Listening to your Community as Social Agency

By Scott Hagley

listening-is-missional-300x300.gifLast fall the Pittsburgh “Latte Art Throwdown” was held in my neighborhood. Baristas from coffee shops all around the city gathered to compete with one another in creating elaborate latte designs on demand. The organizer called baristas forward, rolled a die with different latte-art designs, and then invited the barista to make the design with a single shot of espresso and steamed milk. I’ll admit I went because the sign said “free lattes,” but I stayed because the social scientist in me wouldn’t let me go. An entire city sub-culture emerged within this small, crowded coffee shop.

It wasn’t just the disproportionate number of mustaches and beards, tattoos, piercings, and skinny jeans; it was the fact that so many in the room seemed to know one another. It was like I had stumbled into a chapter of the Pittsburgh Barista Association and then given a free latte and dessert.

I watched and listened to the conversation around me buzzing with hopes and dreams. I began asking questions. I learned that the man on the sidewalk selling tacos under a tent recently moved from another city and hopes to build a client base and open a restaurant. His vision is sustained by a secret family recipe and a carefully-plotted strategy. Later on, I listened to the owner of the coffee shop counsel a young entrepreneur who plans to open a café in the next couple months. She offered not only advice, but resources like plates and cups to aid with the start up. At one point in the evening, I asked someone about the origins of the “throwdown,” and I received an impassioned plea for community and the important role that the neighborhood coffee shop plays in building such community. It was an education. And great fun.

It was only after I got home, however, that I realized how little I talked throughout the evening. I was, of course, a stranger at the margins of the gathering. However, I found many people more than willing to tell me about themselves, about their event, about their entrepreneurial plans. As I listened, I not only learned a lot about one part of my community, I also discovered a place at an event where I clearly did not belong (insert obligatory Sesame Street song here). Listening, especially when we are operating at the margins, provides a place or a standpoint within a community. Listening connects us.

We often don’t think of listening as a form of social action or agency. It is not a medium for us to offer our ideas or to change people’s minds. It is not a way for us to be memorable or to change our world. But changing people’s minds and shaping our world might not be the immediate thing God has for us. Perhaps it is to learn to listen.

Several years ago, Nancy Ammerman wrote a book called Congregation & Community, where she studies congregations in changing neighborhoods. After studying more than 20 congregations, she concludes that congregational health is linked to its ability to connect with the spiritual energies of a neighborhood. Ammerman’s book was published as the “missional church” literature began to take off, and seems to agree with the many models available to help churches become ‘outwardly focused’ and activistic regarding justice or evangelism. Most of the time, we equate ‘missional’ with studying a neighborhood so we know how to engage it. However, I wonder if much of our missional activism misunderstands the basic requirement of cultivating relationships, of what James Davison Hunter calls “faithful presence.”

I would amend Ammerman’s argument to say that congregations need to learn how to join their neighborhood as a people of shalom. This is true especially if our neighborhood starts to look and feel different from what it used to be, and we feel like we are at the margins of someone else’s party. The first thing we need to do is find the free lattes and turn up our hearing aid. Learning to listen is a profoundly missional activity. Ask questions, and listen . . . we just might get in on the party.

Dr. Scott Hagley is assistant professor of missiology and also works with the Seminary’s Church Planting Initiative and teaches in the MDiv Church Planting Emphasis program as well as the new Church Planting and Revitalization certificate program. He previously served as director of education at Forge Canada in Surrey, British Columbia, where he worked to develop curriculum for the formation of missional leaders in hubs across Canada.

“Listening to your Community as Social Agency” first appeared on the Seminary’s blog March 16, 2017. The Seminary offers multiple programs for those interesting in church planting including the Graduate Certificate in Church Planting and Revitalization, Master of Divinity with Church Planting Emphasis, and the Church Planting Initiative. Learn more about these programs online.

Is Your Church a Landmark or a Lighthouse?

By Danny Franks (dfranks.com)

Photo Credit: Dennis Jarvis CC Sharealike

Photo Credit: Dennis Jarvis CC Sharealike

Not long ago I was having coffee with a pastor friend who mentioned that in his church, not one single member lived within a fifteen minute drive of the building.

Think about that: not one person from the neighborhood shows up on Sunday. Not one from the adjacent neighborhood. Or the neighborhood adjacent to that.

Drive in any direction for a quarter hour, and you wouldn’t find a single person connected to the church.

I don’t know if it’s always been that way, but I’d suspect it hasn’t. I’d guess that at one point, the church was a lighthouse in the community: people knew it was there, knew what it stood for, and were both cared for and drawn in. I would guess there was a time that the church was both attractional and missional.

