Saturday, March 30, 2013

A Community of Resurrection: Easter 2013

A Special Easter Message from the 74126: A Community of Resurrection
By Rev. Ron Robinson

(Prayers for God's presence of love and healing for the families of those who were killed here a year ago, and for the lives of those who were injured  and for their families, and for our neighborhoods where the victims and the shooters lived for the neighbors were injured too; prayers of healing and unconditional love also for the two men arrested a year ago Easter morning, and for their family members, and for all those who may be harboring feelings of hurt and abandonment and rising violence within their minds and spirit and who struggle to grow in and with God. And prayers for those in the justice system. Prayers that we keep asking why this might have happened; not for excuses, not for simple explanations; but if we are serious about reducing the violence, we need to keep digging deeper into its many sources)

A year ago this weekend we gathered for the Easter sunrise service outside at our Welcome Table KitchenGardenPark, 6005 N. Johnstown Ave. We gathered in the wake of the Good Friday shootings in our area. As we held the sunrise service we heard about the arrests which brought a modicum of relief to our area, and many questions. But when we gathered outside at first the tension of the violence and its wake were still present. Echoes of violence and fear and segregation from the past, and not just the race massacre past of 1921, but the continuing fear and racist responses of white flight and redlining and neighborhood decline and abandonment and the summer a few years back when every night there was a shooting we could hear, or heard of.

 Just today, for example, we were inviting a person to come to the garden to plant a bed with us to help his hunger needs, and not just use our Cornerstore Pantry, and he, a white person, said he didn't want to because there were too many shooting there in the area where the garden is. We tried to convince him otherwise, but no use, and it probably wasn't the real reason anyway. We hear this all the time from people who say to us, or to others who are coming to work with us, that people have told them not to come because of how dangerous it is. Even though statistics and our own presence here belies this fact. Even though as white, and as American Indian, and as bi-racial families, living and working here in a majority African American service area in our two mile radius, we are still priveleged and are safer on average than many of our African American neighbors. Still the stereotypes and the fears persist.

 And there was heightened fear in our community a year ago; fear by the residents of color that if they went outside some "white guys in a pickup" might gun them down too. It was a reality based on what had just happened; and fear by "white" residents that there would be violence of retribution, as they were also ethnic minorities in the zipcode. We had already heard stories and rumors of white people being attacked in the area the day before, and black clergy colleagues were busy, they said, helping to prevent such things from a few they encountered. It all reminded me, when I thought of it later, about those days of the years of integration from my seventh grade to senior year at Monroe and McLain schools, when ever so often, more often than not, stories and rumors of racial fighting or plans to fight would ripple through the school corridors, dividing friends, based on some minor incident or just rumors spread to be violent in itself and to feed into the spirit of fear and scarcity and fear of diversity and unity that was wrecking the community outside the schools.

 On that Easter morning when news of the arrests occurred, and we began to find out who it was, and to find out the connections we all had, for some of us perhaps with both victims and the ones arrested, there was of course some relief, but not much, for our area itself seemed to have been violated, feeding into more of the stereotypes about our area held by others. And there was then the continuing attempt at explanations and rationalizations. The fact that the shooters had come from upbringings filled with violence is important to know, but it is often the case, and it should make us more committed to the environments we create for children regardless of their race; what I am saying is that so often my white neighbors would be quick to point out the sufferings of the "white" shooters (one with American Indian ethnicity too, but that is a part of the conversation to keep having) but they are often silent or uninformed about the sufferings and upbringings of those who are black and commit violent crimes; and yes, we had to keep pointing out, there are cases where blacks had attacked and killed white people in our area, and recently, but that the incidents were not the same; those had been acts with other motives like robbery; this had been one of projected revenge and race was an apparent prime motive. Deeper still were the echoes of violence and suicide and depression, and yet these are almost always present in all who commit such crimes regardless of race. It all should have made us more empathic; at times, even months later, it sometimes, from all, made us less empathic. Now we have issues that came up that involve the death penalty for the case still being prosecuted. I have long been against the death penalty for all, and especially because of the way it is carried out in greater percentages against people of poverty and color. I, like at least one of the surviving victims, don't think justice would be served by the death penalty in this case, or any case, but it is hard to speak about it since I am white and the shooters come from the same poor white culture I have; so, if anything, regardless of the outcome, it should make me re-double my own commitments to a broader understanding of justice and reparations especially for people of color in our society. Just as it should, again we say, make us re-double our care and concern for the gun culture that puts  such weapons in the easy reach of the impulsive and the addicted and the greatly mentally disturbed.

