Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Power of Relocation, part two

The Power of Relocation, part two
See Part One below....

Notes on reading John Perkins, from my class I am teaching this semester at Phillips Theological Seminary.... 

1.      We notice the importance of “volunteers” who come into Perkins’ area of Mississippi to serve with them, even though they do not live there; one way of looking at volunteers from other areas is to see them as “potential residential relocaters” and thus as neighbors from the start, because as his story reveals people on fire with mission and passion do move across town, across the country, across the world, even though at first it might be just “getting the feet wet.” When the underlying basis is relational, not program outcome oriented, that fosters the possibilities of relocation and deeper transformation.

2.      Expect bumpy roads and failures as part of the growing learning relational process. Note how he discusses the “lack of social awareness” of white suburban evangelical whites while working with the social justice oriented black church and community. He called it a disaster, but it was only a stumbling block step. Most of the problems seem to stem in some ways from adopting the default mode of tasks vs. process, or of being too focused on accomplishing something visible and programmatic in a short time for the good feelings of the volunteers instead of cultivating relationships which sow seeds of much greater change.

      We were blessed with the passion and commitment and connection of a white progressive social justice whirlwind with many connections and a big deep heart, and yet his “getting things done” approach which worked wonders in many areas of town butted up against our culture of a much slower time frame, slower pace, building trust and relationships first and seeing if people and organizations were going to last and be serious or leave quickly, another notch in their annual report about what outreach they were doing; many times these personality differences can lead to great things because of a diversity of approaches, but often they lead to paralysis; the faster one person moves from outside the area, the slower or more resistant our neighbors might be in response; it is one of the ways they exert the power they do have. On the other hand, the slower relational influence gaining before you do anything approach does turn off even some of the local activists, especially the younger ones, who see all talk and all meetings and very little accomplishments; so it can cost people-resources even from within. I wish all relationships and endeavors could begin with daylong retreats, orientation sessions, sharing of personality and leadership style gifts inventories, in order to name the differences before beginning to work together. There are often also hard and hurt feelings that result on the parts of both local residents and outside volunteers due to these rushed-into projects. A take-away on this is that no volunteers, or local hosting residents, will be without fault in some ideal way, and the illusions on this actually make it worse and lead to dis-illusionment. But, fearing any mistakes, some people will resist “getting their feet wet” in any way in any form of relocation and service, which is not what is intended and helps no one.

3.      Notice how he treats volunteering also not as an aspect of individualism, just for the personal growth of the one who is volunteering, but he sees them as part, ideally, of a community, and he reinforces their own community connections, and encourages them to do things in their own backyards, connecting them with their wider community, using their time with his community as training ground, not replacement.

4.      Perkins begins chapter 9 of With Justice For All, on the strategy for the here and now by making reference to The twin towers of Christian mission in Luke 4 and Matthew 25. When people ask me how our community discerns what its mission should be (expecting a series of meetings and votes and even prayer discernment, etc.) I tell them that our mission is already laid out for us, our reason for being comes from Jesus’ mission as set out as Perkins describes in quoting Luke 4 and Matthew 25 (I can also resonate with those who find it, ala Rick Warren or Bill Easum, in The Great Commandment and The Great Commission, but usually have to nuance those or add to it a bit to explain what shape that takes; for the Great Commandment I add on that it is a preface to the deeper point of who our neighbor is we are to love and Jesus’ answer to that was given in the parable of the man going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and so the Great Commission is to make disciples who carry out that radical great commandment; my way of connecting the two.) But the place and people of mission are expressly named in Luke 4 and Matthew 25. Perkins adds that no one, not even the rich or comfortable, are to be excluded from the mission of the church, but one way to bring the gospel to them, one way to commission them, is to put them alongside Jesus’ mission to the poor, to meet them where they may be in their gated communities, for example, but not to leave them there, contented. This is a change and a challenge to a church culture for many over centuries who saw getting people into such communities of safety and convenience and wealth as one of the fruits of the gospel. 

      Perkins says in this chapter that the very difficulty of the question for people reveals its power and truth for their lives, and those who initially resist it the most are often the ones whom it would benefit the most and who are being called. (A lesson from Jonah of course there.) In my case doing ministry as a newly ordained white pastor with church planting credentials and interests and ending up in an abandoned low income low life expectancy predominantly African American zipcode was not what I had originally intended. It only took a series of failures/learnings in a different upscale suburban zipcode to re-orient me back to the zipcode nearby where I am now, where I had been raised and much of my family remains even though the demographics have changed greatly around them in the past 40 years. But for some, it is actually achieving success in such an environment, accomplishing what they ostensibly set out to do, building and growing a church plant and community and getting noted and success from it that turns into leaving them floundering, stuck on treadmills of meeting continuing expectations of upward mobility and constant growth in numbers, that causes them to rethink their calling and to relinquish the “trappings” and to relocate. For some it can come from pastoring in an aging church that is stuck and trying to replicate the past in a changed environment, a process that just keeps adding stress to the system and losing members until they have to come up with creative ways of turning their buildings over to others in the community and meeting as guests and supporters in their own building; or they will out of desperation take other steps to turn themselves inside out and relocate, such as dividing up their 80 some members into eight groups based on how close people live to one another and announcing that these groups are now their church home, and to meet in homes or other places, as missional communities that will come together monthly for worship and sharing what they are doing in their neighborhoods, and the pastor who was struggling to survive as a full time pastor in the old model will have found a bivocational job that helps him meet ends and frees him to focus on connecting the groups, and he may move close to his new job in a poorer section of town, which prompts some of his parishoners to do the same. The take-away? Be open to a variety of ways you might be led to living more closely with the poor and suffering.

