Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Climb

Last week as I was boarding a plane for Florida, where I was to embark upon a seven-day luxury cruise vacation, my best friend was boarding a plan for Delhi, India, where she and her husband were to spend a month visiting different slum communities. From day one of their marriage, they have intended to live and work in a slum somewhere in the world. This visit is a giant step forward in the long and prayerful process they have undertaken to become slum dwellers.

As I was cruising comfortably with my family, I prayed for safety and discernment for these friends as they traveled so far from home. As I pushed back half-eaten plates of food in the cruise ship’s dining room, the third dish of a four-course meal, I thought of what she might be eating with her new acquaintances in India. Something much simpler, I imagined, like the meals she once took every day during a Lenten commitment: only rice with beans and vegetables.

There are differences between her week of travel and mine, differences that make me a bit uncomfortable when I ponder them. And I don’t mention them to be self-deprecating or to be falsely modest about the woes of an (admittedly) spoiled girl.

I say these things here because they have helped me consider anew what role one’s social location plays in the pursuit of justice and the fulfillment of God’s kingdom. I have often questioned what I can truly know about a thirst for justice when I was born into a safe, comfortable suburban home, and not into a slum or a refugee camp; what I can truly know when the color of my skin still affords me certain privileges; what I can know when I was born a third-generation Methodist in a country that has never questioned, targeted, or persecuted the faith my family and I claim.

But then, all the same are true of my friend (well, except that she’s Presbyterian). And she has never allowed her social location to confine her to a halfhearted, pigeonholed ministry because she can only be “relevant” in a white, upper middle class context. She crosses the boundary lines that are so often drawn by society because God calls her to love people…not just people who look like her, not just the ones she would only meet aboard a luxury cruise line.

I don’t think we all are called to the slums of India. I think I can work for justice in a neighborhood United Methodist Church in the States, even if it’s an upper class one. What my friend teaches me is that a justice-oriented minister refuses to be relegated (or relegate herself) to the strata of society into which she was born and feels most comfortable. A justice-oriented minister follows the call without hesitation or fear.

Last week our ship made a stop in Jamaica. My family elected to a tour one of the island’s waterfalls. We were promised a rocky climb to the top, 600 feet above our entry point into the river bed. The water was cold and crystal clear. The adventure reminded me of the famous Amos (cookie anyone?) passage:

But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (5:24).

This verse often has connotations of babbling brooks and peaceful currents. But Abraham Heschel notes in The Prophets that the movement implied here is of a mighty, powerful, and restless force. I saw that power in the waters of Jamaica. Our group had to follow a trained guide, one who knew where we could safely step, to get to the top. We were instructed to grasp hands and pull one another up, rock by rock. I believe that’s the force of justice God envisions, one in which we all are required to climb upward together. I sometimes find myself only idling in the tranquil waters at the base of the falls, lulled by the safety and familiarity. Yet I know that the quest for justice should involve some discomfort—a few murky steps into the tide, a slap in the face by a surging wave: these inevitably accompany a step outside what's comfortable. 

I trust in God’s guidance for those first wary steps out of the calm waters. I have seen how God is leading my friends halfway around the world to India. More and more I am reminded to look at my own journey and see how and where God is leading me. What is so hard for me to grasp, though I am trying every day to do so, is that ministry is less about the cruise and more about the climb. 

Whitney Pierce is a third year Master of Divinity student at Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, GA. She is a certified candidate for ministry as a deacon with the United Methodist Church. 

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.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Living out Loud Helped Me to Hear God

I’ve spent my entire life in a smaller town of 25,000 people attending the same First United Methodist Church downtown each Sunday. What has made my faith journey interesting is the experiences I have been blessed with on a regular basis. Before I graduated from high school I had visited six countries, encountered many cultures, and spent five summers doing mission trips rebuilding homes for the poor but never thought that through all of the uplifting communities I would find myself feeling lost, distant from God, and a stranger to Jesus. I never thought that through all of the empowerment of service as a young person I would become unable to find God for myself.

As a college student I attended Student Forum each year and even made a trip to Isreal/Palestine for a Holy Land tour in March of this year and I had never felt more disenchanted with organized religion in my life. It was heartbreaking watching the intensely different religious groups inside Jerusalem live together in peace but outside of that closely bonded community people are killing each other in the name of God and the U.S. is quickly becoming famous for persecuting Muslims for no reason. I always wondered, what is keeping us from a holy unity? I became even bitterer after attending Student Forum this year, and not because it was a bad experience but because it was a wonderful experience as usual but I knew that the Global organization could never become as passionate about change and progress as we could when we got together. Even in our differences we could create lasting conversation. Even when we got riled up and tried to throw out the rules our intent was to continue the process and discussion. Then I met someone from OnFire at the event and I knew this was my year-round connection to the passion I had for lasting peace and justice.

Attending my annual conference in Kansas City this year made me realize that it was my job to bring these issues to a greater audience and that, as daunting as it seems, change began with me. I lived what I believed in, I had just never had the courage to discuss it with complete strangers until I went to the Kansas East annual conference. I decided that, after introductions and the niceties were over, I would ask an open ended question and If the answer was different from mine I would politely ask “why?” and continue to listen because even our opposition has a right to be heard. (Reconciling Ministries taught me that.)

So today I know that through my struggle to find God I had to dig deep and search intentionally because I now have a deeper relationship with others and a greater relationship with God than I ever imagined.

Sarah is pictured here with other young adults and pastors from Kansas at Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.

Sarah Roemer will be a senior at Emporia State University in Kansas and majors in Psychology with an emphasis in Pediatric Developmental Disability and Autism. She works with developmentally disabled adults though Auspision Agency and is a member of the Kansas area Board of Church and Society and is a delegate to her annual conference (which will become the Kansas/Nebraska Ecumenical Area). Sarah is also a member and Conference attendee of Interfaith Youth Core in Chicago.