Tag Archives: leadership

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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Taking off our Lenses so we can See

Do you believe that you can take a radically diverse group of people and in all that diversity find unity while still respecting differences?

When I wrote the vision of Embrace Richmond in 2005, I never dreamed it would be so difficult to live out.  Our vision is “a city united to embrace all who are in need; a place where people of every race, class and religious background join together to care for one another.”  This is no small vision.  The issues of race, class and religious beliefs have deeply divided, not only our city but our world. These are the things that have brought about wars and terrible destruction.  It would be much easier to pretend these differences did not exist or to simply hang out only with people who are just like us. There are very few places in our society where this level of diversity exists in harmony.  While I believe in the vision, I acknowledge that Embrace Richmond has a long, long way to go in achieving this vision.

While the issues of race and class are often the most visible dividing lines, I believe the issue of religion can be the most divisive if we do not approach it with sensitivity and intentionality.  However, I also believe that if we learn to respect the beliefs of others, and focus on our common values, then our shared faith in God can be a unifying bond that can help us bridge the divides of class and race.

I think all of us would agree that respecting the religious beliefs of others is essential to creating unity across religious divides.  However this is no easy task and I have fallen short on many occasions.  It is not that I sought to offend, I simply forgot to take off my Christian lenses. At times, I act as though everyone around me believes the same things I believe and by making that assumption, I have unknowingly offended others.

I know my evangelical Christian sisters and brothers are getting very uncomfortable, they are thinking “But I am a Christian and I am not ashamed of the name of Jesus!” I am in no way suggesting a kind of Universalism. What I am wondering is if there is a way for us to each be true to our own beliefs while still respecting the beliefs of others?

I am a Christian, every one knows that. I make no attempt to hide that fact.  Embrace Richmond was founded on Christian principals and values and is sustained by the prayers of my Christian brothers and sisters.  I do not want to underestimate the role our shared faith in Christ has played at Embrace.

However, even among Christians we often fail to recognize that we all have different theologies (ways of understanding our faith).  Some believe that the primary reason Christ came to this earth was to save us from the wrath of God and eternal damnation; while others believe Christ came to this earth as the tangible presence of the living God so that we could come to know God more fully through him.  Some emphasize Christ’s life, some his death, and some his resurrection. For some its all about a “personal relationship”, others the “saving of souls” and for others it’s about “redeeming the world” or “ushering in the Kingdom of God.” Some focus on the “sin of man” and some focus on the “grace of God”, some on the “word of God” and some on the “life of Christ.” All of us know that even among Christians, we don’t agree…thus the vast number of denominations.  We will never achieve unity by trying to reconcile all these differences or by coming up with some unifying “statement of faith” that we all agree on.

However, with all the many things that divide us,I have seen individuals from vastly different understandings about faith grow to love and respect one another and each others beliefs. I think often we offend out of ignorance of about what others believe.  This ignorance exists because we don’t make space for honest conversations about faith.  If we always assume everyone agrees with us,they will not feel safe enough to share that they think differently.  This is especially true if we present our beliefs as “the only way of understanding God.”  This simply perpetuates the ignorance about what others believe and prevents honest conversations. To create this safe space we must acknowledge that none of us are God…none of us know everything there is to know about God…there is room in all our theologies for a margin of error.  Honestly, I would not want to worship a God that could be fully understood and defined by man.  Would you?

Brian McLaren’s new book “A New Kind of Christianity” is an interesting read.  I especially liked his analysis  of the “lenses” we use when we look at Jesus.  Some view Christ through the old testament, some theologies view Jesus heavily through the Apostle Paul’s lens. McLaren argues that Paul viewed Jesus through the lens of his day, the Greco-Roman world view which was influenced by Plato and Aristotle.  Most western Christian’s view Jesus through the theology of Augustine.  All protestant Christians are heavily influenced by Martin Luther’s “solo scriptura”.  The list of “lenses” is endless.

Having grown up unchurched, I see the church through the eyes of an “outsider”.  I have spent time in seven different denominations and thus have been influenced by the lenses of these denominations, I have dear friends from every specter of the Christian tradition.  I read extensively and thus have adopted the lenses of those I have read.  It is impossible to read the bible, or reflect upon our faith without bias.  If you have only been in one tradition or have only experienced one version of the Christian tradition, I believe it is even more difficult to see these blind spots.

This past week six very devout Christian women read a chapter of scripture and spent time praying about what the passage meant to us personally.  Everyone of us interpreted the same words out of the same Bible passage completely differently.  So who was “right”?  I don’t think “rightness” is the point of reading scripture. The passage spoke to all of us through our own lenses and met each of us where we were.  The key is allowing space at the table for everyone to agree to disagree and fostering a spirit that allows the scriptures to speak to everyone where they are.

McLaren argues that the place to start is to view Jesus through the gospels.  That is the reading of Jesus that is the clearest, least contaminated by human lenses.  I love reading the gospels in my parallel bible which lines up the passages that are similar side by side. By reading the same story in different gospels, you also come to see that even the gospel writers had their own lenses, their own target audience, and their own agenda. Ask any devout Christian and each of us will name our favorite gospel.  My favorite is the Gospel of Luke because of Luke’s strong liberation emphasis.  What is sad is that we even argue about which gospel is the “best”.

My prayer is that we stop trying to prove ourselves or our positions as “right” and begin to simply see them as “different” or “right for us.”  I don’t want to stifle religious conversations, I think our world is hungry for safe places to explore spiritual questions.  I simply want us to engage in these conversations with the utmost respect for everyone at the table and I think context is important.   If everyone at the table happens to be Christian, we need to respect the diversity of the Christian tradition but can find common ground in the person of Jesus.  If we do not know the beliefs of everyone at the table, then we need to respect the diversity of religion in general and find common ground in the loving God who created us all.  This does not mean we have to be shy about our own beliefs, but that we simply need to acknowledge that our way of understanding God is not the only way of understanding God.

Brian McLaren’s blog is very interesting.  In a post titled, “On Emergent”, McLaren reflects on the diversity of voices present in the emerging church conversation which is trying to define what the church of the future might look like.  McLaren writes “The process is awkward and messy at times…. the key issue is to stay at the table when you’re hurt and offended and misunderstood and made uncomfortable.”

This is my prayer for those of us in leadership roles at Embrace; that we would stay at the table, seek to understand one another, be willing to be made uncomfortable, forgive when we are hurt and above all seek not to offend but instead seek unity while respecting our diversity.  It will not be easy, but I believe this is the unique call of Embrace Richmond.

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