Posts

Getting Out of the Boat

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate and Linda Kurtz are curating a series written by participants in the first-ever Certificate in Community Organizing and Congregational Leadership offered by NEXT Church, Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, and Metro Industrial Areas Foundation. You’ll hear from clergy, lay people, community leaders, and others reflect on the theology of power and how organizing has impacted the way they do ministry. How might you incorporate these principles of organizing into your own work? What is your reaction to their reflections? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Denise Anderson

A sermon preached at Unity Presbyterian Church in Temple Hills, MD. Scripture: Jonah 3:1-5, 10 and Mark 1:14-20.

Unity Presbyterian Church, you may remember that recently we committed ourselves to being part of a number of new things. First, we are looking at dissolution of our charter and the possible repurposing of our facility for a new ministry that will meet the specific needs of our surrounding county. But there is also something afoot here in our county that has the potential to facilitate significant change in our community. For the past year and a half, a number of local clergy and lay leaders from a variety of traditions have been meeting, organizing, and working together to develop the Prince George’s Leadership Action Network, or PLAN. PLAN is on track to become an Industrial Areas Foundation-affiliated organization. Now, perhaps we need to examine what that means.

The Industrial Areas Foundation, according to its website, “is the nation’s largest and longest-standing network of local faith and community-based organizations.

“The IAF partners with religious congregations and civic organizations at the local level to build broad-based organizing projects, which create new capacity in a community for leadership development, citizen-led action and relationships across the lines that often divide our communities.

“The IAF created the modern model of faith- and broad-based organizing and is widely recognized as having the strongest track record in the nation for citizen leadership development and for helping congregations and other civic organizations act on their missions to achieve lasting change in the world.”

Our neighbors in the DC metro area and to the north in Baltimore all have IAF-affiliated organizations serving them. They have been effective at a number of efforts to benefit their communities, including ensuring jobs for local resident and fighting for access to healthy foods. Now we want to bring that sort of cooperative leadership and organizing to Prince George’s County. Unity is part of that.

As we do the work of building an organization here, it occurs to me that the Bible is replete with stories of organizers! Let’s frame what it means to organize. Organizing is the building of power across constituencies. Power is simply two things: organized people and organized money. Furthermore, people are organized not around particular issues, but around self-interests. There is a need in the community that, if not addressed, will have reverberating effects. For instance, I need to be able to pay my rent, so it is in my self-interest that a new company setting up shop in town would be intentional about hiring locally.

Today’s texts tell us about two organizers: Jonah and Jesus. One more reluctant that the other. Both effective at tapping into their eventual followers’ interests and abilities.

We may not think of Jonah as an organizer, but in a sense he was. In essence, what Jonah did is what good organizers do: agitate people around a particular need within their community. Jonah’s method of proclamation was necessarily disruptive. Friends, while I don’t advocate walking through Prince George’s County proclaiming its destruction, I think we who are residents would agree that there is deep complacency here. People are prone to cut themselves off from the needs that exist, and there needs to be a widespread calling of attention to those needs. God is not destroying us; we are doing a good enough job of that on our own! For every day we allow our schools to underperform, we bring about destruction. For every foreclosure that is handed down, we bring about destruction. For every bit of commerce that is wooed into our county without subsequent guarantees that residents will benefit, we bring about destruction. We need to be the Jonahs who will agitate the city (or county) and confront the people with a simple question: “What are you prepared to do about this?”

Organizing teaches us to identify leaders within a community. Leaders are simply those who have a following. Jesus after his baptism set out to build his following, and he did so in such an effective way. He honed their leadership using what they were already doing. Like any good leader, Jesus recognizes a need: the Kingdom of God is at hand. So he sets out to gather/organize those who would exist within that kingdom or reign. He sees the fishermen brothers Simon and Andrew, and astutely connects this important work with the work they’re already doing: “Follow me and I will make you fishers of people!” He does the same with the sons of Zebedee.

Organizing is not gathering people to do things they have no interests in or training for. That would be a recipe for disaster. Organizing identifies those who already have the capacity for the work and building on that capacity. We know there are people with gifts and expertise to meet the very needs within our communities. Organizing connects those people to work they’re already equipped to do.

And in both Jonah and Jesus’ cases, the work could not start unless someone “got out of the boat.” Jonah initially ran from his calling and took a boat out of town, only to be met with a fierce storm and a fish’s belly. When he surrendered to the call and work, then he was washed safely to shore. Jesus called some of his first followers from their places of comfort and familiarity. These were men who were used to fishing for, well, fish! Jesus invited them to do something somewhat familiar, but markedly different.

