Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Who does suburban community organizing well?

With last Sunday’s Good Samaritan story and this coming week’s hospitality focus with the Abraham and Mary/Martha stories fresh on my mind, I’ve been thinking about the role a congregation could play in its neighborhood. Working together with other institutions, a congregation could host and participate in all sorts of ways to address issues of concern in the community. After-school tutoring, senior day care, public informational forums, and job-training programs are just quick examples of the possibilities.

However, many of the examples of congregations undertaking this sort of community involvement are urban parishes not in suburban or exurban settings like ours. Several leaders in my congregation have read Doing Justice: Congregations and Community Organizing and Compassion, Justice and the Christian Life: Rethinking Ministry to the Poor. The authors of both books, for example, have extensive experience in inner-city Milwaukee and Atlanta, respectively.

My own training has been biased toward urban contexts. I interned at a bilingual congregation in Manhattan with a center for immigrants and a shelter for homeless LGBTQ youth. I’ve taken a seminary course from the founding president of one of Chicago’s leading faith-based community development programs. I attended a workshop led by the ELCA Director for Congregation-based Organizing. I get emails from the Christian Community Development Association. I’ve read a history of Industrial Areas Foundation organizing in San Antonio, and have even had a few conversations with an organizer.

With all of these resources and experiences, I have struggled (along with the congregation) to translate this into a clear and coherent way for us at Amazing Grace to connect with our congregation and community. On the far western edge of Bexar County, Amazing Grace had, up until a few years ago, been a rural congregation out in the country. Now newer houses surround us on three sides; construction is happening on the fourth. A vast majority of our families live at least three miles from church; many live ten or more miles away. We have Angel Food ministry and are starting a bilingual worship service. Amazing Grace has a long history of collecting food, clothing, blankets, toiletries, and other items for people in need. We have done charity well, but could work on justice.

I do believe that Amazing Grace Lutheran Church has the potential to be a national leader in suburban congregational-based organizing and community justice work. That could be our niche. We have some potentially helpful assets: five acres of land, new neighborhoods growing around us, passionate people who want to love their neighbors. Imagine visitors checking out our worship service because they want to see liturgy that speaks with integrity. Imagine folks all over the country passing on our web address, telling their pastor, “This is a church that does it right.” Imagine students coming to Amazing Grace for transformative life-changing internships—not just seminarians, but students in social work, public health, or counseling. This could be Amazing Grace, but we have to start somewhere.

Dear readers, I have two questions for you:
1). If you know Amazing Grace and its San Antonio context, what could be next steps for us in this journey to reach out to our neighborhood? I’m not thinking of ways to get more buns in the pews, but for ways that our congregation might work with others to help our neighbors.

2). Who can we learn from? What congregations do community development and social justice work well in a suburban or exurban setting? I’m not thinking of big churches with high worship attendance and sparkly Sunday school programs. I’m thinking about suburban congregations that intentionally connect with their neighborhoods for the sake of justice.

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