond do?  We find amazing people like Antionette and John and we pour all our resources into helping them achieve the dreams they have for their neighbors.

So, did I do it?  Did I explain what we do in a way that people will stop offering me their furniture and instead join me in supporting Antionette and John’s dreams?

Antionette and John are only two of our ten Community Focused AmeriCorps members who have mobilized dozens of Hillside residents.  There are dozens more amazing stories I have yet to share.  So, subscribe to this blog so you don’t miss any of our great stories!  And please feel free to share your own amazing stories.

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Presencing: The Role of the Suburban Church

 

In an article titled The Church – A ‘Presencing’ Body For Advancing Sustainably?, Gail Plowman states “that actions don’t create relationships, but relationships often create actions.”  In my post “The Power of We”, I shared my belief that the core of any effective effort to change a community or an individual is grounded in relationships.  In this article, Gail makes a strong argument for what she terms “Presencing.”  Gail writes:

Presencing is a combination of being truly present in the moment – knowing the direction in which you want to go, ‘observing, observing, observing’ – and reflecting with an open mind, an open heart and an open will, sensing the emerging possibilities so that the next step is apparent, can be trialled and feedback gathered in the innovation process. On the way judgement, cynicism and fear will, hopefully, be bypassed.

I met with a Senior Pastor from a large suburban congregation this week who asked me, “What is the role of the suburban church?”  At the time of the meeting I had not read Gail’s article but as I was reading it I realized the answer to that question is “presencing.”  The church is not called to be successful, we are not called to create programs, committees, or to build structures to house all the above.  We are called to be present with a hurting world.  It is our need for quick fixes and measurable outcomes that is undermining the long-term power of  tranformative power of being present with people, looking for where God is already at work, and participating with people in the unfolding of new possibilities.

As a very action oriented person who likes to see outcomes, this article was a reminder that it is not about me, my program, or my ministry.  The power to transform the old into something new  lies in allowing God to move through us and become the presence of Christ in the world.

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Putting the Pieces Together: Affordable Housing

Every time we teach Unity Works, I think I learn more than the participants.  For those of you who do not know, Unity Works is an 8 week interactive workshop series designed to address some of the most challenging issues facing our city. Our goal in facilitating these workshops is to help congregational groups be more intentional, innovative, and thoughtful regarding how they engage in missions activities locally.  This particular workshop series is focused on the issue of homelessness in our city and we were invited to facilitate this series by members of Commonwealth Chapel.

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The Power of We: An Anti-Terrorist Weapon

“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.

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Where is Jesus?

Charles Fitzgerald

Charles Fitzgerald

Every time I teach Unity Works and people hear Charles’s story of how God set him free of addiction through an AA based recovery program, someone asks a question similar to this one from a participant a while back, “”I still have questions in my mind about the “God of my understanding”.  Does AA proclaim the Gospel or is the “God” a universal ie Budah, etc…..God? When and where is Jesus? I understand the challenge of needing to be non-denominational but how is Christ proclaimed?”

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The Nehemiah Strategy

Street Saints: Renewing America's Cities

Street Saints; Renewing America’s Cities by Barbara J. Elliott is one of my all time favorite books.  Elliott has captured stories from across the country that demonstrate the power of the ordinary person who seek to be a blessing to their community.  My favorite chapter is the chapter titled the “Nehemiah Strategy” through which Elliott shows us the power of organizing the efforts of grassroots initiatives using the analogy of the story of Nehemiah.  Below are some of my favorite quotes.

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When Helping Hurts – Post #4

Over the past few weeks I have been blogging through the book When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert.  The authors point out that how you go about alleviating poverty is the result of how you define your end goal.  If you define poverty purely as a lack of material things, you will develop strategies that focus on material provision.  If however, you define poverty as the authors do

“Poverty is the result of relationships that do not work, that are not just, that are not for life, that are not harmonious or enjoyable.”

Then you will approach poverty alleviation differently.  The authors provide this definition

“Material poverty alleviation is working to reconcile relationships with God, self, others and creation so that people can fulfill their calling of glorifying God by working and supporting themselves and their families with the fruit of their work.”

The authors go on to say

“Poverty alleviation goes beyond insuring that people have sufficient material things; rather, it involves the much harder task of empowering people to earn sufficient material things through their own labor, for in so doing we move people closer to be what God created them to be. ”

I wanted to shout AMEN when I read the following statement which sums up the goal of the ministry of Embrace.  The author’s write

“The goal is to see people restored to being what God created them to be: people who understand that they are created in the image of God with gifts, abilities, and capacity to make decisions and to effect change in the world around them: and people who steward their lives, communities resources, and relationships in order to bring glory to God.  These things tend to happen in highly relational, process-focused ministries more than in impersonal, product-focused ministries.”