Getting out of the boat means acknowledging our fears, but ultimately surrendering to our call. It means letting go of what we had hoped would mean comfort and security for us. It means taking on a vulnerability that defers to the needs of the many. But it’s not entirely selfless. It is also understanding that the liberation of those people for whom we fish is tied into our own. Getting out of the boat is an act of saving our own lives, for to not act is to act. To not make a choice is to choose something (and that something is rarely life-giving). Unity, as I have shared repeatedly since I first arrived three years ago, change will happen either with us or to us. The good news is we have the power to choose which that will be!

The Great Organizer, who hung from a tree on Friday but got up with all power on Sunday, continues to organize. He continues to agitate and push us beyond what we think are our limits. He continues to call us to greater work and faithfulness. And the best news of all, perhaps, is that we are not left without help to do what we’re called to do. In hope, in trust, and in the assurance of God’s love, grace, and empowerment, let us leave our places of comfort and complacency. Let us get out of our boat and into our calling. Amen.


Denise Anderson is pastor of Unity Presbyterian Church in Temple Hills, MD, and co-moderator of the 222nd General Assembly.

2018 National Gathering Testimony: Betsy Nix & Sheri Parks

Dr. Betsy Nix and Dr. Sheri Parks collaborate on a testimony to the 2018 NEXT Church National Gathering in Baltimore, MD, about race in the city.

Elizabeth Nix (Betsy) is an associate professor of history and the chair of the Division of Legal, Ethical and Historical Studies at the University of Baltimore. Sheri Parks is the associate dean for research, interdisciplinary scholarship, and programming for the College of Arts and Humanities, and an associate professor of American studies at hte University of Maryland.

2018 National Gathering Ignite: Heather Colletto

Heather Colletto, Director of Communication and Mission at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Grand Rapids, MI, gives an Ignite presentation at the 2018 National Gathering about ServeGR.

Westminster founded ServeGR.com in 2016 to help all Grand Rapidians link their lives together in meaningful ways by finding ongoing volunteer opportunities that play to their strengths, use their passion, and fit their schedule.

Greatest Hit: Making Space to Engage Our Neighbors

This fall, in addition to sharing reflections on “what is saving your ministry right now?”, we are also bringing back some of our most popular posts over the last couple of years. We hope these “greatest hits” will allow you new insight in this busy time of year. We invite you to join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

This post on multicultural ministry and community engagement is one of our most popular posts in the history of the NEXT Church blog. We’ve updated it slightly below in hopes it becomes a fresh resource as you look towards December.

By Rachel Triska

Several weeks ago, I was sitting in our coffee bar during an event and overheard a conversation that made me smile. A tech company had brought 125 of their employees from across the globe to our space for a major annual meeting. One of the guests was visiting with Kevin (a Dallas cop who runs security for all our events). The gentleman asked Kevin, “So what is this place?” Kevin began to give him our elevator pitch, “Life in Deep Ellum is a cultural center built for the artistic, social, economic and spiritual benefit of Deep Ellum and urban Dallas.” Then he added, “Basically, it’s a church that opens up to the community for a lot of different things. I’m here all the time – art shows, corporate events, fundraisers.” To which the gentleman responded, “You could have asked me for a list of twenty guesses – a church would not have been one of them.”

From the Life in Deep Ellum Facebook page

From the Life in Deep Ellum Facebook page

Joel and I have been pastoring together at Life in Deep Ellum for almost six years. Deep Ellum is a historic neighborhood just outside downtown Dallas. It’s often described as the Brooklyn of the South. Basically, it’s a small neighborhood with a big personality – lots of artists, entrepreneurs and folks who pride themselves on not needing God.

It’s that last characteristic that forced us to think differently about how to engage our neighborhood – traditional methods of outreach were not working. It was my husband who first pointed out what this neighborhood was forcing us to do. It forced us to stop thinking like pastors and start thinking like missionaries.

He was absolutely right. We found that to connect with our neighborhood we had to slow down enough to learn the language, the customs, how to appreciate their sense of humor. Some people might say we’ve kind of gone native. Ministering in this neighborhood certainly changed us.

What I love about thinking like a missionary is it taught me to think beyond Sundays. To think about how we might engage our neighbors seven days a week. That’s how we reached the decision to operate as a cultural center Monday-Friday.

Every Sunday we stack all the chairs in our venue (worship space) and put them away. Our band clears the stage. We take down all our church-specific signage. We clear out because we are making space to engage our neighbors. Those very same neighbors who say they will never go to church but hang out with us in our building all the time. On Tuesday nights a dance company takes over the space. Mondays and Wednesdays we host Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. In the next few weeks we’ll host a book launch for a local author, a closing reception for an art exhibit and have 500 teens in for a spoken word event.

