Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Vision and Realities of Reconciliation, part two

See below for the first post in this three-part series of lecture notes based on John Perkins' book, With Justice For All. The 3Rs that guide our community here. From my seminary course I am teaching this semester in community based ministry, through

The Vision and Realities of Reconciliation, Part Two
Notes on Perkins Chapters 12 and 13

In the opening story in these chapters, Perkins describes an event where he met a white man after a talk, an encounter that happened because the man stayed behind in a faculty lounge when all other white faculty members had to leave to go to class; he did not want Perkins to think that they were boycotting him because of his race. From that moment of empathy, of sensitivity to the feelings of another different from himself, a relationship was built. How do we and can we use our resources to cultivate empathy for its own sake, because one never knows what might come from it? Reconciliation does not come out of nowhere; it itself is a result of deeper feelings and experiences.

This is the chapter where the realities of ministry dedicated to the 3Rs becomes evident. Meetings begin with great illusions and end with disillusionment. This is something to bear in mind with all ministry; people invest a lot in hopes for a ministry and a minister, and bubbles burst, human foibles are manifest, and the higher the illusion to begin the deeper the disillusion occurs. The task is then to know this from the start and to plan for it and to continue to show up when the illusions burst. It reminds me of spiritual steps attributed to Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh which I have altered just a little: 1. Show Up. (much reconciliation happens just when we show up to be with others in hard times and for hard issues) 2. Pay Attention. (this is where empathy and other emotions can communicate; just showing up and staying within our own minds does not advance relationships; we need mindfulness). 3. Speak the truth in love (be authentic, be vulnerable, speak from your own experience; speaking truth without love will backfire, as will holding back your experiences of truth from fear of hurting others feelings). 4. Understand your goals, your mission, but be flexible on how to reach them; don’t be too attached to fixed preconceived outcomes; sometimes the process is the goal when it comes to reconciliation. 5. When you fail at steps 1-4, show up again.

Sometimes reconciliation realities set in when those who are caught up by the spirit and vision of reconciliation bring different outcomes in mind then the group does. Sometimes, as in the case Perkins describes where the student is upset because of a Statement of Faith, people who are relocating and stepping out of their comfort zones will look for ways to make their new environment as familiar to them, and to their culture, as they can be in order to have a semblance of homeostasis. Note too how Perkins, in a misisonal mindset, puts first stock on the statement of purpose, what calls them together, and later shore it up with a Statement of Faith as a way of sustaining their purpose; this is a move that puts external focus first before the internal group. It emphasizes “acting our way into new thoughts”, rather than “thinking our way into new actions.” In many ways Perkins approach fell between the cracks of people’s expectations. His stance on the Billy Graham Crusade was an example of this: he pushed people to go deeper and consider what kind of Christian they were seeking to grow? What characteristics of Christian life, not just beliefs, should we be focused on?

Note how Perkins breaks down dichotomies or ends of the spectrum between faith and works, spirituality and service and social justice: reconciling one’s self with God means reconciling one’s self with one’s neighbors, and especially the notion of neighbors as exemplified in the parable of the Samaritan along the road between Jerusalem and Jericho, with those who are different from us.

Also, note here in this section about being reconciled with those who are closest to us; his anecdote of creating ill will with his closest followers due to his decision to cut off ties with their ministry so they would learn to be independent; it drove him to remember the need of living in right relationships in his inner circle.
When the mission is to form relationships of reconciliation, for the sake of the relationships, it may lead to both disruptions in relationships but also to amazing acts of reconciliation; the integration of the churches is an aim for him, but he found that, as he said for whatever reasons (can you imagine what they might be?) both the white and black churches did not want to broach the subject, and instead by focusing on mission together that created a common culture which then led to instances of integration.

In his chapter, Ten Years Later, Perkins takes us on a tour of amazing places where his ministry has had an impact on his community. It leads me to pondering the question of “Where is the church?” Is it in the housing developments, the health clinic, the farm, and the many other programs they helped to initiate? The spirit of Jesus is made visible in all those ways. At the same time (p. 134) he claims, in bringing us to the sanctuary where worship takes place, that “the church fellowship is at the heart of everything we do.” Worship is the heart beat that creates the blood that is pumped into all the limbs of the body that are outside the sanctuary engaging the community; together they create a manifestation of the Body of Christ. But can you have one without the other and still have a healthy body?

Not only that, but when Perkins talks about the way that different community contexts require different forms of organizing, he gives us the example of the work in New Hebron. There the holistic ministry is not like the spokes of a ministry that has a church organization and worship at its hub; instead (p. 142) there the primary embodiment is the ministries that are not explicitly “Christian identified”, though they work in close cooperation with churches in the community, and are not seen as a separate church body that could be seen in competition with the other churches in the community. There is also the more organic than organizational , informal, relational “body life” gatherings that many of the staff people in the programs coordinate  to support and nurture their faith that they live out in their daily work and life. Is that not “church” too?
But let us not forget that all of the visible ministries, and the sanctuary and worship too, were grounded in his desire to promote avenues for racial reconciliation; that struggle is a primary one and is intertwined with what it means to be reconciled with God and God’s justice. There is a danger in how even that goal can be sidelined with the attention paid to all the forms of ministry and church that were developed by Perkins. So he is observant to how racial reconciliation emerges and is challenged and defeated and rises again through those various and diverse manifestations of “holistic ministries.”

One way to promote the integration of the church is to pay attention to the different nuances between “a church” and “the church”. The more we focus on being a member of “a church” then all of the difficulties arise when that sense of “a church” is bound up with its history and geography and ethnic culture and traditions that make it difficult for people not a part of all of that to cross the threshold and become a part of it, whether, for one example, it is blacks going to a white church or whites going to a black church, etc. But if we find our ultimate membership in being in “the church” with different manifestations in different places and people, and yet times and places and ways that those different manifestations can come together to more fully approximate and embody “the church” then some of the identity markers and the history and separate traditions, all of which have their place and are nurturing, won’t hinder the movement together of racial reconciliation.

Discussion Questions:
1.      What story of Perkins in these chapters moved you the most, and why?
2.      Give us a tour of a vision, as specific as you can be, for ten years from now of what your community service organization or project might look like; what impact is it having, ten years from now, on its wider community?

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