Tuesday, 27 November 2018

Towards a missiology of edges

Questions of territory are everywhere. Not just at national and international levels (Brexit, anyone?!), but also at a much smaller, much more local scale. From the little tetchinesses of different groups sharing a kitchen (who used what pan from which cupboard?!), to fractious conversations about who's allowed keys to which rooms (or access to the heating controls) in the church, questions of territory bubble up repeatedly.

In our wider community-building work locally, we've begun talking about a 'neighbourhood ecology' or 'ecosystem' - with different people and groups, spaces and buildings, growing and flourishing not as separate entities, but as interconnected, interdependent organisms within the ecology. But even within this picture, some people and groups have more enthusiasm than others for being part of an 'ecosystem' than others. Some would much rather stick to tending their own, carefully demarcated 'allotment'. And are those of us (the 'we', above) who are advocating the 'ecosystem' narrative in some sense attempting to 'out-narrate' other ways of describing (and sometimes, attempting to 'manage') our area - in our own way seeking a bit of (discursive) territorial control?

In the wider church, territorial ambition may not be explicitly acknowledged in 'church growth' strategies, and neither may anxieties about 'shrinking'. But it's hard to listen to much that is spoken about evangelism and 'impact' - Liverpool diocese's strapline, 'bigger church, bigger difference', for example - without hearing at least echoes of a territorial imagination at work.

And yet...

I have been living and wrestling, for some years now, with a phrase of Rowan Williams' (picked up by political theorist Romand Coles): that Jesus did not come to be "a competitor for space in this world". The kingdom of God that we so often talk about, wait and watch and pray for, seek to get involved in 'building' or 'growing' - this kingdom is not one that can be mapped onto any idea of 'territory'. And so, by extension, the church of Jesus, if it is to be faithful to him and faithful in seeking God's kingdom, should also be resistant to territorial language, and a territorial imagination.

So when thinking about church, and neighbourhood, and God, and politics (and a whole host of other things that are so often caught up in territoriality), I've found it increasingly helpful to think not about territory, but about edges.

One kind of 'edge' is the experience of marginalisation. We're pushed to the edges of the group, the community, the society, because of who we are - or rather, because of how others see us, talk about us, label us, treat us. We're rendered invisible, inaudible. We're overlooked, patronised, stigmatised, devalued, demonised. Our contribution is treated as worthless - we're seen as lacking, a 'problem' to be fixed, 'waste' to be thrown away.

And the dynamics of marginalisation can sometimes push us to a different (but related) kind of edge: 'cliff-edges' where, with one more little push, or a stumble, or a gust of wind, we're falling over the edge. The cliff-edges are very real, and they destroy lives. The unpaid bill that leads to eviction and homelessness. The letter in the post that is the last straw for someone's already-brittle mental health. The final argument before the family splits in two. The accident that means you can't do your desperately-needed job any more...

A third kind of 'edge' can be just as destructive: the border fence that says 'keep out', defended with barbed wire and guards with guns, or polite but firmly unwelcoming immigration officials (backed up by guards with guns), or a 'hostile environment' on the 'inside' of the border fence, sustained by hostile policies, hostile political rhetoric, hostile media messages, hostile attitudes, hostile gestures, hostile stares...

There is a fourth, more positive kind of 'edge', however. It's related to the 'ecosystem' metaphor I mentioned earlier, that some of us have found us using to describe our neighbourhood. But where the 'ecosystem' suggests a bounded space, a territory with edges, the 'ecotone' (from oikos + tonos = habitation + tension) is precisely about the edges themselves. It's the environmental 'contact zone' between two different kinds of habitat, where intermingling and interaction happen - and which is almost always remarkably fertile, generative of diversity and even new species of life.

I want to suggest it as a potentially fertile metaphor for our society, and our neighbourhoods. Especially (but certainly not only) our urban neighbourhoods: where the 'contact zones' between people - people of different ethnic and class backgrounds, people with wildly different life journeys and politics, people of different faiths and cultures and passions and habits - are everywhere.

