Listening and Learning with a Blackboard

As we further explore engaging our communities, I want to introduce you to an out-of-the-box idea that First Baptist Church in Victoria has been experimenting with.

FBC Victoria is located right on the corner of Quadra and North Park on the edge of downtown.  They are overshadowed by a much larger and dominant building housing Glad Tidings Church, so much so, that people are often surprised that FBC is a church too!

To help the neighbourhood realize that FBC is there among them, Pastor Jeff Sears and congregation decided they needed to do something so “people realize that we are a church and we are active.”

They have installed a chalk board, complete with chalk, inviting those in their neighborhood to write to one another and the folk at FBC.  Pastor Jeff explained to a passerby who inquired about why the board was up that “our church needs to hear from our neighbours so that we can learn from them.”  Not to preach to them or to write pithy inspirational messages, but to hear and learn how the people in the neighbourhood around them view their world and the beautiful and not-so-beautiful aspects of life and purpose.

blackboard2Each week Jeff poses a question on the board, such as “What was your most life defining moment?”  One of the poignant responses was, “The birth of my child; the death of my child,”  a reminder that there are those all around us whose lives are defined by both beauty and anguish. Perhaps comments such as these will heighten our awareness that every stranger we pass has a story that they need to share and we need to hear.

The decision to put the board up came with risk: in Jeff’s words a “dangerous venture.” What if it was damaged or stolen (the board was caringly made by a congregant), or people write vulgarities and statements against the church, Christianity and God? It was a risk the folks were willing to take to engage their neighbourhood. The good news wasn’t shared by hunkering down in veiled places, but by exposure and risk. They decided that they wouldn’t erase anything negative people wrote about the church as long as it had something to do with the question posed, and though some people did indeed write vulgarities, they were often erased by other passersby. The neighbourhood began to own the board, one person writing, “I love this blackboard.”

The first week they hoped for a couple of comments to the posted question and were blown away with how fast the board filled up.  Jeff says that this told him that people want to be heard, to tell their story, to find meaning from one another in sharing story.  blackboard1

FBC Victoria’s Mission Statement articulates the thought around the chalkboard:  “We are a diverse community united under Christ in spirit and in action, transforming the heart of our neighbourhood.”

The approach to fulfil their mission is not to go tell people what to think, but to hear what others think and to find the intersection between their stories and the God story–how to bring their stories into God’s redemptive, restorative story.  All the questions posted on the board relate to the message Jeff shares the following Sunday, praying that some board contributors/readers will be curious to hear and share more on the questions.

Nora Walker, Board of Deacons Moderator at First Baptist, shared that one man wrote that FBC could make a difference in the community by giving him someone to talk to.  An attempt to follow up fell through, but a few weeks ago at an FBC-hosted BBQ, the same man showed up and connections were made. Nora makes a point of visiting local coffee shops and eateries near the church and has engaged with many people in conversation who now know FBC as the “church with the chalkboard.”  Often they then talk with her and tell their stories.

But there is also an inward reason for the board. Jeff says that he and his congregation want to become more aware of the thoughts and feelings of their neighbours, to not look upon them as strangers but to see that they have deep and important things to share.

It would seem to me that this concept, too, is part of all our discipleship. We don’t have all the answers, and we need to understand the questions and hear the answers from one another both within and without our gathering spaces. That we learn and are enriched by our diversity as humans; that we share in mercy and compassion both in painful and joyful events; that in the midst of both, we can find Jesus ever-present amongst humanity laughing with us, mourning with us and bringing the comfort of God in deep, meaningful ways.

What ways are you engaging the community around you, or in what ways are you imagining engagement taking place? We want to learn from one another how to be Christ’s presence in our everyday spaces and places. Write and let us know what you are up to so we can share your innovative and risky ideas here.

Pastor Shannon Youell
CBWC Church Planting Director
syouell@cbwc.ca

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