 These have been the continuing thoughts over a year when Good Friday has continued in our community; it didn't or doesn't just happen on one day when in the zip code with the lowest life expectancy, where businesses and so many agencies and any kind of investment has fled over the years; when (despite recent attention and good news on all the abandoned burned out structures here I have been promoting in this space) you can still drive down the major streets and into the subdivision culdesacs and see so much neglect and abuse, and know that it reflects the continuing struggle of the area (even though we have great homes and neighborhoods and families and lives and it is a blessing to live here). Overall we have kept silent and have been nursing wounds and fears. The crimes, for some, brought racism and all the other issues that have been raised connected to the shooters mentioned above back up to consciousness; for some they can't any longer deny the continuing race and ethnicity issues that they thought might have been gone once the majority of white flight was over. For some, I hope it also made our overall zipcodes here more visible, and that attention can not just end at the city limits line, but that the lives of people who live just over the line impact what happens on the city side the same as the county side, and vice versa. We need a plan and commitment that involves both city and county for the area that is increasingly becoming as one, demographically and with ties of where people shop, play, go to school, work, etc.

I write this all on Holy Saturday, Easter Eve, a time for a day of reflection itself, of prayer, of listening, of waiting, a day of transition between despair and renewed hope. The day for the traditional "harrowing of Hell" when it was emptied out. A good day for emptying out all that has been bottled up by shame and fear; Christ went to bring liberation and to end Hell, as the tradition puts it that I like, and so what better day to empty out the shame that comes, and to begin again the holy conversations needed for our times and place. We do not do Good Fridays well; we aren't expected to; we deal with shame on these topics and events; we do not have good guides through all the emotions, all the reactions; we make mistakes; I will make mistakes in just how I try to convey my thoughts here. Holy Saturday reminds us it is all right, if we come together and just reflect, and if we commit to keep walking together, together toward the tomb that we do not know yet is empty.

 What I know is that we can experience, because we do so in glimpses all the time, in the ways people help each other in our many undertakings and partnerships, we can experience a Community of Resurrection. Sometimes, when we come together like at the service of memory and healing today, or right after the event, we get glimpses of it. Other times it comes up from the hard work of planting seeds and combatting cynicism and skepticism in all the issues and activities you read about that we are involved in (continuing struggles and new plans at McLain, all the renewal efforts with the Health Dept, the ways we partner for basic needs for our residents, and even our times when we can come together in worship). I think, on these moments, that in the Resurrection stories in the gospels, that Jesus appears only briefly for the most part; short encounters, sometimes just rumors of the appearance after the crucifixion, and then he is gone; for most the faithfulness comes from seeing the changes that were effected in the lives of others. So it continues for us today.

 It has been ten years since the first Easter service in the church plant that is now known as The Welcome Table missional community. It is time for us to look again at what it means to be a community of resurrection. How best can we take our core value of the missional approach to church and reflect it in our worship? For the time being as we work on these questions, we will merge missional relationships and worship and create community by participating more often with the worship of others. Some at the local Methodist church partners here; some as we did at the wonderful contemplative Taize service downtown with Trinity Episcopal; some with our Unitarian Universalist partners, some that we lead here. We are also looking at ways to create more worship here throughout the week in all that we do, so that we don't take something as vital to community growing as worship and put it only on Sunday; creating an ongoing spiritual prayerful space here, at the center and at the park, and in other ways that will emerge. Our sense of community that is now forged in mission can itself be resurrected, as part of what our wider community needs, seeds of resurrection that stand alongside of, and stand against, the Good Fridays.

