Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Power of Relocation, Part One

Some missional reflections on the power of relocation and leadership development from my seminary class I am teaching this semester, from John Perkins book With Justice For All, on community development: 
Week 3: Relocation, Part One: A Strategy For Community Development
Background Lecture Notes to Reading, chapters 6 and 7, and Discussion Question

Which of the 3 Rs (relocation, redistribution, reconciliation) do you begin with? That is a question I get asked when I do workshops and talks on community renewal and the 3Rs, and it is one I have pondered as well. It is the desire for the end or aim of reconciliation that often causes us to want to relocate where greatest need is, and in a way it is the willingness to re-distribute ourselves that leads to re-location. But, as Perkins says clearly in this week’s reading, re-location comes first. Action, instinct, trust, showing up is the first step, even when we don’t have things worked out in our heads and heart, even when the aims aren’t clear, even when reconciliation seems unattainable and broken and our very actions cause setbacks.

Perkins talks about the shocking scandal of his “being alongside” the people in work, in play, in life, throughout the week and not just on Sunday or evening committee meetings. This is a frame that is echoed in the recent work of community mission, “Right Here, Right Now: Everyday Mission For Everyday People” by Alan Hirsch and Lance Ford in their four “moves”: move out (into missional engagement), move in (burrowing down, or incarnational living), move alongside (engaging in relational networks), and move from (challenging certain aspects of our culture). In a sense, Perkins pivotal moment of faith and transformation came when he was in California, after he had left the initial struggles of growing up in Mississippi’s oppressive land, when he was engaging in biblical study with prisoners, reading the bible with them began to open up his own eyes, and he was struck by the verse from the Apostle Paul in Galatians:” I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” This is at heart a scripture about relocation within one’s relationship with Christ, emptying one’s sense of the world, moving it out of one’s lives, so that Christ’s sense of the world and of you can move in. As Perkins often writes about the incarnation of God into the world as a critical act of relocation, so Christ moving into him/us is an act of relocation that then prompts our own into the world. The famous “praise speech” in Paul’s letter to the Phiippians, of “kenosis” or emptying in order to help fill up the world with God, exemplifying servant leadership, is another often inspiring text for church in community settings.

Perkins quotes the black liberation theologian James Cone in order to posit the primacy of Christians becoming and living out faithfulness as they identify with the poor. This is something that Jim Wallis of Sojourners also holds forth when he reminds us of scripture pointing out that the community, the person, that follows Jesus faithfully will always “have the poor among you.” That is one of the ways one’s Christian faith will be known by others, to the degree one has the poor among them. What happens when this happens, Perkins says, is that “your needs become my needs” and this shared approach creates relationship, and in the relationship the church becomes as much a receiver as a giver. To what extent are we as communities of Christ putting ourselves in the position to receive? This in itself has benefits for the church because the church that only sees itself as a giver, as a doer, will begin to take on the idolatrous notions that it is indispensable one, and often as that church may age or find itself in the midst of cultural change and not in the same position of power and giving ability as it once had the church will then be filled with shame, sense of failure, of helplessness, and in turning inward will put its limited energy into its own destructive conflict; it is a classic case of community burnout as the always giving church, never putting itself in a position to receive from others, never having shared needs, will burnout and not be able to do any giving at all.

You might be amazed at the breadth and depth of the ministries and programs and initiatives begun and that took root through the ministry Perkins was leading in that abandoned part of the Empire; so many are listed and chronicled in our reading. You might think that the church was a mega-church for all that was mentioned, but in some ways in its own local area it has de-centralized and spread its influence rather than amassing it; and Perkins re-located again from Mississippi back to California in the 1980s and most of the 90s, back to one of the highest crime areas and gang areas in California. Such re-seeding spread his influence nationally and helped his own learning, but it meant not growing only in one particular place with his organization, especially after he started the national CCDA. And, his methods were not always understood and were not popular by even many in the African American religious community in Mississippi, but his local connections and ministries were aided by the relationship and relocation of others to serve with his ministries there.

