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Community Work, Transforming the World

by Angela Williams

When I was discerning a second year in the Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) program, I felt called to focus on activism, advocacy and community organizing. At the time, I did not know that working with NEXT Church would dip my toes into the world of community organizing. I did not know that splitting my time with NEXT and New York Avenue Presbyterian Church would place me in direct contact with pastors who have been organizing for more than 25 years. I did not know that I would become a part of a core team of leaders in the church organizing with Washington Interfaith Network (WIN), an affiliate of the Metro Industrial Areas Foundation. I did not know that this would be my perfect placement.

tsr_5500_webIn the past seven months, I have learned practical and applicable skills to work in the world as it is in order to help transform it into the world as it should be. In the church, we use language like “redemption” and “reconciliation” to describe how God is working with us here and now to create the world as it should be. As resurrection people, we see many cases of injustice, indecency and death in the world around us, but we have faith in the good news of Jesus Christ that tells us God is not done working to reconcile, redeem and resurrect every part of Creation. Because of this truth, we must continue to have hope that God is working to make all things new, to make the world as it should be.

Together, as a community of beloved children of God, we are called to do our part in reconciliation and redemption efforts. Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD), a sister organization to WIN, shared some of their organizing story at the 2016 National Gathering, which continues to inspire me. Their leadership illustrated what is possible when faith leaders, community members, governments and businesses, representing all colors and creeds, come together to improve the community. However, Alison Harrington reminded me, the nitty gritty work is not sexy, nor does it make headlines. Often, it is difficult, mundane and frustrating. Still, I remain committed to the idea that organizing is a necessary and essential part of creating the world as it should be. If you missed Alison and BUILD at the National Gathering, I encourage you to check out the videos of their time at the National Gathering, as well as all of our other challenging, yet inspiring speakers.

I invite you to join me on this weekly blog journey of the day-to-day work to organize and create positive social change in my community. Perhaps you may find possibilities to act in your own context.


AngelaWilliams270Angela Williams is currently walking alongside the good folks at NEXT Church and New York Avenue Presbyterian Church as a Young Adult Volunteer in Washington, D.C., after serving a first YAV year in the Philippines. She finds life in experiencing music, community organizing, cooking any recipe she can find, making friends on the street, and theological discussions that go off the beaten path.

2016 National Gathering Keynote: BUILD

Clergy affiliated with Baltimoreans United In Leadership Development (BUILD) share about their organization and its successes in Baltimore, MD.

Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD), a local affiliate of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) and Maryland’s largest citizens power organization. For thirty-five years BUILD has helped identify and develop leaders to build citizen power for change in their own communities. BUILD is responsible for the successful passage of the first living wage ordinance in the world, the largest afterschool program in Baltimore (Child First), and the rebuilding of two blighted neighborhoods – Sandtown-Winchester and the Oliver community (in partnership with The Reinvestment Fund). Recently, BUILD led the effort to secure $1.1 billion dollars in public financing for the rebuilding and renovation of more than 1/3 of Baltimore’s public school facilities, the largest single increase to neighborhood investment in Baltimore’s history.

Andrew Foster Connors is the Senior Pastor of the Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, MD, a position he has held since 2004. A church “alive in the city and the world,” Brown Memorial Park Avenue continues to live into its mission to become a radically inclusive Christian community, sent into the world to work for God’s peace and justice. Andrew serves as clergy co-chair of BUILD and is an organizing member of NEXT Church. Andrew is a native of Raleigh, NC. He attended Duke University as a B.N. Duke Scholar where he received a B.A. in History with a focus on contemporary social movements. He holds a Master of Divinity from Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, GA. Andrew is married to the Rev. Kate Foster Connors, also ordained in the Presbyterian Church (USA). They live in Baltimore with their two children.

Glenna Huber has been a priest in The Diocese of Maryland since 2009. She has served as Vicar in three settings during that time with a consistent ministry at The Church of the Holy Nativity in Park Heights. Prior to joining the Diocese of Maryland Rev. Huber served for eight years in the Diocese of Atlanta her sponsoring Diocese. The Episcopal Urban Caucus, The Maryland Truth and Reconciliation education sub-committee, and Baltimoreons United in Leadership Development, a IAF affiliate, are among some of the boards and commissions on which The Rev. Huber serves. Rev. Huber earned her M. Div. at The General Theological Seminary in New York and her undergraduate at Spelman College in Atlanta. She and her husband are currently raising a 2-year-old son and a baby girl born April 2015.

