Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Can Community Outreach Ever Be Harmful?

by Janessa Chastain
Crossposted at The Church Mouse.

I spent almost two months this summer working as an intern for the Communities of Shalom in Memphis, TN. Communities of Shalom is a ministry of the United Methodist Church and the national office is located at Drew University. Here is a little nutshelled description for y’all who haven’t heard of us before: A Shalom zone is a usually a neighborhood, although it can be a city, that can be led by one organization (usually a church) but trains and then partners with many churches and organizations in the area. Together, they create a vision and a plan, and then work together, bringing in new groups, to realize that vision. Our Shalom model of outreach is asset based; that is, we believe that the resources and people needed to change a community already exist within that community.

I don’t know that I’d realized there were different formalized models of outreach. One of the things that was most interesting for me was being able to observe and interact with so many types of outreach in Memphis. It has given me the opportunity to really examine the methods, but more than that I've come to realize that sustainable success is really dictated by the attitude that one brings to the work.

The neighborhood where I live is called Binghampton. Binghampton is divided by railroad tracks and absolutely reflects the cliched idea of "right and wrong side of the tracks." I am living in the good part of Binghampton, which still is very high-poverty, but doesn't have nearly the crime and blight that the other side does. My part of Binghampton has become kind of a hub for social justice workers and community outreach. Local churches have poured their efforts into rebuilding homes, home churches meet in houses around the neighborhood, and there is an amazing coffeeshop that serves also as a clinic/art gallery/movie house/tutoring center/and many other things.

It has also become the trendy place for people who feel called to “live among the poor” to move into. While I generally liked some of the ideas behind relocation, I have discovered that it, like any outreach with the wrong intentions, can be incredibly problematic. Those who do relocated often cite the model of people like Shane Claiborne, but also the larger outreach model called Christian Community Development Corporation. John Perkins is the founder of CCDA, and he created the philosophy that drives it. Perkins stresses relocation because he feels you cannot be fully invested in a community unless you are a part of that community. There are many other pieces to Perkins’ model, and I suggest y’all check out more information. I am not a CCDA expert, so I’d hate to say more and be incorrect.

Memphis is a beautiful city, but it is also a city that is deeply and painfully divided along racial lines. Neighborhoods, churches, restaurants, and even shopping centers seem to still be informally segregated. So, knowing this divide exists, it makes me profoundly uncomfortable to hear outreach organizations talking about going to that neighborhood to help those people as if they are completely removed. I sat in a church service of a major church that, while talking about local mission trips to work in a predominately African-American neighborhood, used this very removed “those people” language. The congregation was made of entirely white people and all I could think was there was no actual spirit of community here, it was outreach done out of some sense of obligation (it's just what Christians do) rather than an actual love of real people. It serves to reinforce an "us and them" society under the guise of outreach. One man I spoke with said that he thinks churches reach out "because if they improve our living just a little bit, we'll stay in our place and won't mess up their neighborhoods and churches with our presence." I wouldn't ascribe that attitude to the outreach organizations, but it's not hard for me to see why he would get that message.

The young couples I've spoken with who have relocated to Binghampton use the same language. They talk about moving to live "among the poor" as if "the poor" are a separate species. They have moved here, started home churches, but only the other white middle class "relocated" attend the home church. They speak of the limited outreach they've done with the same detachment of "we are helping those people." They talk about bringing Jesus to the neighborhood, as if Jesus wasn't already here and doing powerful work through Binghampton's residents.

Despite their good intentions, they bring a model of outreach that manages to sound condescending and self-congratulatory. In one meeting, a young man said "I'm just grateful that I've been able to bring so much good to these people." He assumed there were no assets here before he came. That (coupled with his insistance that women should not be church leaders) made me distrustful of the prevailing attitude of those relocating and starting home churches here in Binghampton. They don't seem to approach it with any intention of supporting what is being done, rather they want to move in and show everybody the right way to live and worship. Beyond that, those who are moving in to the neighborhood are buying homes that churches rebuilt on mission trips, taking away good homes from those that already lived there in rundown homes and tiny apartments. They are increasingly adding to the gentrification of the little neighborhood, which will only push out those who can't afford the result of increasing property values. Any benefit that local outreach organizations have provided will be lost as those truly in need of the outreach are forced to move away into cheaper housing.

What I've seen in the Shalom model is that it manages to, for now, avoid that kind of patriarchal and patronizing removal from the people. In South Memphis, where I spent a lot of my time, all the people involved in Shalom work have lived in that neighborhood their whole lives and are passionate about the home they've always loved. They don't need people inspired by Perkins and Shane Claiborne to move in, buy up all their livable houses, and show them Jesus. They do the work of Jesus every day, in a way that creates authentic community and is deeply rooted in incredible love. I don't doubt that's what Perkins intended when he started his model of outreach, but I think the original roots of his vision have been lost to some people. I hope that Shalom never falls prey to becoming so programmatic that we formulate the authentic love and organic community investment right out of it.

Janessa Chastain is a second year M.Div at Drew and a transfer student from the Northwest House of Theological Studies. You can find her blog at The Church Mouse.

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