LESSONS LEARNED FROM URBAN NEIGHBORHOODS
Seven observations that emerge from 18 years in the heart of the city
NEAR EASTSIDE & WEST INDY. I have invested most of my adult life working in Indianapolis urban neighborhoods. I first served as Pastor of Shepherd Community and director of its then-fledgling, now-bustling compassionate ministry. I then succeeded the beloved John H. Boner at the Near Eastside community center now named in his honor. I was then asked to guide Horizon House to rebuild and reboot its day services to homeless neighbors. Now, coming full circle, I serve as Pastor of West Morris Street Free Methodist Church, a 95-year old congregation in the southwest shadow of downtown.
NEVER MORE ALIVE AND HOPEFUL. Eighteen of the past 21 years, I’ve been privileged to serve in the heart of the city. During this time I have felt welcomed, invited, drawn forward, empowered, and blessed. I’ve been scolded, doubted, intimidated, stretched, and provoked. I’ve never felt more alive, more on a learning curve, more opened up to changing realities, more overwhelmed by immensities, or more hopeful of possibilities. The gift and challenge of community has taken hold in me. You might say that I am ruined for any other way of life or vocation because of these community organizing experiences.
MY TEACHERS AND TRAINERS. Caring neighbors, faithful congregations, committed activists, and supporting partners have shaped the way I view the city, the region, and the world. Out of this, I will forever be seeking to encourage community and foster the circumstances in which interdependence, trust, faith, hospitality, sacrifice, and neighborliness are the norm, not the occasional exception. I jotted down the following reflections on some of what I have learned from serving in Indy’s urban neighborhoods, and for these I am grateful:
1. THERE IS NO GREATER CHALLENGE OR DEEPER CALLING THAN BECOMING AND BEING A NEIGHBOR. Whether across the street, region, or world, we never max this most basic, humanizing challenge. It's far easier to say "neighbor" than be one. But with every neighborly action, we realize more of that for which we exist.
2. IT IS ONE THING TO MOVE INTO, LIVE OR WORK IN A COMMUNITY; IT IS ANOTHER MATTER TO MOVE TOWARD COMMUNITY. Proximity is of little value if it is not combined with opening one’s heart to one’s neighbors and getting involved. Community is, first of all, a movement of the heart.
3. THOUGHTFUL LOCAL ACTIONS HAVE GREATER POWER TO SHAPE COMMUNITIES FOR THE GOOD THAN WELL-INTENTIONED POLICIES PLANNED AND IMPLEMENTED FROM AFAR. Our world is more likely to be changed for the better from a strategic urban neighborhood initiative than it is from Washington, D.C. or the United Nations building.
4. AS A COROLLARY, I CONFIRM THE ADAGE THAT A FEW THOUGHTFUL PEOPLE ACTING TOGETHER MAKE A BIG DIFFERENCE. Effective neighborhood actions and social service interventions are fueled by a few who believe it can be done, and they do it. Who knows what can happen if more get involved and act more strategically for the common good at local levels?
5. IN OFFERING HOSPITALITY TO STRANGERS, WE WIDEN THE CIRCLE OF COMMUNITY AND ANTICIPATE TRANSFORMATION UNIQUE TO SUCH OPEN-HEARTEDNESS. Some of the greatest gifts I have received have come from people who appeared to have little to give, no one to commend them, and whose stake in the community is generally overlooked. Within safe boundaries, learning to recognize and receive the contributions of otherwise disregarded citizens can be one of our city’s most valuable assets.
6. WHERE AGREEMENT ON AN ISSUE IS NOT POSSIBLE, THERE CAN STILL BE RESPECT FOR DIVERSITY OF PATHS AND EXPLORATION OF NEW COMMON GROUND. I have learned to reject most either/or, win/lose, good guy/bad guy framing of conflicts and community issues. Common ground is there, but it must be sought for and cultivated with a persevering passion, as if everything depended on it.
7. DEVELOPING EMERGING LEADERSHIP MUST BE A PRIORITY FOR EACH CONGREGATION AND COMMUNITY ORGANIZATION. The value of being “community based” is always just a generation of leadership away from extinction. Some non-profits have lost or seriously distorted this component of their mission and leadership without even realizing it. Every organization in the community owes it to itself, the community, and the future to grant the time and resources needed to help emerging leaders develop community networks and explore the challenges and opportunities of formal and informal neighborhood and community-based leadership.
I welcome your comments and/or questions in the spirit of dialog. Share yours by clicking on "comments" just below. They're moderated only to reduce incivility. Shalom!