The Role of the Faith Community in Neighborhood Building

[From a talk given to spiritual leaders in Garland, Texas, October 2010 as part of a city-wide neighborhood building conference sponsored by the city of Garland]

What role does the faith community play in the well being of our neighborhoods?

Erasmus said that the city is like a monastery – an ordered existence, controlled. Order for a monastery comes not because the monks arrange themselves naturally, but because the monks are arranged, or ordered, externally by a fixed rule. It is not a coincidence that those adhering to the Rule are called an “order.”

Thus, Erasmus’ claim begs the question: Does a city exist – a neighborhood exist – because it comes together of its own accord, or because of restraints – a rule – imposed upon her residents? What we are asking is not, “What is a city, a neighborhood?” But, “What makes a city, a neighborhood?” What is the spiritual essence of a city, a neighborhood, her soul and vitality?

This is not an esoteric question for the sake of theoretical discussion. Rather it is a vital question, it is with this question that we as communities of faith must begin. It is when finding the answers to this question that we can begin playing our part in building dynamic cities, or more specifically neighborhoods … narrowing it down even more, those neighborhoods within which our communities of faith exist.

We begin with defining two words: city & neighborhood. How we define them is important to our answering what is the spiritual essence of a neighborhood?

So, I ask you, what is a city? And, what is a neighborhood?

In the sacred scriptures of the monotheistic religions the root of both the word “city” and “neighborhood” imply a unique role within the neighborhood for a community of faith.

In the sacred scriptures “city” is defined as “a place guarded by walking.” Philologically “city” has its roots in two primitive words, the word for “open the eyes,” or more explicitly, “wake up,” and the word meaning, “to be made naked,” as in the old movie and subsequent TV series, “The Naked City.” We’ll come back to this idea of naked in a minute.

In the days of old, cities had night watchmen who walked the perimeters of the city; in very ancient days, along the city walls. The Prophet Nehemiah, of the Hebrew Scriptures, before he began to undertake the rebuilding of a destroyed Jerusalem, walked the walls to survey the damage. It is not that walls themselves that any value, it is those who reside within the walls who are valuable.

Before our communities of faith can have a ministry to our neighborhoods it is important that we “walk the walls,” as it were, to begin to understand the real needs of those who reside within our neighborhoods.

When, may I ask, was the last time you truly wandered about your neighborhood seeking to understand her spiritual essence – the deep-seated needs (not just spiritual) of the people? We will never understand from the within the walls of our studies.

Now, back to “The Naked City.”

Do you remember the sign off of the TV series? “There are eight million stories in the Naked City…This has been one of them.” Do we know intimately even one story taking place in our neighborhood outside of the walls of our place of worship? The emphasis is in “intimately.” We often superficially know what’s going on around, but the walls of our places of worship often serve as a barrier to understanding the deep-set “whys” of the problem.

We now move to “neighborhood.” The root of the word, “neighborhood,” in both Hebrew and Aramaic, as well as in other languages) conveys the sense of “benevolent guidance,” not in the sense of kindly guiding our neighbor along the “right “ path, but in the sense of being concerned about the well being of his or her person.

This is the neighborliness of the Good Samaritan who goes out of his way, without strings attached, to help one to whom he is an outcast. This is the echoing of the words of the Hebrew Prophet Micah: “What does God require of you? To act justly, to live mercy, and to walk humbly with God. (6:8).”

To be neighborly is to follow the Golden Rule. It is embedded in all religions, all philosophies. I wonder how those living within our neighborhoods view our communities of faith as neighbors?

I apologize if this is beginning to sound too much like a sermon. I am emphasizing our understanding of these two words – city & neighborhood – because a proper understanding of them is a must if we as communities of faith are to play a role in the well being of our neighborhoods.

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I want to throw in one more though for consideration before we move on to more practical matters, and that is the question of theology. Let’s face it, our theology, plays an extremely important role in how we view our neighborhood and our role in it.

Historically and unfortunately, for some, the city and her neighborhoods are viewed as places of great evil—places to escape from. Now, it is not the purpose of this presentation to debate this, I do find it interesting, however, the positive significance of cities, especially Jerusalem, in all three monotheistic faiths.

There is also the theological melding of scripture with the American Dream that prosperity equals being blessed by God. Again, this is not the place for theological debate. I will say, however, that such thinking has caused many of churches to leave the poorer urban neighborhoods for the suburbs, or in the case of some churches who have remained put, their parishioners have moved to the suburbs, returning every Sunday, yet without an understanding of the home neighborhood. Lastly, I believe, this melding has created a great divide between communities of faith where this theology is present and those who long for the American Dream to happen to them.

Just something to chew on as we move on the practical role of communities of faith can play in our neighborhoods’ well being.

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I don’t need to outline the larger issues at play within our neighborhoods. We all know them. I do want to reiterate, though, our need to truly understand how these issues play out, not only within our communities of faith, but also within our neighborhoods. We need to become intimately acquainted with the stories of those who live within our neighborhoods, but never enter into our places of worship, except maybe for a handout. And even here, we rarely take the time to listen to the story.