Each year, not including Sundays, we see between 10,000 and 20,000 people come through our building. Our coffee shop will serve somewhere around 35,000 cups of coffee this year.

A lot can happen when we think beyond Sundays. One of our friends who first engaged with us via community events says, “What happens here Monday through Friday is why I gave Sundays a chance. And what happens here on Sundays restored my faith in what Christian community can be.”

We use Monday through Friday as an opportunity to redefine for people what it looks like to be the Church on mission. And often, it does open their hearts to what happens on Sunday.


Rachel Triska is the Chief Practicioner at Life in Deep Ellum. Rachel enjoys running, reading the classics, and expressing her inner child while playing with her two daughters. rachel@lifeindeepellum.com

 

Looking for more? Check out the resources below from NEXT:

YAVs Connecting with Community (Part II)

By Marranda Major

We began this endeavor with the best of intentions. Through service, we hoped to spend the last few months of our YAV year connecting more deeply with our neighborhood (you can read more about our intention in this previous post). I hoped our experience would yield some good insights for congregations who are similarly interested in engaging more deeply with their neighborhood contexts. However, we’ve encountered many roadblocks before we could even begin. Most of our neighborhood’s community agencies require at least six weeks lead time to set up a volunteer opportunity. Who knew that it would take this much advanced planning to offer up our time? Ironically, we, who are full-time volunteers, didn’t have a clue… Let the learning begin: building relationships – even tangentially to offer time and labor – takes time.

We’ve had one community engagement project so far: on a recent Friday we visited the Neighborhood Farm Initiative’s demonstration plot at the Mamie D. Lee Community Garden. After a quick orientation, we divided into groups. Some of us loaded wheelbarrows with wood-chips while others set off to weed and turn over the paths that run through the garden plots. Together, we helped to tidy the paths around the exhibition garden to make it easier for volunteers and student gardeners to navigate. After completing the more labor-intensive tasks of neatening paths and preparing new beds, we enjoyed planting yard-long beans, basil, and chard. We finished our morning at the gardening by harvesting some red lettuce to take home for our YAV community meal.

Photo credit: Amy Beth Willis

(Photo credit: Amy Beth Willis)

So, what learning and questions from the garden can we transplant to church life?

  1. We used two different techniques for planting seeds: careful measuring and kamikaze scattering. The yard long beans were inserted precisely 4 inches apart in rows that were 10 inches apart, with a clearly defined process of one person laying the row and the next following behind to cover the seeds with dirt. The chard and basil, however, were scattered at random, comingling in each bed with other herbs and vegetables that were already at their peak.

Of these two approaches, the scatter widely method most closely resembles how we went about setting up these community engagement days, and as we’ve been disappointed with the results, I’m curious what would have happened if we had taken a more intentional approach? We cast the net wide and made a lot of phone calls to the community groups that we spotted during our boundary-walk, however, we got very few return phone calls and emails. I wonder if we would have had more success in building relationships if we had first setting up meetings with volunteer coordinators to explain our context as well as our hopes for our community partnership.

Unlike the parable of the sower (Mark 4:10—20), we can attest that our soil samples are neutral; however, we will have left DC by the time our basil, chard, and yard-long beans are ready to harvest, so we will not know which approach yielded more produce.

  1. Weeds are not the insidious trespassers I imagined, but simply plants that are thriving in a space you intended for another plant. NFI’s Volunteer Coordinator, Caroline, led us on a tour of the edible weeds native to DC—from mint to coriander seed to purslane and lemon balm. We were delighted by the bounty of flavor and texture. We learned that other weeds, like hairy vetch, are desirable because they are good crop covers and attract bees and other pollinators to the garden. This makes pulling weeds less the zero-sum challenge I had expected, and more a test of the gardener’s discretion to know the ideal time to pull specific weeds in each particular location.

From my previous YAV experience doing youth work, I know that it’s tempting to view other extra-curricular activities as competition for our youths’ limited time—weeds, thriving while we are focused solely on surviving. But what if we instead considered the holistic benefits our youth receive from participating in many different activities? While hockey builds discipline and teamwork, theater nurtures creativity and confidence—what will our youth groups develop and grow? Are there symbiotic relationships that we can encourage—a post-practice Bible study or habit of the entire group showing up for big games and performances to show support?

  1. You can pile a LOT of woodchips into a wheelbarrow, but once in motion, content spills. And, should you happen across a bump in the road, you may lose more than you keep. Loading the wheelbarrow becomes a game of balance.

