Twelve ways I recognize grace as I practice community-building in urban neighborhoods
I’m privileged to work in a community-building context. For most of my adult life, the matrix of urban core neighborhoods that comprise the Near East area of Indianapolis have been—and continue to be—the learning ground of my faith. Here is where I have been most spiritually formed. Though I was raised in a conservative Protestant pastor’s home, am a seminary-trained, ordained clergy, and consider myself a recovering evangelical, the adventure of community building is the cutting edge of my faith.
Here are a few things that I recognize and practice as a person of faith in a community-building context:
1. I try to express my faith by what I do. What I believe is very personal; what I live out is quite public. Most people could care less about the nuances of my particular religion; they care about my influence, actions, and impact in the community.
2. I distinguish between beliefs and faith. Here’s how: beliefs reflect an assent to religious teachings and doctrines; faith acts in transformational confidence together with others, often against powers that be. Beliefs are nouns; faith is a verb. In a community-building context, leading with beliefs, as dynamic and personally meaningful as they may be, tends to divide people and derail helpful action. Leading with faith pulls people together in common actions that reflect hope.
3. I recognize that, like me, others live their faith by what they do—and I salute this. I’m not the only one doing what I’m doing out of a heart of faith. Many are motivated and undergirded by faith—we just don’t know it because they don’t wear it on their sleeves.
4. I recognize that some neighbors live without religion or claim to have no faith at all—and I try to understand this. I try to explore beyond typical reasons for unfaith that are surmised within circles of the faithfully churched. I've let go of judgement and noted my hypocrisy: In community-building terms, some very-churched citizens can express high levels of community cynicism—which expresses, essentially, lack of faith and hope that grace is at work beyond the walls of the church.
5. I consider myself part of the problem in authentic community and I go to work on it. I undermine community wtih suspicions, presumptions, prejudices, fears, knee-jerk reactions, side-taking, horrible-izing, standoffishness, etc.--whether acted on or not. When I recognize incipient thought patterns, notions, and attitudes like this, I try to challenge them, change them, and immediately act to counter them. I think this is as much a part of building community—and serious faith formation—as anything else.
6. I recognize that grace is at work in and through people and situations that churches and orthodox doctrine don’t recognize. While this wreaks havoc on the theology of my upbringing, openness to this possibility and being on the lookout for it is one of the rich privileges in community life.
7. I am here to learn and grow as much as to share and sow. I am called to listen and seek to understand. I have to keep ripping up my church filters, my social class presumptions, and my litmus tests. I must keep challenging myself and keep opening my eyes and heart.
8. Communities and neighbors receive myriad invitations from faith groups to gather for worship, but suffer for a lack of basic solidarity and justice-making from those same faith groups. Preaching grace and doing justice are inseparable and equal in necessity and power for effective witness. If you're preaching grace without doing justice in the community, you just don't represent the Gospel.
9. I constantly monitor and modify how I talk about faith, God and the church. I'm convinced we make the Gospel unnecessarily offensive with words, or offensive for the wrong or superficial reasons. If grace is reaching out to all--inviting all, drawing all, working in ways we cannot see or understand--why do we persist in talking in ways and with terms that preempt it, make it difficult, and inadvertently inoculate people against our expression of it?
10. I’m learning to appreciate small change in people and situations. While aiming high, we can—and should—celebrate every small breakthrough.
11. Little happens that lasts outside of authentic relationship. Long ago I let go of the illusion that programs or institutions produce lasting positive change in people or communities. Real relationships as neighbors--that's the thing.
12. Separateness and exclusivity is anti-faith in community building. In an urban community context, those who separate themselves or become nonparticipants in the larger community miss much of the inspiration that comes as neighbors grapple with tough issues, come up with hopeful solutions, and enact them--in faith. Exclusivity is anti-faith. Separateness is anti-faith. Dare to come out of your cloister, to listen to others, to link arms with neighbors and move toward some breathtaking outcomes.
John Franklin Hay
Indianapolis, Indiana, USA