Bishop Douglas Miles is a native of Baltimore. He has over 44 years of ministry experience in Baltimore, California, and Tennessee. In 1992, he organized Koinonia Baptist Church in Baltimore, which has expanded to two campuses and houses many different community outreach ministries, where he was consecrated Bishop of Koinonia. He is serving for the second time as a Clergy Co-Chair of BUILD. He has served in leadership positions with Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, Greater Homewood Interfaith Alliance, Maryland Health Care Initiative, Baltimore Interfaith Coalition, Maryland Food Committee, and Mission Baltimore. Bishop Miles is a national award-winning columnist with the Afro-American newspaper. He has preached and lectured throughout the world lastly serving as Jellicoe Preacher at Oxford University in England and is published in a book of sermons entitled Living in Hell. He is married to the former Rosanna White, the proud father of two sons – Harvey and Dante and grandfather of five.

Am I In the Right Room?

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, MaryAnn McKibben Dana is curating reflections from our 2016 National Gathering. Watch this space for thoughts from a wide variety of folks, especially around the question, What “stuck”? What ideas, speakers, workshops or worship services are continuing to work on your heart as you envision “the church that is becoming?” We’ll be hearing from ruling elders, teaching elders, seminarians, and more. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Cheryl Finney

Am I in the right room?

Most of my life I have used this simple question to gain direction. Is the space I have placed myself, whether it be graduate school, neighborhood, or church, putting me in contact with people that reflect collectively who I want to become?

tsr_4472_webInstitutions I join that are experimental, and open to new ways of being are “rooms” I will stay in. So it was inspiring to hear the way Presbyterians are redefining our “rooms” of worship at the NEXT Church National Gathering in Atlanta. Innovations like Farm Church, a new agriculturally-based Christian community in Durham focused on growing food and faith for the hungry intrigued me. Then there was Serious Ju Ju, a faith-based ministry in Montana centered on at risk teenage boys revolving around their love of skateboarding – really, how can one not love that? Both ministries have recently sprung forth and reflect new spaces of worship which excites me. So I found myself saying, “Yes!” If this is where my church is leading, I will stay.

But what has had me on edge and closer to the exit was publicly named at the conference and that is our primarily white demographic as Presbyterians. Questions were raised on how our church will respond to a world with a national legacy of structural racism born from white dominance. I was grateful to be reminded again by NEXT speakers of the vigilance needed on issues of race that I as a white American, Presbyterian, living in Baltimore, need to continue to name, own, and challenge.

While I am in the midst of this work through community organizing in Baltimore, where building relationships across racial lines is at its core, it is important to me to have the larger church own this collectively. Sharing ways we are engaging the problem of white fragility in our churches, I was reminded again of the importance of sharing public narratives of our experience with race within our congregations often.

Just as I am thrilled to hear of innovations in worship I want the church to be pioneering in the way we are being church in the racial arena. Housing voices experimenting and moving past the fear of a misstep in a conversation on race can be a space that uncovers unconscious biases that brought to light can move a people of faith into action.

I am trusting that relationships built along the way as we challenge structured systems that are racist in outcome will be fertile ground that just might change what we look like and move us to who we are called to be.

That’s the next room I want to be in!


cheryl finneyCheryl Finney is a ruling elder at Brown Memorial Presbyterian Church in Baltimore. A frequently challenged mother of four, she is currently working for BUILD, Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, as a project organizer. Her current passion is working with “returning citizens” through a jobs movement of BUILD called Turnaround Tuesdays. She says, “developing leaders from the reentry community as they join the workforce and rediscover a civic life is the richest work I have ever had the privilege to do!” 

 

2016 National Gathering Ignite: Gwen Brown & Tim Hughes

Gwen Brown, organizer with BUILD (Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development) and Tim Hughes, associate pastor at Brown Memorial Park Ave Presbyterian Church, share their collaboration in the Baltimore Youth Organizing Project.

Creating Tension is a Pastoral Skill

By Andrew Foster Connors

tension copy“Madame Mayor,” I said, opening the meeting as our group of leaders had planned, “we’re here today because we are disappointed in your lack of leadership.  You’ve told us you were going to double the number of jobs for youth and that hasn’t happened.  You said you would double funding for afterschool funding and that hasn’t happened.  And you’re closing rec centers after we agreed that Baltimore’s youth need more recreation, not less.  When you were elected you made a promise that you would be the Mayor for opportunities for youth.  We’ve come here today to see whether we can count on you to make good on your promises.”