But at some point, something changed. Something shifted. The community inside no longer connected to the community outside, and as the commuting times changed, so did the mission.

The lighthouse became a landmark.

Rather than being a place known for its love to the community, it became a place that wasn’t known much at all.

Just head down this road until you get to a church, then hang a right.

Every lighthouse can eventually become a landmark. Every community inside can cease to reach the community outside.

How about your church? Are you a landmark or a lighthouse?

Neighbourhood Front Porch

This past summer my husband and I intentionally decided it was time to meet our neighbours and get to know them. We have lived in our neighbourhood for 20 years and every year I have wanted to throw some kind of summer party and invite the people who live around us.

We live on mountain acreages and for the most part we can’t actually see our neighbours and even after 20 years here, have no idea what some of them even look like!4038233322_68f53080e4_z

So I came up with Neighbourhood Front Porch, made up invitations and put them in the mailboxes on a stretch of our road. My husband got the yard ready, likely wondering what I’ve gotten us into! The premise was that in days gone by, neighbours would gather to enjoy the summer evening by sitting on one another’s front porches, sharing cool drinks. That had become a lost art form in our remote control garage door, multiple activity, internet community society. To my utter amazement, people came! We talked, played yard games, ate, drank and enjoyed learning about one another.

And we did it all summer long! Thus the beginnings of community, though embryonic, has come to life.

It is my hope, that this blog will become a type of Front Porch for all who are curious and/or committed about being the presence of Christ in the places and spaces where we all live, work, play and pray. That we learn together what it means as followers to be incarnational and missional in our unique contexts and communities and how Christ Communities can grow organically out of our shared spaces in everyday, ordinary life.

This space is for conversation and dialogue. For story-sharing, idea sharing and exploring-
sharing. For wrestling. For encouragement. For praying for one another. And for sipping lemonade!

Come join us on this journey to watch the presence of Christ among us deliver God’s peace, joy, love, healing, hope and salvation in us and through us.

Here’s a question to perhaps get us started: What would it take to reach into your neighbourhood/community context for Christ?

I look forward to hanging out here with you. Pax!

Shannon

The Question of Gentrification in the DTES

Beth Malena is a pastor at God’s House of Many Faces, a CBWC Church Plant in the Downtown Eastside (DTES) of Vancouver. She has been bloggingbeth-malena about the multifaceted issue of gentrification in their neighbourhood. While some think they are doing what’s best for the community, many in the DTES feel that their voices are not being heard.

Beth shares a piece of the conversation here:

Last year, a man named Mike Comrie wrote a letter to the National Post, describing his life as a middle-income father-of-two in the DTES. It was fairly scathing, as you may guess from the title: “Raising kids amid the hookers, junkies and drunks of Vancouver’s worst neighbourhood.” You can read it here.

Krista-Dawn Kimsey, a God’s House of Many Faces member and mother of two, wrote a letter to the editor in response to Mike. It was never published, to our knowledge. But I’m very happy to post it here, and to showcase her excellent thinking and writing, and her gracious way of living in this neighbourhood. I hope it spurs some further thought and reflection.

-Beth

—–

Dear Mike,

I would like to ask you if you see yourself as the “good neighbor” that you are looking for in the DTES. I am also a resident of the DTES and have lived here with my family of 2 kids of a similar age to you (3 and 7) for a few years. We lived right on Hastings Street for a year and now live a few blocks away from Strathcona Elementary. I can commiserate with you over the outrageous housing prices. I don’t see us ever affording to buy in this city even though both my husband and I are college graduates and come from middle class family support structures. I would also join you in inviting other families to raise their children in this neighborhood; it’s a great place for a family to thrive. But my recommendation to new families would be to please buy elsewhere if they share in your opinions of this community and place their hopes for the ideal lifestyle arriving at their doorstep through gentrification. What this neighborhood needs is better neighbors who seek the welfare of all its residents, not new neighbors waiting for cultural annihilation.

I’ve lived in major urban centers most of my life, in all kinds of neighborhoods and also have always had the choice to stay or go. My experience of the DTES is that it is the most welcoming place I have ever lived. This “disturbing new community” that you describe has been a foundational teacher to me and my kids on subjects like generosity, hospitality, acceptance and most significantly, respect. My kids love walking on Hastings, and we also accept the generous gifts of people who have nothing but want to affirm kids being kids.

My kids have been given all kinds of gifts, from money to toys to tricycles by the “dodgy” characters that you refer to. The chorus of “kids on the block” to hide their drugs is a kind and respectful act by people who have not received a fair share of kindness in their life. The streets we walk on are their bedrooms and living rooms, not because they all want to live there, but because the city is refusing to listen to the community’s plea for dignified and affordable housing options. Kids are intuitive, they can instantly know if someone is safe or not safe. What they need are parents to teach them how to engage with people who at first glance to them seem fearful, not parents who affirm that there are people so different than themselves that you need to walk on the other side of the street to avoid them.

