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? 

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