One question that often comes up, in looking at the kinds of social services and helping ministries that he and others in his group helped launch, is “But aren’t those things that others are or should be doing, such as social and civic groups and the government, so that the church can focus on its own agenda?” But that often betrays a position of privilege and expectation, one that assumes that there are civic groups and that government has resources and willingness to renew poor and suffering communities, when in reality the decline of the communities and of any of their residents being people with influence, and the difficulties of the poor making it hard to take time to organize and advocate and to be able to support their own non-profits in their own communities means that there are really no other groups in the area that can, or will, fill in the huge gaps. Perkins ministries became engaged in these projects because no one else was, though they succeeded through cooperation with others. As he describes the various groups that have been involved in their community renewal work it reveals that all the legs of the anti-poverty stool have been used as a foundation: non-profit, business, and government cooperating with one another.
While the social service and organizing of neighbors became the visible face of the ministry, don’t neglect Perkins point that it was also a way of evangelizing through action, because people astounded at what was going on would begin to ask why they were doing what they were doing in the place they were doing it, when people with sense they would say, had left the area, including churches. But that gives them an opening to then share their testimonies of faithfulness guiding them, and sharing in a way that might not be possible only on the face of it without the corollary stories of holistic needs being met.

Relocating helps to inoculate against the tendencies he describes of people starting programs that those in the community don’t need, as badly at least, and thus creating things meant to save a people that instead helps to further their own demise. It is important for us to keep this uppermost in our minds and to question our ministries and our partners on how their laudable desire for helping could be hindering. At the other end of the spectrum you have an equally destructive tendency: those who stay out of making any connections or relationships or commitments to communities of the poor because they are afraid of stumbling, hindering, putting their needs first.
So, in the second chapter in our reading for this week, we see one alternative for this dilemma of who gives leadership, who controls and decides on programs, etc. It is for the community itself to create and grow and multiply its leadership from itself instead of having to rely so much on the presence of those from outside, even from those who have returned and relocated. Bear in mind too how he says those who are returning, like himself, often have the hardest difficulty in relocating, because of their having the experience of desiring to leave in the first place. And note that this undertaking, of growing leaders who will return and help the renewal, is shaped by a long-range vision, multi generationally in some cases. This is another distinction of the Christian Community Development strategies or practices that set it apart from other approaches, especially governmental ones, but even personal ones, that want to see quick results and statistics to prove success. Note also the section on success in chapter 7; it is a good description of that difference he wrote about earlier between God’s Dream and the American Dream. This being success in the eyes of the world approach can be counter-productive though to the long-term health of the community. It reminds me of the 300 year trajectory of the early church, even from before it was identified as a church, and how the early followers of Jesus left a model that is being picked up by many today like Perkins. One good resource for seeing how relocation, remaining, redistribution and reconciliation all worked together in the early church is in Rodney Starks work The Rise of Christianity.

As you look at the impact of your ministry sites and partners, consider how leadership development factors in, presenting challenges and opportunities. How focused are they on people or on programs, and how much of a permission-giving culture (see Bill Easum’s work on this too) has been created to facilitate leaders, granting authority and expecting responsibility and accountability?
For other experiences, related but also different, in community renewal and especially honoring the centrality of leadership development indigenously, become familiar also with the work of the Industrial Areas Foundation and its practices of partnership. See more at There may be such faith work going on in your own community.

Question For Reflection and Response:
It takes relocation to fully recognize and engage in leadership developement, and Perkins writes that “I am convinced that the key to bearing lasting fruit is not in developing programs but in developing people—leaders. I believe that developing creative leaders is both the most essential and the most difficult part of community development. It was the heart of Jesus’ strategy. It must be the center of our strategy too.” How is, or is not, or how can, your community ministry site and partner follow this admonition and vision quoted by Perkins regarding the centrality and necessity of leadership development?

No comments: