Friday, 6 September 2013

We had a dream: on hope deferred, and the connecting power of lament

We had a dream. Timely words, in the wake of the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King's famous speech. Timely perhaps, but the mood is one not of energised hope, but of crushing disappointment.

We had a dream: a dream of a 'community house' on our estate in east Birmingham; a place of community-within-community, where people would commit to 'doing community' in the deepest sense - living together, sharing the work of keeping the house going, pooling their income (vulnerable stuff!), and even more vulnerable, sharing their lives with each other with a level of intimacy that only comes when you regularly have to share a kitchen, a bathroom, a living space, and a generous dose of your soul, with all its ups and downs and rough edges, with other living, breathing, fragile, messy, human beings. And then 'doing community' in the wider sense too - getting to know and making friends with the neighbours around them, and opening their home outwards as a place of hospitality - with a really decent kitchen and an even bigger living/eating room, a place where big and small conversations could happen, and a place where people could, if they wanted or needed to, pause and pray.

That was our dream.

And we'd find the perfect place. It had been empty for the last 3 or 4 years. Before that, it had been the local clinic for families to come and meet with midwives and health visitors. A house that, with some work and investment, could accommodate 6 bedrooms upstairs, and a big kitchen, a huge living space, and one or two smaller rooms downstairs.

And even better, our bold and imaginative church council had found the money. From the sale of our old church site, with all the shock and loss and grief that had gone with that - but which has also released a great deal of vision, and energy, and passion for becoming again a church truly rooted in, and connected across, its local neighbourhoods - a vision of 'growing loving community, in the love of God, with all our neighbours, across Hodge Hill'. From that loss, possibilities have emerged and been grasped, and our church council had committed a really substantial amount of that sale money to this new venture.

And so yesterday morning, with dreams and visions, hopes and possibilities bubbling up inside us and bursting to come out, seven of us went to the auction. It had been a journey at least three years in the making. We'd waited a year and a bit for Birmingham City Council to do an 'options appraisal' on the old clinic building. We'd come within a hair's breadth of the Council agreeing to do a 'community asset transfer' on the building, in recognition of the potentially huge social impact of the plans we'd put to them. But money concerns had won the day, and they'd decided to auction it off to the highest bidder instead. We'd done our sums. It seemed pretty clear to us that a property developer wouldn't make any money on it, buying to convert into houses or flats to sell on again. We went with a lot of hope, and a banker's draft.

The auction was a bit like having your team get to the cup final, but the match only lasting 2 minutes. Our hearts were in our throats. We got into the bidding... but very quickly, the price went way beyond what we could afford, or justify for the building. It was sold to a property developer, for almost twice the auctioneers' guide price - a crazy price, that left even our agent lost for words.

In the blow of a hammer, our dreams and visions, our hopes and possibilities, were shattered. We left quickly, nothing to wait around for, and went away to drown our sorrows together in mugs of tea.

I was absolutely exhausted, drained. I still am today, 24 hours later. It feels in many ways like a bereavement. Echoes return to me of those two disciples of Jesus heading wearily back home to Emmaus after the events of Good Friday - "we had hoped..." they say, sharing with a stranger their shattered dreams, with the melancholy confusion of those who can't see any way ahead, any future worth contemplating. I suspect many of my companions at the auction felt similarly, and many more who had been waiting at the end of a phone for some news from us.

I still feel deeply sad. There's some anger bubbling away too, linked to some 'if only's... If only Birmingham City Council had stuck with their glimpse of a community-centred vision, held on to the possibilities of a building they owned as a real community asset, and not given in to the all-too-obvious pressure to raise money wherever they can - at the expense, ironically, of the communities they are meant to be serving. Because the money the Council gets from the sale, they will use to pay off debts from compensation claims, claims that have arisen because of the Council's discriminatory pay policy for many years - another 'if only'... And even bigger than particular decisions, by particular councillors or officers, I find myself with that big 'if only', knowing that yesterday, in that auction, money won - that all-consuming systemic lie that only money has the power to do and decide and determine the stories we live, that it is only in money's terms that we know what (and who) is valuable and what (and who) isn't, and that those with the most, win, and those with the least, lose. If only things were different...

I am transported back to what we Anglicans call 'Holy Saturday' - the day before Easter Day. Except in so many ways it's not 'the day before' - it's simply 'the day after'. The day after the crucifixion, the death. A day not of hope and anticipation - because in that first Holy Saturday there was nothing to anticipate or hope for. A day simply of nothingness. Of nothing to do. Nothing to hope for. No future to glimpse, no possibilities to reach out for. I've written before about what we did on Holy Saturday evening this year - simply sitting together in our local patch of 'wasteland', as the sun went down, sharing not so much 'stories of hope', as I think I'd initially intended, but stories of 'hope deferred', of hope longed-for. Sharing, perhaps more accurately, our laments, our deep, heart-breaking 'if only's. A lot of what one of my very good friends and co-workers here described himself doing yesterday:
Walking home found myself praying (As sometimes happens) about the days events and as I was naming situations, issues, people etc. I found myself shouting out: 'Bloody hell God there's a lot of shit going on!!!' Some might say that's disrespectful but it's what was on my heart #Lamenting #Faith
And I realise that there's something immensely significant in those moments. Over the past 18 months or so here in Hodge Hill, we've come to live and breathe the language of 'asset-based community development'. It's implicit or explicit in a lot of my blog reflections here. At its simplest, it's often said to be about putting relationships between neighbours - mutual, reciprocal relationships - at the heart of all we do, and "starting with what's strong, not what's wrong", with the 'assets', the 'gifts' of a neighbourhood and its people, rather than its 'problems' - approaching with a "glass half full" attitude rather than the more dominant "glass half empty" mindset. But however much truth there is in those sound-bites, there's an 'underside' that also needs articulating: the best kind of 'asset-based community development' is also, inevitably, 'vulnerability-based community development'. I was reminded of that in a powerful conversation with my good friend Cormac Russell just earlier this week. It is perhaps not irrelevant that the beginnings of 'ABCD' terminology emerged in a conversation between a community-builder and a powerful economist, and the 'assets' language was the economist wanting to translate the messy work of community building into the 'respectable' language of the academy. The language of 'gifts' is, I think, a much better 'fit' in the real world of neighbourhoods - and while our gifts may often be "what's strong" by our normal judgements, so often the most precious gifts we can share are our gifts of vulnerability, of fragility, of weakness. It can often be our vulnerabilities that drive us to connect with our neighbours, and it is almost always in our vulnerabilities, our 'daring to expose' something of ourselves that feels a little fragile, that we allow our more distanced relationships with strangers turn into the mutual, reciprocal relationships of passion and care that we call 'friendships'.

Bitter disappointments, losses, and pain can too often isolate us from other people, seal us off in our own private world of grief. Our Western so-called-'developed' society has crystallised and cemented technologies and expertise that do, and encourage, exactly that. We are pushed into ways of coping that are about creating and reinforcing securities, walls, defences around our vulnerabilities that allow us to project an external strength that enables us to 'keep fitting in' to socially acceptable patterns of behaviour.

But the 'empty half' of our glass can also, in some environments (or cultures, or conditions of hospitality, let's say), be precisely the thing that enables us to connect with others. What we call lament - grief and disappointment expressed, made public, shared - can clear a space, a breathing space, a waiting space, a listening space, which can enable genuine, deep, authentic community to grow.

In the waiting space that I find myself, with other good friends and travelling companions, currently inhabiting, I am wondering about that dream that felt so shattered in that auction room yesterday. I find myself wondering about the relationship between, on the one hand, the very obvious value of 'having a place' where 'we' can offer hospitality to others, and on the other hand, the deep-rooted longing for bricks and mortar that 'we' can call 'ours', at its most human a longing for home, but at its worst an 'edifice complex' that is more about security, control, and a kind of public power. I find myself wondering whether, and how, that intimacy of community, that vulnerable exposure to each other, that is found when you share a house, might yet be discovered and practised within a neighbourhood, even if we are, at times, divided by our bricks and mortar. I find myself wondering how much we, the church in Hodge Hill, are still being called to live out of our 'homelessness', our 'exile', our dependence on the hospitality of our neighbours - because in that experience and practice is something that profoundly connects us to many of our neighbours (near and far), and to the roots of our own faith - to our incarnate, homeless God. I find myself wondering whether there are times and seasons for these different ways of living - and whether this particular season is turning, or simply deepening. And I find myself wondering what strangers we might encounter, as we continue walking along this road, today, or tomorrow, or next week, or beyond, who might give to us a glimpse of a new future, a new possibility, springing up in the cracked earth of our current lament.

We had a dream.

Dreams are fragile, and we are invited to 'tread softly' on them. They can also, sometimes, be stubbornly persistent.

We have a dream. We are still here. We are waiting, lamenting, longing, looking, listening, wondering.

One great Irishman shared a treasure or two from another this week. Cormac Russell, echoing Seamus Heaney, invited us to "walk on air against your better judgement".

We continue walking here.