 I will close with Holy Week short reflections that go a little deeper into how each Day, from Maundy Thursday to Easter Sunday, is like a Four-Act Play, each day with its own theme, its own lessons for our lives, together.

Today is Act One: the meal, the presence of abundance in the midst of fear and scarcity, the commandment to love one another as we have been loved, reminder that nothing to come, nothing done, can separate us from the love of God, the attention to the bodies around us, to the hurting feet; it is all about the anointing, sharing the belovedness. In the way of the Psalm, this is the day of lifting up the original blessedness, our orientation to the Divine intersecting, intertwining, with us.\

This is Good Friday, this is Act Two, the sudden dis-orientation, the disillusionment, the dashing of hopes, when the truth that another world is possible, and is emerging, is revealed to be a lie, the day of abandonment, forsakenness even, when injustice and oppression and the way things just are rule the day, the bottom drops out from under us and from all life and from creation, again, again, just when we thought maybe...there is nothing necessary about this Day, though perhaps inevitable, for what do we expect when we line up the roads with crosses, with a punishment culture, and there is nothing good in it, though good may come wringing its way in response to it, though we can't feel it or imagine it this day; this is the day, so often repeated in our history, when Incarnation, that glimpse of divinity and love, what we herald at births just so recently, culminates in violent death, mocking the very flesh of God in us and among us. This is the day when the House of Hope is barred by the threshold of despair, and we know where we must go to cross it, but we can't yet, and so we turn away, and even if we draw close and embrace it, embrace what is left of You, we can't hold the pain, it keeps slipping from our grasp, and even when we want to find meaning in how much pain we bear, we can't. We pray that Your presence might be with us even in Your Absence, but we can't even remember the words or what your presence felt like.

This is Holy Saturday, Easter Eve, this is Act Three, the deepening of the disorientation, the sitting with the loss, but also the tradition says the day of the Harrowing of Hell, when Christ descended to release all those who had died before his coming, to be with them even in that place, to be even with those, and I like to believe to close it on his way out. This is the day of pondering, questioning, and of emptying our minds as Christ empties Hell; a day when emptiness caused by what happened to us, from outside us, can prompt us to reclaim the emptiness within us and move us from a position of isolation and aloneness to one of purposeful solitude. This is the day when we live fully in the in-between, but can not see what is to come. This is the day that reminds us that the More that is to come after our times of loss may simply be the dawn and the noon and the dusk of the next day, but that even this is something; it shows us that there is a force beyond us holding us, moving us forward, that we can simply rest in the day, and wait for the next day. There is much going on that we, on the outside of the tomb, with our gaze turned inward on our own suffering, cannot see or know.
From out of nowhere, comes Easter. This is Act Four. This is the day not about the miracles of nature and the nature of things we can figure out and know; this is the day about the way nothing we prepare for prepares us for the reality of love that overcomes death, overcomes shame, overcomes all that seeks to deny its truth. This is the day when we are confirmed in the truth that another world is possible, not only is possible, but is happening, and our task is to go be where it is happening, receive its grace, and participate in the communities of resurrection. This is the day that reassures us that nothing we or anyone can do or think or imagine can separate us from the love of God. This is the day when we wake up to the rising of the soul, to the wonder that defines who we are. This is the day when we set aside our struggles to understand, and find ourselves by losing ourselves in the story that God in mystery will align what is broken and askew, will justify what injustice has created. This is the day when we remember, as colleague and mentor Carl Scovel wrote, God’s other name is Surprise! That on this day we get a glimpse that, as he also wrote, there is at the heart of Creation a Good Intent, and that we come from, live in, and will return to that Goodness. Aleluia Aleluia Aleluia is first sung by the Cosmos, is embodied in Christ, and breaks forth from our lips. This is the day of Re-Orientation, not only to our home we began with, but to our home of abundant everlasting Spirit. That Easter’s good news invariably and inevitably is cast aside, even on this day, as so much within us and around us can dampen even our most heart-felt alleluias, does not change its truth; it is still here, beckoning us toward its sun-split horizon.