To emphasize this concept of “the goal as process not a product”, the authors tell the story of a ministry that purchased an abandoned building and rehabbed it in partnership with residents of the community with the vision being to use the house as affordable housing.  The project took five years and it only yielded one house.  However in those five years, those working on the house develop deep lasting friendships with their neighbors.  These relationships were life giving and would last long beyond the end of the project.  If the goal were to create affordable housing, it could have been done much faster.  However, the goal was community relationship building and the house was simply a project or a means to achieve that goal.

I am often frustrated with funding requirements because funders seem to want you to crank out “products”; food, employment solutions, shelter beds, meals, etc.  However, relationships are not products and can only be formed through a sustainable process of connecting with people around things they are passionate about.  Yes, Embrace Richmond does provide meals, food, furniture, financial resources, employment assistance and transportation services etc.    However, these “products” are not the goal.  The goal is to empower our community members to be a blessing to their neighbors and to bond with one another and outside volunteers as they are serving together and meeting these material needs.

This is a very hard paradigm shift for some people to make.  For Embrace the goal is not more material stuff but more love, more support, more acceptance.  In the long run love, support and acceptance will break the bonds of poverty and people will achieve far more than you could ever provide for them.  The material items are simply a means to an end.  It is far easier to meet material needs than it is to empower people to meet their own needs but it is the only way to truly alleviate poverty over the long-haul.

I hope you have enjoyed the insights from this book.  As I mentioned in Post #2 the authors are far more theologically conservative than I am, but I agreed with the basic premise underlying the authors approach to the issue of poverty.

What roles can people of faith play in this vision of poverty alleviation?

What challenges do you see with this approach to alleviating poverty?

Do you know of any good ministries or other programs that are using this approach to poverty alleviation?

OK, my reading table is empty.  Any book suggestions for future blogging projects?

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Filed under Community Development, missional church, Unity Works Reading, Urban Ministry

When Helping Hurts – Post #3

One of the basic premises of the book “When Helping Hurts”, which I have been blogging through this past month, is that poverty is really a breakdown in relationships; relationships with self, others, God and creation.  The authors state, “While poor people mention having a lack of material things, they tend to describe their condition in far more psychological and social terms…poor people typically talk in terms of shame, inferiority, powerlessness, humiliation, hopelessness, depression, fear, social isolation and voicelessness.”

Outsiders tend to emphasis a lack of material items such as food, clothing, shelter and employment.   The author’s emphasis that “this mismatch between the outsiders perceptions of poverty and the perceptions of poor people themselves can have devastating consequences on poverty alleviation efforts.

The authors give the example of someone who goes from church to church asking for money to pay their bills and ask “What if this person’s fundamental problem is not having the self-discipline to keep a stable job?  Simply giving this person money is treating the symptoms rather than addressing the underlying disease and will enable him to continue with his lack of self-disciple…A proper diagnosis is absolutely critical for helping people without hurting them.”

“Poverty is the result of relationships that do not work, that are not just, that are not for life, that are not harmonious or enjoyable.”

This much broader definition of poverty can help us all to see our own poverty, which is absolutely necessary if we hope to build authentic relationships with those we serve.  According to the authors, “Until we embrace our mutual brokenness, our work with low income people is likely to do more harm than good.”

The authors believe, “Low income people often feel inferior to others. This can paralyze the poor from taking initiative and from seizing opportunities to improve their situation, thereby locking them into material poverty. The economically rich often have “god-complexes, “ a subtle and unconscious sense of superiority in which they believe they have achieved their wealth through their own efforts and that they have been anointed to decide what is best for low-income people, whom they view as inferior to themselves. One of the biggest problems with many poverty alleviation efforts is that their design and implementation exacerbates the poverty of being of the economically rich – their god-complexes – and the poverty of being for the economically poor – their feelings of inferiority and shame.”

To summarize the author gives this formula:

A material definition of poverty

Plus: The god-complexes of the materially non-poor

Plus:  The feelings of inferiority of the materially poor

Equals: Harm to both the materially poor and non-poor

The authors suggests, “For many of us North Americans the first step in overcoming our god-complexes is to repent of the health and wealth gospel.  At its core, the health and wealth gospel teaches that God rewards increasing levels of faith with greater amounts of wealth.”  This kind of theology can lead people to argue that the poor are poor because they are less spiritual than the rest of us which is simply not true.

In my next and final post related to this book, we will look at how the authors of “When Helping Hurts” suggest we can help alleviate poverty without doing harm to ourselves or others.

What do you think of the author’s definition of poverty as being a breakdown in relationships?

Do you agree with the author’s assessment that the materially non-poor often suffer from god-complexes?

What do you think of the author’s formula for causing harm?

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