My teacher here is again the political theorist Rom Coles, himself quoting cultural theorist Mikhail Bakhtin:

"One must not … imagine the realm of culture as some sort of spatial whole, having boundaries but also having internal territory. The realm of culture has no internal territory; it is entirely distributed along the boundaries, boundaries pass everywhere, through its every aspect... Every cultural act lives essentially on the boundaries..."

The edges, the ecotones, the fertile contact zones are everywhere: cutting through our neighbourhoods in every direction, running through our lives and our relationships, our daily movements and interactions. They are not 'territory' in their own right - they are, by definition, not spaces that can expand (make an edge 'thicker' and very soon it is no longer an edge), or compete for space, or be fenced off (if there is no longer intermingling, then it's not a 'contact zone').

What you can do to an ecotone is tend it. This can only ever be quite a humble task, because the real action is in the interactions and intermingling that go on between those who co-habit in this borderland, who bump into each other in this contact zone. Such interactions can't be forced, or engineered. But they can be enabled and encouraged by those who gently tend to such edge-places, who hold them open and refuse the encroachment of the fences and the exploitations of the territorial.

And although they can't be 'expanded' ('thickened', 'enlarged' so that they fill more of the space than before) they can be extended, lengthened, into areas where they have not yet run through. Welcoming new forms of diversity into a space, new contact zones can 'pop up', new interactions and interminglings can be nurtured into life. This is the work, in our neighbourhood, that we call 'street connecting', and which my friend, neighbour and colleague Paul Wright has described so vividly and reflectively in his recent blog post.

And here's an interesting suggestion for Christian missiologists (and others with a similar concern for the 'mission' of their organisation): rather than thinking about 'growth' as 'expanding (our) territory', what if we were to shift our focus to 'extending the edges'? Rather than concentrating on trying to 'get more people in', what if we were to invest our energy (and other resources too, perhaps) in 'getting more people encountering each other', across our many differences? (There is more to be said theologically, from this suggestion, about the difference that might be made by thinking less about the 'internal volume' of 'the body of Christ' and more about the tending and extending of its 'edges' - what we might call 'the flesh of Jesus' - but that's for another time.)

Beyond tending and extending there is then the vital work of attending. Attending to one another, in our encounters in these ecotones / contact zones. Attending to the encounters happening there. Attending to the new life that is springing up in those places and through those encounters. Attending deeply, in a way that looks and listens expectantly for something more than what is obvious or readily accessible. Attending with the kind of quality that Otto Scharmer describes of deep, "generative listening" - offering a space within which something new, something as yet unsaid or unseen or un-done or unacknowledged can begin to emerge. "Hearing to speech", as feminist theologian Nelle Morton famously put it.

This attending is what we mean, locally, when we talk about trying to help people discover their passions and gifts, knowledge and skills. But it is embodied most vividly in 'wow moments' like our first community talent show, 'Firs & Bromford's Got Talent', that happened earlier this year (that I've written about previously in this blog):

talent and creativity (children and adults alike) on show was impressive by any standards. What left me an emotional wreck by the end of the night, though, was much more than the stunning talent. Knowing
even a little of the journeys and battles that many of the contestants (both adults and children) had been on to get onto that stage on that Friday night, I was in awe and wonder at their courage and determination, their raw vulnerability and yet the sheer dignity and pride of standing up there, showing us something of their spirit, their soul, their God-given essence. Some of those who got up and performed had fought more than just nerves to do what they did. And in the end, the 'competition' wasn't really a competition at all: each and every one of them was cheered on - willed on, hoped and prayed on - by each and every one of us in the audience, and we were heart-burstingly proud of all of them - we'd have made them all joint winners if we could have done. Our role, collectively, was encourager, cheerleader, celebrant of the wonderful gifts of our neighbours - the wonderful gifts that are our neighbours.

And this is where I get properly theological. Because there is something about this practice of attending, this quality of attention, that becomes, I want to suggest, inescapably theological. No one I have read has expressed this better than the theologian of St Francis and St Clare, Gillian Ahlgren, in her radiant book The Tenderness of God.

Some would call this process “incarnation” – a way of life constantly sensitized to the presence of God within the human community, a recognition and affirmation of the presence of God in our midst that helps us deliberately orient ourselves to becoming the kind of human community that God wants.”
In conversation with Francis and Clare, Ahlgren develops a theology of encounter that begins with simple human interaction but, with tenderness and patient attention, plumbs its divine depths:

“For Francis and Clare, encounter became an arresting way of life, open to all. In their experience, there was no one whose life would not be deeply enriched by deeper dedication to the way of encounter. Engaging the other with the intention to listen, to learn, and to connect is a mutually transformative practice that slowly changes everything. Encounter teaches us to honour the fragility and sacredness of our own humanity, especially as we come to know our common humanity together. When done in the conscious presence of the love of God, encounter creates sacred space in the human community. Encounter moves us from observers of life to collaborators, with God, in the building up of the human community, the creation of a common home.”

There is, of course, a more uncomfortable side of interaction and encounter in the 'contact zones' - especially when those interactions and encounters are extended and deepened over time. We fall out with each other, we let each other down, we mess up, we hurt each other, we slip back into territorial thinking and battle with each other over control, we retreat back into our well-defended comfort zones.

So alongside tending, extending and attending I have to add the hard labour of mending. The work of forgiveness and penitence, mediation and reconciliation - and the equally hard work of patiently living with the unresolved and the unhealed - this too is an ongoing task in the ecotones of community.

There is one more 'activity' in the ecotone to mention. It offends my desire for neatness by refusing to rhyme with the others. But that is perhaps appropriate, because unlike the others it is not in any sense 'work' or 'labour'. It came to the foreground for me thanks to the invitation (which Paul describes in the blog that I've referenced already) for three of us from Firs & Bromford to go and share our stories with the Church of Scotland 'Priority Areas' gathering just outside Glasgow last month. One of the two Scriptural texts the organisers had chosen for the gathering was a section of Isaiah chapter 65 (quoted above). The passage does some vital that I'm not sure had ever completely sunk in for me before: it ties labour and enjoyment together. And this, perhaps never entirely explicitly, has been one of the intentions of our community-building work in the Firs & Bromford: rather than looking to external 'service providers' to build community for us to then enjoy, we realised as neighbours that we had the power to build community for ourselves, together; but equally, rather than spending all our time in the labour of the building of community, Isaiah's prophecy invites us to also enjoy the fruits of our labours. Planting and eating are two things that we're managing, more and more, to tie together here. Who knows whether we'll be able to build our own houses here in years to come - I truly hope so - but it's a profound reminder, especially to some of us with activist tendencies, that we're called not just to the work of 'building a common home' - but to enjoy living in it together, too.

Thursday, 15 November 2018

"Having Nothing, Possessing Everything" (by Mike Mather): a review

I met Mike Mather and first heard his story 3 years ago today. I'd read a little of his story - and that of his church, Broadway United Methodist Church, Indianapolis - a few months before, in the inspiring article, 'Death and resurrection of an urban church'. Mike's stories of how the congregation at Broadway had discovered new, abundant life in making the simple, revolutionary decision "to see all their neighbours as children of God", at the time rang huge bells with our own journey here in Hodge Hill, the early steps of which I'd written about in 2013 in this brief article for the Church Urban Fund. But if Mike and Broadway were on a similar journey, they were some 25 years ahead of us - and so when Mike came to visit us, there was a vast ocean of wisdom that he invited us to dip our toes into.

Mike's newly-published book, Having Nothing, Possessing Everything: finding abundant communities in unexpected places, makes that ocean of wisdom accessible to the world. We are invited not just to dip our toes into the waves, but to dive into a different way of seeing that will change us, our churches, and our neighbourhoods utterly. Writing this from Birmingham, UK, about a book written in Indianapolis, USA, I am conscious of contextual and cultural differences between us (to which I'll return towards the end), but I'm equally struck by some profound contextual commonalities: each of us lives and works in a 'low-income' neighbourhood within a desperately unequal society, and each of us is employed by a Christian denomination which for decades has been becoming increasingly anxious about institutional survival and increasingly hungry for those elusive, magical techniques for 'church growth'.

From before page 1, Mike is crystal clear: the story he tells 'is no model, no replicable system to be imitated in community after community, no summons to multiply something that worked well somewhere else'. It is nothing more or less than a call to conversion: 'the invitation to pay attention to the wondrous children of God (especially low-income, low-wealth persons) around us and to the gifts they bring to the world'. Mike's story is a testimony to what he has learnt, and what he continues to learn, having begun to pay attention differently: 'I now tune my eyes, my ears - all of my senses - and my heart to see abundance instead of poverty. I'm not successful all the time. But my re-tuning caused me to re-think how I spend my time. What will I lay aside, and what will I pick up? I used to do things for people that people can in fact do for themselves. No longer. I expect more from people than I used to, and wonders pour forth.' (pp.xii-xiii)

Mike describes his discovery of the role of witness: '[n]ot only one who observes, but one who announces and testifies to what is happening. I was being invited to see the people - people I had once thought of as helpless - as powerful, brave people with both extraordinary and ordinary gifts'. He describes in poetic detail the process of 'recalibration' of his life, his work, his practices as he sought to shift his place in his community towards something 'more than a spectator, but not the lead actor': 'most of the time, the action needed from me was shining a spotlight on the glories of the people in our neighbourhood' (pp.6-7).

Despite resisting presenting a 'model', there is a wealth of practice shared in the 140 pages of this gem of a book. Among them are questions to shape conversations with neighbours:
  • tell me a story!
  • what three things do you do well enough that you could teach them to someone else?
  • what three things would you like to learn that you don't already know?
  • who besides God and me is going to go with you along the way?
  • who celebrated your last birthday with you?
  • who loves you, and what do they say about you and the gifts you have to offer this world?
  • what do people who love you say you're best at?
Mike describes too the work of Broadway's first 'roving listener', the wonderfully gifted De'Amon Harges, who would knock on doors around the neighbourhood, discovering people's gifts and finding ways to connect them together and cultivate them. The church paid De'Amon, but very quickly he discovered something significant: "Before starting the job, he had knocked on doors as a neighbour, and people had talked with him easily, welcoming him into their homes. But when he began this new job by introducing himself as a representative of the church and the development corporation, people weren't very welcoming to him. So he went back to what worked. He told me that people didn't trust institutions, but they trusted neighbours' (p.24). De'Amon's work was one of the formative factors behind our own development of 'Street Connecting' in the Firs & Bromford over the last 3 years. Paul, our Street Connector Mentor here, has many of the qualities Mike describes of De'Amon, as do the growing team of local connectors that Paul has unearthed and encouraged. Paul's recent blog post is the best articulation so far of how we understand 'connecting' here - and there are more than a few resonances with the kind of stories told in Mike's book.

There was much in Mike's book that rang bells, struck chords, resonated deeply with our journey into community with our neighbours in Hodge Hill. There was much that affirmed, encouraged, and enriched with new insights the efforts to 'step out' - and often to 'step out of the way' - and to pay better and more profound attention to our neighbours, that we are continue to experiment with and learn from here. But there were also, as you'd expect from someone who's been at it more than 2 decades longer than us, some invitations and challenges to go further. Four, in particular, struck me and will stay with me:

1. Money

Thanks in large part to Big Local funding on our estate, we've been able to develop ways of getting money into the hands of local people, to start and develop new groups and activities. Money for equipment, running costs, venue hire, you name it. Small amounts, through our 'PIE' events (they were 'SOUP' events, an idea developed in Chicago, but no one liked the soup here, so we offer a 'slice of the pie' instead!), go to people with a bright idea, who we support to make a bid for the money as 'start-up' funding, and who in the process make connections and friendships that can support and help develop the idea. It not only gets new things off the ground, and supports local people to grow in confidence and leadership - but it also helps to keep money circulating locally, rather than leaking out to external service providers. When we need catering for a local event, for instance, we're now always in a position to use local caterers - small groups and fledgling enterprises that have germinated in and through the growing community in our neighbourhood.

Mike and his neighbours in Indianapolis take this several steps further. Ending poverty, Mike realised, wouldn't happen by pouring money into 'programmes'. It might happen, though, if that same money actually went into the pockets of those who were poor. So now they've stopped collecting money to give out to people in emergencies (e.g. to pay utility or rent bills), and instead they regularly pay local people to do things that build community. If the thing that people love doing is something practical - if they make a product or provide a service - then they offer to try it and pay them for it. One woman who said she made great cookies, they asked to make some for a neighbour who was ill - they paid her to make the cookies, take them to her neighbour, and spend time visiting her. 'Paying the baker for her work was the point, and getting two neighbours to meet and share together was the point. The "helpers" of the church didn't have to put themselves in the centre of this "assistance". The baker never mentioned our encouragement of her, or our paying her, and that was perfect' (p.69).

The "School of the Spirit" that began in their food pantry, invited participants who wanted to teach something - cooking, car repair, song-writing - to find at least three willing 'students', and then all their materials would be provided, and any donations from the students would go directly to the teachers. Over time, some of the most successful courses were delivered as 'Broadway University', students were charged for tuition, and the teachers were paid for giving of their time, knowledge and skills. Money, as Mike puts it, is 'a powerful tool' - 'something that shows people what we value in our society... What caused my whole world to change … was realizing that I could use money to support the gifts, talents, and dreams of people whom I had thought of as needy' (p.76).

2. Young people

In Firs & Bromford, increasingly our focus has been on intergenerational community-building: finding ways to bring young people and adults together, to make friends across the generations, to work together to change our neighbourhood for the better, and to enjoy together the fruits of our labours. A keystone of our TogetherWeCan! work currently is what for some years we've called 'youth social action' projects: making spaces for groups of young people to work alongside local adult residents to make a positive difference to our local environment, or to create new spaces for encounter, friendship and fun.

Mike's story summons us further, however. One of the most radical shifts in Broadway UMC's 'work' was to stop doing their traditional 'summer programme' of activities for young people, and to recruit young people from the neighbourhood to build on the work De'Amon, the 'roving listener' had been doing. They called this new 'summer experience' Name, Bless, and Connect. These young people would be paid (see point 1, above!) 'to name the gifts, talents, dreams, and passions they saw in the lives of their neighbours, lay hands on them and bless them, and connect them to other people (Both near and far) who cared about the same thing' (p.28). For each gift in the life of someone they visited, they would put a Post-it Note on a wall back at church. 'After just one week, the walls were beginning to fill up with names. The leaders gathered with the young rovers in front of the walls of Post-it Notes and mixed and matched people and their gifts. They used the arrows to literally connect the names of the people on the walls and talked about how to take that connection off the walls and into the streets' (p.29). Along the way, gifts were connected and multiplied, and young people made new, lasting and life-changing friendships. Neighbours began to see the young people 'not as troublesome teens, but as valuable connectors who made their neighbourhood stronger' (p.30). We run a summer programme here - still largely 'for' young people. Mike has set me wondering afresh how our local young people might be enabled to step further into community leadership - or, as we're learning to say here, 'connectorship'.

3. Prayer

This one's a bit more tricky. A lot of the community-building, connection-making work that has happened in our neighbourhood can be traced back to - or at the very least finds some of its roots in - the venturing out of church folk into our neighbourhood, listening to our neighbours, 'treasure hunting' our 'unsung heroes' and celebrating their stories and their gifts. Some of our neighbours are Christian too, but many more are Muslim, or pagan, or would describe themselves as having 'no faith'. As Christians, we have rejoiced every time we've recognised the God-given gifts in another one of our neighbours, but we've often been more hesitant about saying so. A lot of 'our' work now is done under the banner of Open Door Community Foundation, a charity founded by the church here, and with Christians among its staff and trustees, but not explicitly Christian in its work. So despite the fact our Street Connector team currently happen to be mostly Christians themselves, we don't offer to pray for, or with, people when we meet them on their doorsteps.

In Mike's context, it's quite different. The Church still directly sponsors much of the community-building work that goes on, and - I think I'm right in saying - many more of their neighbours would call themselves Christian, whether or not they attend Broadway UMC. But whatever the differences, as I read Mike's book I felt a deep longing for something of what they do: to lay hands on their neighbours and bless them for the God-given gifts that they have and that they want to share; to talk freely about God's call to them, to anoint them with oil, reminding them of that call embedded in their baptism; to offer God's forgiveness to those burdened by guilt and shame; and so on. I find myself wishing I could do that - and wonder if our cultural and contextual differences, while significant, might not be at least partly an excuse for my timidity.

4. Playing games

Lastly, and it's linked to the previous point, Mike points us to different ways of counting. His church, like mine, has to report back to its denomination numbers of attendees at Sunday services, and money collected in the offering plate. But at Broadway they've begun finding ways to count the abundance in their neighbourhoods around them in ways that pays attention to and celebrates that abundance. And they've turned it into a game. They've come up with twelve actions or practices that each score 'points'. And every month, whoever scores the most points buys cupcakes for all the other players. Here's a little taster:
  1. Count the number of people whose homes you went to, on whom you laid hands and blessed, and for whom you offered a prayer of celebration and praise for their vocation in their life, home, and workplace.
  2. Count the number of people you introduced to each other because "I see in each of you the same call and claim of God upon your life, and it seemed like it would be great for you to know that about each other."
  3. Count the number of people you prayed with in hospital rooms, on street corners, in alleys, in living rooms, in offices, and in car repair shops.
  4. Count the number of people to whom you wrote letters celebrating their discipleship / vocation in the life of the world.
  5. Count the number of people you journey with to visit someone else at home, at the hospital, or in the workplace.
  6. Count the number of times you threw a party to celebrate the presence and power of God's love in the people and parish around you.
  7. Count the number of times you posted on Facebook celebrating in concrete and joyful ways the discipleship / vocation of the people in your parish.
(and more!)

And finally...

Mike's book is encouraging, challenging, eye-opening. It's not a 'model' or a 'method', but a different way of seeing. It's about discovering the abundance in our neighbourhoods, but it's also a summons to the Church. 'Churches,' he concludes, 'could lead the way in making a real change. What if, in the city, we asked our denominational leaders to come to us, lay hands on us and bless us, and thank us for keeping our commitment to stay in the city when others have fled? What if, at annual church conferences, instead of celebrating only the church that grew by the biggest number of the largest percentage, we celebrated the faithfulness of those congregations? What if we gave awards to congregations that, despite all that has happened around them demographically - all the shifts, the white flight, the changing economic base - have stayed in the city to witness to God's goodness, grace, glory, and gifts in the people of God? What if we asked those congregations to name three neighbours they wanted to celebrate for the gifts they give in that neighbourhood?

'The issues our organizations and people face cannot be cured by technique (whether that technique is creating a new worship service, erecting a new building, storytelling, or establishing an economic and community development programme). But we do have the tools we need in our own hands. They are the tools of our faith - the tools that brought us to the point we are today. Our primary tool is trusting in the present abundance, the tool that so many of us have abandoned as we have grown afraid to die - and afraid to live. I try to remember those words that appear in Scripture so often: "Fear not"' (p.133).

That's what I call good news.