Saturday, March 09, 2013

Community is at the heart of our problems and solutions

Hi all. Today's message is about the neglected truth that "Community Matters" and underlies most everything that we struggle with in our area.
First, a note about this Sunday's missional community gathering; we are not meeting in the morning as usual (which is good since it is a Spring Forward an Hour Sunday) but will meet at the community center at 4 pm for communion and then travel to the 5 pm Taize worship service downtown at Trinity Episcopal, then out to dinner afterwards.
Tomorrow, Saturday, there is Pancake Breakfast from 8 to 10 am at the Odd Fellows Lodge, 6227 N. Quincy Ave., and weather permitting we have a community gardening morning at the Welcome Table park and orchard at 6005 N. Johnstown Ave. and from 10 am to 4 pm, with free lunch included, we have Community Art For All Ages Day at the community center, 5920 N. Owasso Ave.
In the coming week:
two meetings having to do with supporting McLain High School; one to hear of the recommendations being considered for changes at the school (for my take on how a holistic approach that is focused on the community is the only long term solution to what has been a long term community based problem: and on Thursday a meeting of the McLain Foundation to bring on new leadership to help us raise funds for needed projects at the school, already vulnerable being affected even moreso by cut in state funding).. And on Monday we will be part of a Food Bank special showing and discussion of the new documentary A Place At The Table at the Circle Cinema (see below for more about the first public showing and panel discussion that followed, which I was honored to be on).
..on Tuesday we will have a volunteer appreciation lunch and orientation about our emerging and expanding cornerstore and food community programs...
...on Wednesday from Noon to 4 pm we will have our Food Community Day, along with nutrition class at 12:30 pm, and other resources available. We also have our free clothing and items day during this time. Our new The Welcome Table Cornerstore is in its new and larger quarters in our building, and getting rave reveiws for how we have created a grocery store feel and empower people to choose their own food items, and we are just beginning to develop this concept further and look for ways to continue expanding hours open. Thanks to the OU Tulsa Graduate Social Work classes for helping to move into our new space, and to work in other projects with us at the community center, the park, and in the community.
...on Saturday morning, March 16, we will have our Big Gardening Event beginning at 9 am, and will be hosting the Tulsa Community Gardening Association as part of it, at 10:30 am at the gardenpark and orchard. We hope to see you and friends at any or all of these events. Or call to arrange a time to visit.
Abandoned Properties Project:
In previous email updates from here I have been highlighting the increasing presence of burned and vandalized and abandoned buildings, residential and commercial, in our area which affects so much; decline is contagious in many manifestations, and is considered the number one factor promoting crime in an area. We have properties that have burned and continue to be health hazards and have been untouched for months or years without any change. I am happy to report that the Tulsa Health Department has been involved in a windshield inspection tour of almost every property in our unincorporated side of our service area, and they have identified the severity of the problem on a property by property basis, developing a map for our area residents to look over and help to come up with the priorities in how to focus abatement procedures to get the properties cleaned up (funds permitting of course which is often the rub, since the property owners will just let the properties go and let a lien be placed on them for any future owners, and in the meantime the county will have to pay to keep the properties clean). The map and presentation will be presented to area residents for questions and comments again at the Turley public meeting Tuesday March 26 at 7 pm, held this month at the Welcome Table Community Center instead of its regular location at O'Brien Park, in hopes of attracting more property owners and residents. This is a good first step, thanks to THD. We have so far prioritized the abandoned properties as: 1. those on North Peoria and along the Osage Prairie Trail; 2. Those residences that have been rundown the longest and which are located immediately adjacent to properties where there has been effort at beautifying the area. Additionally, we might consider if there are ways to get more funds into the cleanup, ways that people in the community can get ownership of the abandoned properties that just stay on the county ownership for a number of years, and ways that our own local folks could be hired to do the tear down and clean up. Thanks again though for these vital first steps, THD, which we have been seeking for some time.
Food and Health:
We have recently had volunteers receive training in how to help get more of our residents applying for the SNAP food assistance, that only has about 75 percent of the people who are elgible for it actually receiving the assistance to help combat their struggles with food insecurity, ill health, and poverty. We will have a food assistance outreach worker or volunteer helping area residents during our Wednesday Food Community Days and possibly at other times, as well as allowing our computer center to help people renew benefits online.
On Friday night, last night, we had several from our community join with those from across the Tulsa area to watch the showing of the documentary A Place At The Table about the rising epidemic of hunger and food insecurity, especially among children, in our nation, and our state has one of the worst rates of the nation, and our service area has one of the worst rates in the state. I was honored to be a part of the panel responding to questions following the showing of the film which did a great job of humanizing the issue and the people who suffer from hunger and its twin of bad health and obesity, and of the policy decisions that have caused our nation to lose the war on hunger that it once was well on the way to winning in the 1970s.