Tension.  All community organizing expects tension at some point in time. Sometimes we introduce it intentionally.  We “agitate” leaders to produce a reaction.

Yet within the congregation, most of us are reluctant to introduce tension.  Some of us see introducing tension as inconsistent with pastoral ethics or approach.

Many of us in the pastorate either grew up in systems that trained us to smooth over tension, or were intentionally trained that reducing tension is part of our job description. Our comfort with tension has been further eroded by the qualities of tension that we have witnessed within our denomination and within our political environment that we have experienced as tension leading to the destruction of relationships rather than in the deepening of them.

And yet, even a novice student of the Jesus Way would recognize early on how much tension there is in the Gospels.  Anytime Jesus comes around, someone is likely to be challenged.  In any church that finds itself “stuck,” or leans toward a status quo that has or will endanger its ability to adjust to changing circumstances, tension is the fire that we light to get people moving.  Those of us who have completed Clinical Pastoral Education often report learning the most from the supervisor who asked the question that seemed too “impolite” or “aggressive” to ask.  “The patient said she was afraid of dying and you responded by asking her if she was enjoying the food. Why did you ask that question? Are you afraid of hearing her fears?”

We should expect tension in our communities and learn how to face it with more confidence.  In fact, we should learn how to introduce it in constructive ways that shift the burden and the opportunity of leadership off the pastor(s) and onto more leaders and potential leaders in the congregation.

Pastors who want to become leaders within and beyond their congregations can start by practicing creative tension in their own backyard.  Take one example – someone comes to you and says they are disappointed with the lack of small group ministry in your church.  In their previous church, they say, there were all kinds of small groups that were active.

Pastors afraid of tension are likely to react in a couple of predictable ways.  We might react as if this is our responsibility: “I really need to do something about the lack of small groups.  I need to work harder on this!”  Or we might react defensively: “Well, sorry, but this is not your former church, and we don’t have the resources for a small group ministry.” Both responses deprive the person of the possibility to grow as a leader.  They deprive the community of the potential gifts that arise as a result of this leader’s passion and willingness to act on that passion.

A pastor who is comfortable with tension, after listening well, might respond with all sorts of questions that preserve tension rather than dissipating it: “Have you talked with others who share your concern? Would you be willing to? Is this important enough to you that you would be willing to lead such a group or to recruit others to do so? How could I support you in that effort?” By placing some of the tension for the lack of small groups back on the person who first noticed it, the pastor gives that person the opportunity to demonstrate their leadership potential, and prevents the pastor from inadvertently becoming the fix-it person for everything that’s wrong with the church.

Of course, that person might not be a leader and might not be interested in becoming one.  But we’ll never know unless we’re willing to test them out.  Every pastor who introduces tension must be prepared to receive at least as much as she gives.  But this is a good thing.  Imagine the leader who returns to you and says, “I want to start three new small groups. I’m willing to recruit those leaders if you’re willing to train all of us.” Or imagine the mayor who responds to the tension our organization introduced into the room by coming back with, “I’m prepared to double afterschool funding, but I need you to meet with these five council people and pressure them to vote for my budget.”

Such leadership expands the involvement of all involved, asks more from everybody, and when directed by prayerful discernment, delivers more for the kingdom of God.

Admittedly this kind of agitation is an art, not a science.  Tension is only as effective as the strength of the relationships that bear it.  There is a fine line between effective agitation that challenges people to act in ways that are consistent with what they say is important to them, and irritation that poisons relationships unnecessarily.  But while irritation is never a good thing, neither is a boring church that never expects anything of its own members.  The best way to learn how to navigate tension is to practice it, evaluate it, and try again.

AFCAndrew Foster Connors is the pastor of Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, MD. He is co-chair of the NEXT Church Strategy Team and co-chair of the IAF community organization, BUILD.

2011 National Gathering Testimony: Mission

Andrew Foster Connors: Lessons from Community Organizing for the Missional Leader

[Andrew’s talk begins at: 2:54] “Missional action almost always has evangelical results,” says Andrew Foster Connors in this 20-minute talk on missional leadership, or, as he calls it, “The Pastor as Organizer.” In this inspiring talk, Andrew names five leadership insights he’s gained from community organizing and how they’ve shaped the congregation he serves into more faithful, fruitful followers of Christ. Tim Hart Andersen introduces.

Andrew Foster Connors is the pastor of the Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, MD and serves on the NEXT Strategy Team. Tim Hart Andersen is the pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis, MN and serves on the NEXT Advisory Team.