5.      “That’s why you need to go” Perkins says over and over again to the reasons he hears people give for not going. Each fear can be the opening to a more loving transformative relationship. But in this chapter Perkins gives a step by step path for how to relocate which says it is best not to do it impulsively, quickly, even with the best intentions. Notice the way he encourages people to keep involving more and more people into their decision on relocation, and how that also helps to slow down the decision, the move, the immediate impact (my observation is that often it is an over-drama, freneticism, anxiety that marks the very lives of people in need, and the way we can tend to “treat” them just adds to what ails them.) It is interesting also that we may seek to replace the real transformation of relocation and relationships over time with the “short term mission trips” that are now coming under increased scrutiny as people look at the problems and waste they often engender and, while mostly seeking to keep some element of them, to reform how such trips are made. These trips may actually be a way to keep from doing the discernment that Perkins is calling for about what it is that is keeping us away from more radical, more effective, life choices. Note also the options he has found that help people to relocate and address their fears in a common sense way; it is a kind of “marginal among the marginal” ministry, living in close geographic proximity with those you are serving but not directly amid them if there are reasons for it, and using that location to help you be a bridge for others.

6.       A summary of the strategy:

 A. get to know the area by working with others in it or working with a group that works with the poor in another area.
 B. Share your vision with the church.
C. Form a ministry team.
 D. Become a community over a year or two.
 E. Get special training for your team or a big part of it.
 F. Choose the community of most needs.
 G. Outline a target area: this is important as we have a tendency to take on too much and dilute our relationship power; he says if the community has a lot of subdivisions then your target area might be simply six blocks; if it is an area of apartments your area might be one single apartment complex.
 H. Build relationships and allow even the friends you have made first to help you choose where to live and to point you to it.
 I. Listen to the people, visit them, invite them. Plan to stay.
J. Once you begin to act, begin with bible study or prayer group.
 K. Work with children.
 L. Raise up indigenous leaders to take over what you start.
 M. Join or establish a church in the area; join is the first and best option, but if can’t find healthy one, start one.
 N. Respond to the needs, begin the redistribution.
O. In developing leaders to help you in the sustaining work of the 3Rs and replicating them with other people, I like to use and adapt his three ways of recognizing gifted people to work with: those who evidence
1. “lordship of Christ” or what is referred to as “people of peace” (Luke 10); non-anxious presences, people of inner abundance even amid much external scarcity;
2. Servanthood, are they willing to be led, see where their growing edges are?
3. Fellowship,  are they comfortable participating in all aspects of community?

7.      In the Update section on relocation, there is a nuance about a sense of urgency. While he has been mapping out a way of gradual and deeper engagement, he sees this need to be balanced with starting the process out of a sense of urgency, but it is an urgency about the plight of people, not urgency about project completions. It does remind me how the culture of permission-giving and vulnerability and trust we have been talking about this semester lends itself to “urgent responses” or immediate action, and I think about instances here when we have waited and waited for officials to take care of blighted intersections or properties (sometimes out of a sense of just seeing how long it will take, getting a story of powerful neglect) and then we will “all of a sudden” just go “guerilla garden or cleanup” the property ourselves without waiting on getting any permission from some out of state owner or from officials who have been neglecting the blight. We like to foster people feeling empowered to do that themselves though “not on their own” but in sharing with others. Sometimes that it taking over an intersection full of constant trash and weeds and turning it into a beautiful space (see, or in graffiti painting over, or giving out food at least once to someone in need even if they don’t meet all of the requirements expected simply because they are there and in need. Random acts of justice, kindness, and beauty are often done in spontaneous actions, or those where one feels the presence of the Spirit leading them, and as is usual in such cases, it is good to bring in others as well who can help you; even a sense of urgency doesn’t negate the sense of community. Sometimes it is during these acts of urgency, and these one-time practices that might be skirting regulations, that you get ideas and experiences and doorways open that allow you to take the more systemic route of justice.

      An example: once early in our relocation and community ministry here, we decided to get big planters full of beautiful flowers and on Easter Eve night in the dark we would go along all of the blighted run down abandoned business buildings along our major thoroughfare and place these big flower pots so that when people got up and about on Easter morning they would be surprised to see these bits of beauty lining the streets and turning blight into beauty; it would make their Easter and the community a little brighter. But when we got up at Easter dawn ourselves to go experience it, we discovered that they had been dumped over, the pots and the flowers in many cases stolen and a pile of dirt left instead, sometimes piles of dirt with flowers buried in them. What was meant to be beauty turned out to be adding more blight. What we had failed to understand was the culture of “kicked to the curb” and how people would take any opening to get something that they could later sell if they thought it was theirs for the taking, and these were just sitting there by the side of the avenue in front of buildings that were obviously not being used anymore either. Besides deeper understanding of our neighborhood culture, what that led to as a take-away was that we needed to use not big pots but actually flower beds into the ground, and so we shifted our efforts to actual planting of beds in front of some of these areas, which took longer but had a more lasting effect, and was still in the “guerilla” mode, and it led to our offering to do beds for free to local businesses, and so it deepened relationships.  So, an act out of a sense of urgency, even though it backfired, led to learnings which led to our original intent.

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