Several areas needed to be emphasized even more:
1. growing one's own food is a way to promote health and for the poor to save money (growing your own food is like printing your own money), and yet so much of the nation's resources do not go into this healthy lifestyle and ecological affirming truth, and into school programs and community nonprofit programs fostering gardens and community health, but they go into major corporate agribusinesses that grow the ingredients that are in the processed foods that cause our health problems but are the cheapest foods and most readily available ones for the poor, trapping them in a cycle of bad health and limited choices. Even the food assistance programs which do direct giving of food to those in need (such as we do) but who struggle to have that food not be just more of the same processed food, even these are being cut in funds; and even the food assistance programs which are already way too limited ($4 average a day very difficult to eat on, especially to eat healthy on), even these are being targeted for further cuts and other limitations designed to punish the poor. We need to keep addressing the issue of why we don't support local farms and local gardening initatiatives, and why it is so hard to get local folks so in need to take part of the gardening programs we do have, and to change that by starting again with the basics holistically by supporting the schools and community groups where residents are to help them shift their default mode away from the one that treats them as a consuming object and toward a default mode where they are agents of their own and their community's growing health. We need to take the long view and invest in these programs and experiments the same way we do with the other aspects of our national security.
2. Many in the audience watching the film and in the discussion afterwards were expressing their sense of hopelessness and despair, especially at the political system that is looking to gut the very community oriented and neighbor helping programs that could make a difference in the lives of so many. What I wish I had said, besides the fact that the very presence of so many in attendance at the film and discussion afterwards was hopeful, is that the real doorway to change and real hope is always first through despair, through facing the emotions of fear and hopelessness and angst and confusing and even shame; it is the very desire to avoid these emotions communally that keep us from facing the hard truths about the facts of life for many in our community. And so what people were feeling was in itself a sign of hope. The most powerful part of the film for me was the women witnessing to their own hunger and that of their families and taking that witness to seats of governmental power where decisions are being made to prop up corporations instead of people; I think they would say that despair work is part of their routine lives, and for those not in their shoes to use that despair work as a destination point instead of as a means to a very different end. We need to focus more on how to get our witnesses to join together and become advocates.
3. The film did a good job of linking hunger with poverty, and saying the real issue is not why are so many people hungry, but why are so many people poor in the first place. And I would add that the real issue is the type of poverty as well; for there is the poverty that is mitigated and dealt with by the presence of a justice seeking community and there is the kind of poverty most have now that is set in the context of no community, no extended family, no neighborhood schools or groups connecting the people in the area, no "third places" where they once thrived; we live in a much more fragmented area and that "sequestering" of one another from one another keeps us divided, especially the poor divided, from the tremendous power they would otherwise possess and use. Where there is real visible beloved community, the vulnerable are put at the first of the line for attention, not re-segregated into areas where so many of the dominant culture don't have to get to know, or see, ever. The more we focus just on food alone for example (or low test scores in school, or crime statistics (which for our area we don't any longer get access to, which is something we really need the public officials to help our residents get access to), or the rate of heart disease or diabetes, the more we will ultimately miss the mark of how we seek to turnaround the realities so many face. It is not as "sexy" or as quick to focus on growing again a viable community of connections in this disconnected age, but that is what it will take across the board to wipe out these current realities for so many. We need to keep not letting even the urgent keep us from the important. Like seeing how government is just one of the ways we manifest community, but it is a major one and so we need to put its priorities toward the poor, instead of our current rush in our state particularly to shrink government; when you do that you shrink community. We need it right alongside the other community forming entities of private business and nonprofit enterprises including but not limited to religious ones. Even for private businesses we need to emphasize that community matters, that all communities matter, and that the moral and ethical way of being in community is to have a practice of not leaving areas when they struggle, but remaining and helping to grow them back. And we need more nonprofits and more churches, etc. to not just focus on serving/saving individuals but serving/saving communities. When communities work, so do persons, and so does their health, and their families and their schools. What does it take to educate a child at McLain, or to adequately feed with healthy food that child's family in the 74126? It takes, as we know, a village. We need to keep from burning down the village. We need to make it a priority and act and fund it as one.
4. I hope we can better keep spreading such discussions as we had tonight, for there was so much left unsaid, undreamed, so much going on left unshared; and not only keep spreading discussions, but keep opening up opportunities for people to engage in their own service-learning.