I emphasis the STORY, because here is where I believe our role as communities of faith begin. Our stories, that is, the “Story” – how we are involved with, how we see others – as presented by the community of faith must meld with those of the neighborhood if we are to play a significant role in the physical and spiritual well being of our neighborhoods.

Architect Will Bruder writes,

I don’t bring my own style to the buildings I create. I look to the magic of place – to the light, materiality, forms realized in the landscape. It is in the portrait that people see themselves and their surroundings. When you reflect these elements you build great buildings that are anchored in the logic of a community, and loved by the people who live there.

I suggest that this likewise true of our communities of faith when fully reach out to our neighborhoods and become part and parcel of them. What Bruder says about looking, discovering, and utilizing the “magic (spiritual essence) of the place,” I suggest, is what is necessary if our communities of faith are to be loved by the neighborhood where they exist. We find the essence, within the story of the neighborhood.

Let me suggest a few cultures of place, or what I call “Soul of Place,” where the Story of our communities of faith may or may not meld with the neighborhood:

I. Culture of Order vs. Culture of Chaos

The Culture of Order = Everything must be in an arranged fashion, just as Erasmus stated.

This is the classic we are RIGHT, you are wrong … you must do it our way. It is also the culture of “this is the way we’ve always done it,” and the culture of “strings attached.

The danger here is that we resist getting really involved because these not always hidden views … for example, “If we get them saved, then ….” do not fit well with the Culture of Chaos.

Culture. of Chaos = A city comes together (or falls apart) of its own accord. Everything will, and must, change

It is important for a community of faith to be proactive rather than reactive. For example, rather than reacting to the homeless with the neighborhood by providing a shelter (not that it is bad to do so), it would be better to explore and find ways to resolve the root causes of homelessness within your neighborhood.

Reactive action comes from trying to escape from the problem as long as we can. Proactive action comes from knowing and understanding as best we can the essence of story unfolding within our neighborhood, and acting upon it in remedial ways.

II. Culture of Demolition vs. Culture of Recycling

Culture of Demolition = speaks of power, control

We often “demolish” a neighborhood’s spirit by how we present ourselves within the neighborhood. Sometimes is it literal demolishing of buildings so that we can have a larger building … what does this say to the neighborhood about how we value her?

Sometimes we “demolish” a neighborhood’s spirit by constantly preaching about her evils, rather than seeking to find common solutions (ex: An Ohio church that picketed a strip joint. When they actually sat down together, they found that they could help the dancers in numerous ways, not only spiritual.)

Sometimes we “demolish” our role in the neighborhood by simply being outsiders, or by our presentation of ourselves as being holier than those outside the building.

The C. of Demolition also plays out when we are constantly changing our interactions with the neighborhood. One day doing this, another day something else because we’ve changed our minds about how to serve the neighborhood.

Culture of Recycling = speaks to re-creation, creativity

Recycling speaks to presenting ourselves to the neighborhood as a community of faith who cares about the neighborhood and her well being. Not, for example, tearing down buildings to build parking lots. Or, perhaps, just opening the doors for the neighborhood to use the facilities, no strings attached (including fees or theology).

Recycling speaks to finding ways to join in with the neighborhood to address needs in a way that brings about well being (ex. Church in Portland starting a grocery store in an area that didn’t have an affordable one).

Recycling also speaks to being consistently present within the neighborhood.

How do we use the Culture of Recycling to reach out to our neighborhoods?

III. Culture of Nostalgia vs. Culture of Present

Culture Nostalgia = looking for the lost, trying to recreate the past

Again, the “We’ve always done it this way,” raises its ugly head. If our community of faith remains locked in the glory days of the past, continually trying to recreate them we will fail, not only to reach out, but even to sustain our own community.

Culture of Present = Celebrating the present moment

What are the opportunities that today presents? What’s keeping us from doing them?

Lack of money, by the way, is only an excuse to do nothing. There’s always away to do something, even if only with a dime. Likewise, with the excuse of not enough people (ex: one priest, one basketball hoop in parking lot, always available)

IV. Culture of “Another thing to do” vs. Culture of Festival

Here’s where knowing both the story of the neighborhood and the community of faith rises to its full potential. Worship, in all faiths, is a celebration. It is more than merely a service, or listening to a sermon … in truth, it ought to be nothing less than a festival that delight’s all of our God-given senses. Likewise with the celebration of the daily.

How can we invite and involve the neighborhood in our celebration of worship, in our celebrations of the daily? What additions and changes can we make without compromising our theology?

Here is the place where our ritual can become a tool: We need ritual because it is an expression of the truth that we recognize the difficulty of creating a different and special kind of community.

Here is the one place where demolition is good: Knocking down those barriers that get in the way of our true involvement with the neighborhood.

I close with these words from Soul of Place:

It is the perspective from which we enter, what we find can be grotesque, yet beautiful and comfortable. Space is full of “seeing.” A description of what is seen sets the scene … to have “soul” it must be lively, animated.

When a place has soul there is an essential unity between motive and creation, and when that unity is broken, the soul is lost and the spirit becomes grotesque. The creator [and here he is speaking of us, ed.] himself must believe in the experience and in so doing leaves a bit of his own image – “the soul” – in the creation.