Perhaps the bus stops and streets are dirty because neighbors who are not living in crisis have not taken responsibility to care for one another. Do you really think there is a kind of human being that enjoys going to the bathroom on the street? Are there not hundreds of apartments and homes in the DTES filled with people with clean bathrooms?

When the city is glacially slow to take on responsibility to provide a decent number of public washrooms, couldn’t we know each other’s names and stories enough to answer the door and see a friend who needs to use a bathroom, or a washing machine. People on the streets know each other’s names, they know what their lives have been like, they know when they go missing after 12 hours. Do you know your neighbors in your condo like that? Who is going to teach your kids that people are more important than stuff? It wouldn’t take too much time when you walk with your kids and see a bunch of needles on ground to pick them up and get the name of person who owns the closest sharps container. They are all over, and I’ve found people to be most grateful. We all want to be safe when we walk down the street, not just you.

You don’t have to look far for excellent neighborhood teachers here. People in the Carnegie Community Center know how to identify the dignity in each person in a second. Families in homes like St. Chiara’s, Servants and 614 can show you how to eat dinner with people suffering on a mental illness journey and oppressed by addiction without feeling afraid. I’ve found the best teachers are the ones who are sitting on the park bench in Oppenheimer, while my kids play. So many people in this community have time to share what they are passionate about, where they have come from, what they wish their neighborhood could be like. You could dream with them, and join them in the fight to have those dreams be taken seriously even though they aren’t going to bring big profits for the city. There are lots of people here who can fan the flame of courage to move you along the journey from initial contact to greater engagement and solidarity.

Where I wouldn’t look for help in creating a caring community is the police department. Our residents association invited them to address some people’s safety concerns. All they did was drill into us that there are “bad guys” who will do anything to get our stuff. How many more news stories to we need to see to know the truth that those who are the most dangerous to our kids are more likely to be in our own extended families, or living in quiet suburban neighborhoods behind closed doors?? When we did get the statistics in writing, it was clear that neighborhoods like Kits have higher rates of all kind of crimes than Strathcona and the DTES.

What the DTES really needs is for the city to listen to what the current residents have identified themselves to help them be better neighbors that have the ability to provide for themselves. The city’s refusal to listen to the community and block destructive condo developments like Sequel 138 are only going to bring greater responsibility to us all currently living here to model what a thriving community looks like. How can our current neighbors thrive when their basic needs of decent housing, healthy food and a good night’s sleep are out of reach for them? When Sequel 138 new neighbors sign their lease they need to sign on for a steep learning curve in how to look for and affirm our common humanity. Not use stereotyped preconceptions that identify “dodgy” people as unsafe and look for something to arrest them for. My neighbors won’t be arrested for their drug use because they do it in their backyard, where the smoke comes through my windows to my kids. But they sure would be arrested if they smoked in the breezeway of the Sequel 138.

I agree with you Mike, drug addiction does horrible, horrible things to a human soul. And all of us have a responsibility to speak, write and engage with each other that affirms our common dignity and our human right to thrive. The city is refusing to put those values into action by honoring their earlier policy of replacing 1 SRO to 1 unit of dignified social housing, so ever more new neighbors will be coming just because it’s a cheaper place to live. If these new neighbors like yourself are only coming in hopes that they will create a new kind of community to displace the one that established themselves here for decades, then the soul of Vancouver will be lost. Instead of waiting for something of value to come to this neighborhood, you could take time to make friends with your neighbors and realize the gems that have learned how to survive despite crushing odds. The people here are complicated, just like you and I. But I’ve seen just as atrocious behavior in residence association meetings from people with comfortable homes and 6 figure incomes as the brawls outside the bars. Violent behavior is everywhere, including ourselves. This community has its share of violence, but more often I’ve experienced it’s ability to listen, accept and have each other’s back.

The city should be coming down here for lessons in how to develop a supportive community, and import those ideas it to the other neighborhoods that have created Vancouver’s reputation for being a difficult city to know anyone in.

So Mike let’s do the neighborly thing. Let’s get together over coffee and introduce our kids and hear each other’s stories. We could meet at the new doughnut shop down the street from you, the one that sells them for $4.50 each. I’ll bring a friend of mine on welfare and we can start the conversation by brainstorming how he can pay for his dinner since his $8 allowance to live that day went to a coffee and doughnut.

Sincerely,
Krista-Dawn Kimsey

Visit Beth’s blog or God’s House of Many Faces’ blog to continue this conversation.