Monday, March 04, 2013

Reconciliation, part one

The Realities and Vision of Reconciliation, part One
The Second of the 3Rs of Relocation, Reconciliation, Redistribution
Rev. Ron Robinson

Background Notes for Lecture for Supervised Ministry Course, Phillips Theological Seminary, Spring 2013, based on readings from John Perkins’ “With Justice For All.”

1.     As we move to the second R, note again the order Perkins uses them. Most people who want “to help” start in immediately with a focus on redistribution, giving things to other people in other areas. This is problematic, unless it is a resource like funds which the “other” can use to develop and use as part of their own empowerment and vision. Without relationship that deepens, redistribution can be an added burden to struggling communities. That is why relocating to really truly get to know people first, even if in the many ways we have described, is crucial. And as we will see, the aim of reconciliation that grows from relocation is necessary not only to be faithful to the gospel but to be wise in what and how one engages later in redistribution.  So the centerpiece you might say is Reconciliation. Theologically, that makes sense too. If one begins in relocation with Incarnation, being sent, making real, word as flesh, soul in the soil, then the Why of all that is Reconciliation, with God and with others, especially with those others whom are our enemies, our strangers, or our estranged (once close but not distant ones).

2.     A personal note: Reconciliation has been one of my personal aims, failings, and visions, and is part of our relocation efforts and ministry here in the 74126 zipcode. Especially racial reconciliation, as Perkins has also been a national leader. One of my grandfathers, my fathers father, was a member of the Klan in the Tulsa area, and at the time of the race massacre here in 1921. I was raised in an atmosphere, a poor working class white and American Indian family and community, that was both racist and struggling against that racism dynamic. I went to a segregated elementary school and then to one of the first junior high schools being integrated in 1967 in Tulsa; by 1972 when I was graduated from high school my high school, McLain in Tulsa, was about 60 percent white and 40 percent black; between the ten years of 1967 to 1977 the school went from segregated white to about 80 percent black; in the next ten years from 1977 to 1987 the community feeding into the school mirrored that ethnic change. White flight as an extension of the segregated racism of the history of the area compounded the problems of the area for which we current residents are still paying. Right now our community ministry area serves two adjacent and overlapping sections, far northside within the city of Tulsa that in our McLain area is 85 percent black, and we serve an adjacent outside the city unincorporated Turley community that is 56 percent white and in two years will be 52 percent white and soon after that projected to be a minority majority area with no single ethnic group predominating the population. It is a great place to practice and aim for reconciliation of races. 