In church life, we are too familiar with this balancing game. Our programs and support structures are necessary for keeping up the life of the Church; however, we must tread carefully as not to be so bogged down that we sacrifice our nimbleness, flexibility, or ability to adapt to new challenges else we will not be able to continue.

  1. Clearing the beds for planting requires using pitchforks to break up the roots of the existing ground cover, teasing out the excess weeds, and churning the earth. The weeds are then added to the compost bin so that as they decay, they could continue to give life to the garden as they pass on nutrients to new seedlings.

When programs have fulfilled their purpose and it’s time to end them, what learning will continue to enrich and nourish the life of the church? How can we honor the memory of and continue the meaningful work of groups like a dwindling local chapter of Presbyterian Women or the once vibrant mission effort once the groups themselves become unsustainable?

There is much to learn from gardening: Jesus used the garden as an illustration in many parables to teach early Christians about the kindom of God. Our time in the garden dug up some questions of how we can continue to be Church today, and planted seeds for future volunteers to grow into relationship with this community. Most importantly, gardening let us connect with our Brightwood Park community by helping our neighbors access local, nutritious fruits and vegetables.


Marranda Major

Marranda Major is serving in Washington, D.C. as the Young Adult Volunteer placed with NEXT Church. While Marranda is sad to be leaving NEXT in a few weeks, she is excited to begin studying for her MDiv at Union Theological Seminary in New York City!

Making Space to Engage Our Neighbors

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. During April, as we continue to process the 2015 National Gathering, Joe Clifford is curating a month of blog posts exploring multiculturalism in the NEXT Church. Join the conversation here, on Facebook, orTwitter!

By Rachel Triska

Several weeks ago, I was sitting in our coffee bar during an event and overheard a conversation that made me smile. A tech company had brought 125 of their employees from across the globe to our space for a major annual meeting. One of the guests was visiting with Kevin (a Dallas cop who runs security for all our events). The gentleman asked Kevin, “So what is this place?” Kevin began to give him our elevator pitch, “Life in Deep Ellum is a cultural center built for the artistic, social, economic and spiritual benefit of Deep Ellum and urban Dallas.” Then he added, “Basically, it’s a church that opens up to the community for a lot of different things. I’m here all the time – art shows, corporate events, fundraisers.” To which the gentleman responded, “You could have asked me for a list of twenty guesses – a church would not have been one of them.”

From the Life in Deep Ellum   Facebook page

From the Life in Deep Ellum Facebook page

Joel and I have been pastoring together at Life in Deep Ellum for almost six years. Deep Ellum is a historic neighborhood just outside downtown Dallas. It’s often described as the Brooklyn of the South. Basically, it’s a small neighborhood with a big personality – lots of artists, entrepreneurs and folks who pride themselves on not needing God.

It’s that last characteristic that forced us to think differently about how to engage our neighborhood – traditional methods of outreach were not working. It was my husband who first pointed out what this neighborhood was forcing us to do. It forced us to stop thinking like pastors and start thinking like missionaries.

He was absolutely right. We found that to connect with our neighborhood we had to slow down enough to learn the language, the customs, how to appreciate their sense of humor. Some people might say we’ve kind of gone native. Ministering in this neighborhood certainly changed us.

What I love about thinking like a missionary is it taught me to think beyond Sundays. To think about how we might engage our neighbors seven days a week. That’s how we reached the decision to operate as a cultural center Monday-Friday.

Every Sunday we stack all the chairs in our venue (worship space) and put them away. Our band clears the stage. We take down all our church-specific signage. We clear out because we are making space to engage our neighbors. Those very same neighbors who say they will never go to church but hang out with us in our building all the time. On Tuesday nights a dance company takes over the space. Mondays and Wednesdays we host Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. In the next few weeks we’ll host a book launch for a local author, a closing reception for an art exhibit and have 500 teens in for a spoken word event.

Each year, not including Sundays, we see between 10,000 and 20,000 people come through our building. Our coffee shop will serve somewhere around 35,000 cups of coffee this year.

A lot can happen when we think beyond Sundays. One of our friends who first engaged with us via community events says, “What happens here Monday through Friday is why I gave Sundays a chance. And what happens here on Sundays restored my faith in what Christian community can be.”

We use Monday through Friday as an opportunity to redefine for people what it looks like to be the Church on mission. And often, it does open their hearts to what happens on Sunday.


Rachel Triska is the Chief Practicioner at Life in Deep Ellum. Rachel enjoys running, reading the classics, and expressing her inner child while playing with her two daughters. rachel@lifeindeepellum.com