Beyond Better Preaching: Stewardship through a Community Organizing Lens

by Andrew Foster-Connors

It was high up in the glass-encased office of the CEO of one of Baltimore’s large corporate players that my mind started drifting to stewardship.  It was an odd time to be thinking about stewardship.  The Baptist bishop, the Catholic priest, the city school teacher, the organizer and I were in this office to find out whether this CEO was willing to exercise leadership among his peers to support a campaign to rebuild Baltimore’s City School facilities.  This would be the true test of whether his words about young people were just words, or the stuff of true commitment.

from the BUILD (Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development) website

from the BUILD (Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development) website

We laid out the vision – political leaders, corporate leaders, religious leaders standing alongside teachers and young people calling on the MD General Assembly to change existing revenues to make it possible to leverage $500 million dollars this year toward the $2 billion need.  This, we said, was our “kairos moment.”  The CEO stopped to write this down – “How do you spell that word?” he wanted to know.  He asked a few questions then we moved to commitment – Would he stand with us in calling on the corporate community?  Yes, he would.  Would he call on other corporate leaders to use their leadership to support the legislation?  Yes, he would.  “This is what’s best for our kids,” he said.  And it was true.

But I was thinking about stewardship.  Like a lot of pastors, I never really received any training in stewardship other than the theology behind it, roughly summarized as this: because God has redeemed us in Jesus Christ, we respond out of gratitude.  Stewardship naturally grew out of this theological training.  When stewardship season rolled around, I preached some stewardship sermons, and people would, presumably, give out of their gratitude.  The first several years, the budget went up by a few percentage points.  Not bad, but not inspiring either.  So I did what any theologically trained pastor would do – I improved my message.  I labored over the sermons, and preached some really good.  I waited expectantly, but the budget numbers didn’t look all that different from the previous year.

Desperate, I turned to our lead organizer, Rob English, for help.  He diagnosed my problem immediately.  “You know what your problem is,” Rob said to me not waiting for me to give him permission to speak, “you preach these sermons and get these people all worked up, but you haven’t given them anywhere to go.  You want them to give money for the ministry?  Then you have to ask them for it out of the relationships that you have.”  “But I shouldn’t have to,” I protested.  “I mean, according to Presbyterian polity, it’s not really my job.”  He shook his head in disappointment.  I was a difficult case.  “I know what you’re going to say,” I said, “I’m living in the world as it should be instead of the world as is.”  His face brightened.  Maybe I was going to get this.

The next campaign, I met with about 20 families and asked them directly for a specific amount connected to a specific need.  Surprisingly, not only did 99% of the people with whom I met seem to enjoy talking with me about the church and all the exciting plans for the future, I learned things I had never learned about them before; stories about important people in their lives who had instilled a value of generosity, or why the church was so important to them.  In my first campaign, despite my ineptitude, I helped raise six figures for a capital-style campaign in our then 250 member church.

But here in the office of the CEO, I realized where I had failed in that initial campaign.  Rather than cultivating leaders to share the burden of the work, I had taken a lot of it on myself.  Not only had I generated a lot of work for myself, I had deprived others the opportunity of developing relationships, and deepening their own leadership.  My instincts had been partially right– my job wasn’t to raise money for the church.  My job was to help raise leaders for the church.  Just as we were calling on this CEO to call on his friends to commit to God’s work of nurturing the children of Baltimore, I needed to be developing leaders in my congregation to call on their friends to commit to God’s work in and through the church.

The next year, I identified people in the congregation who knew something about inspiring generosity in others – the development director for a local school, the grassroots campaign masterminds who unseated one of Baltimore’s machine politicians through their face to face work, a membership director for a local club, a jovial philanthropist, and one of my skeptics who, nonetheless is listened to by many when she speaks.  I met with each of them individually and asked them to serve, teaching us all in the process about how to connect the joy that people feel in our mission with their generosity to the church.

It took me 6 years of broad-based organizing experience before I came to see that organizing is not about politics – it’s about relationships that can be organized to build all sorts of amazing, grace-filled agendas for God’s work in the world.  Raising $500 million dollars for justice in the schools isn’t all that different than raising a money for a church’s mission.  Call it a kairos moment.


Andrew Foster ConnorsAndrew Foster Connors is senior pastor of Brown Memorial Park Avenue Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, MD where he also serves as clergy co-chair of BUILD, an affiliate of the Industrial Areas Foundation, the oldest and largest community organizing network in country.