When our small church, predominantly white but with good percentage of American Indian and with one bi-racial family also, went missional and moved from projecting itself as a “church” to a “community center”, from come to us to go to them, we immediately raised our interactions with our neighbors who were black; they would not “come to us” as a “white church” with a “white” minister, but the hospitality and neutrality offered through the community center projects made it a safer, more welcome place, what we called “a third place” echoing the global movement to create third places or spaces where people of difference meet. When we moved just six blocks closer to the city limit line, still in the unincorporated area, we saw these interactions continue to increase, especially with the expansion of our two main ministries: the food community space and the gardenpark and orchard. The gardenpark and orchard, our first actual property purchase, was intentionally chosen for a location that would be on the edge and draw residents from both sides of our service area. We are now looking at projects and places on the city side, more in the heart of the black community in our two mile service area (I like John Perkins advice though that it be more in the six block area, but there has been benefits to our bigger two mile vision). And it has only been six years since we have been setting out for this missional community ministry work.

 One of the inspirations of reconciliation for me personally has been my father and others in my family who intentionally did not go along with ‘white flight” but resisted it; even though I wouldn’t say they were necessarily proactive and welcoming of the diversity that came in, certainly not as was needed but realized by few at the time, still there was a conscious attempt. My father said that he knew he was raised prejudiced and he wanted us not to be, to the best of his ability. He was trying to break the cycle of racism. Not only did he stay, but he was one of the first basketball coaches of an integrated team during my junior high years; my black friends from those years have said what a difference that made in how he treated them and their families, how we went into their neighborhoods and into their homes and met with families and created in the team a safe place during those years when there was constant turmoil rumors and violence of a racial nature in the schools themselves we were in. His Methodist church here, predominantly white, recently had its first African-American minister; it was her whom I worked with on the vision for community gardening near her parsonage and near their church which is right on that edge between the two predominant ethnic neighborhoods, both poor but with different racial demographics. Finally, it is something that we fail out, but keep trying at, that we seek to keep before us.

3.     Perkins says a lot in these chapters not only about his own journey toward engaging with the white community that caused him so much suffering, how he saw their own suffering, but about ecclesiology, the nature and mission of the church. In a way he is laying out a vision of the church reconciling itself with the gospel and God. He says he wanted his church in Mississippi to be not just a worshipping community but a true family of God, the Body of Christ within our community. Shades of the parable of the leaven (something scandalous, and unholy, and corrupted too, the church committed to racial reconciliation, acting as the leaven amidst a still segregated in many ways community). To do this he says means letting each person’s gifts (see 1 Corinthians 12) also be something like leaven within the particular church community itself. His strategy was for the church to be the vehicle for growing relationships, while the ministry organizations created would work on the wider community projects. This enabled other churches and groups to have a way of working with the church without feeling undue pressure to become a part or identify with the church. (In our work here we talk about the church going organic while the community group goes organizational.)

4.     He struggles, to put it mildly, with the HUP (homogenous unit principle) and churches, especially for church growth aims. He says it is an attempt at avoiding conflict and suffering, and therefore isn’t gospel-oriented, as well as forgetting the early church’s commitment, and struggle too, with many different people groups coming together. “What we were coming to establish, most people didn’t want,” he says. That is not the kind of model that a consumer or market-driven model of church would follow, one that looks beyond and beneath surface wants into deeper needs both for persons and for communities. But knowing that enabled him to deepen his own spiritual growth. Knowing the hostility that would come from both sides of the racial divide, “I must be able and willing to absorb that if we are to be reconciled.” That is an important metaphor to use—absorb. As leaders of change, in an anxious time resistant to change but changing nonetheless, we must be able to bear the pain of others without letting it cause us to cause pain in others ourselves, to use it to be responsive and not reactive, and to promote this ability of the spirit. It is important to have a grounding in family systems theory, the work of Rabbi Edwin Friedman’s books, in order to model and promote this leadership stance in order to carry out this work of reconciliation. To follow with the metaphor he uses, we must be able to at different times be Teflon, Sponge, and Mirror; at times, we must be able to engage with people but let their barbs and pain slide off us like Teflon (but without remaining too distant and disengaged), and at other times we must be like sponges and able to soak up with them all of their pain and emotional overflowing (but without losing ourselves in them, without becoming co-dependent), and ideally we must try to be holders of mirrors, allowing them to see themselves more clearly, and turning it on ourselves as well. Perkins writes that “Community is a place where people can be human beings, where they can be healed and strengthened in their deepest emotions, and where they can walk toward unity and interior freedom."

5.     Relocation by itself he says is not reconciliation. And much of the work of reconciliation, of life together (see Bonhoeffer) begins with personal cost and commitment. Perkins gives examples of how he and others in his core group committed to live on less in order to be able to give more to the community, and even though they were not necessarily living in the same household, how they were living in a six block area and committed to one another and used pooled income to help start economic ventures. It reminds me of what has been called a “reverse tithe” where one aims at living on an income of 10 percent of what is earned, saving 10 percent, and giving 80 percent away to the community (easier to do when one relocates to a poor neighborhood) or what is called the “relational tithe” (  

It also means “giving up” people as members of the group. One of the powerful sections of the story is about Perkins telling those who were not living within the area of the church to go join a church in their own neighborhoods (where of course there were probably few with the mission of his, with the focus on racial reconciliation and where people were from different ethnic cultures). Some used this as an incentive to move closer to the church and area, but it demonstrates a willingness to keep the mission and target clear, as the formation of neighborhood household groups were essential. Is this just another way that Perkins himself was exhibiting the use of the HUP, as if it is a force of gravity that eventually pulls all into it? In a way, since they wanted all to be committed to the mission and to be members of their own community, but the fact that they came with so many differences already kept it from being in the stated model of a HUP. And clarity of vision, mission and community goals is vital especially in endeavors like this which are themselves grounded in differences of background.

6.     Summary of Strategies: A. Living close together (that in itself is counter-cultural in our church and wider culture); B. Meeting in household groups (that too defies a lot of our comfort zones, and he mentions it particularly in regard with the black church and community); C. Making decisions by consensus (which is one of the byproducts of keeping units small); D. Rotating moderators (using the gifts of all)….In his book of essays he edited, Restoring At-Risk Communities, Perkins sums up the strategy for Reconciliation with these three broad steps: 1. Admit: witness to one’s own struggles, one’s own history, with race and reconciliation, keep looking to see where one’s racial blinders are, recognize the differences; 2. Submit: know that attempts will be messy and rocky but if all have God’s will in view then it will hold people together; the church, these writers say, is the truly only way that reconciliation efforts with race can gain real traction because at heart it is a matter of the spirit more than politics, and yet the church is one of the last places where this work takes place (also for those with privilege, submission of leadership to those without the same privilege is crucial), and a key component of submission is forgiveness to and with one another and self; and 3. Commit: see it as a marathon race, move from a model of caseworker to comrade, commit to a future despite one’s past experiences, and be intentional about creating not just friendships across racial lines but what they call “yokefellows” or a few people you are “yoked with” (and you can apply this to congregational work too, as congregations yoke with one another across divides).

More of this in part two coming up after the Spring Break…

Questions for Reflection and Response:

1.     What keeps you and/or your community from making racial reconciliation a priority?
2.     Describe other people groups within your community, outside of race and ethnicity, where you see a need for reconciliation work, and do you think the ideas espoused by Perkins would be helpful with them?