When Reconciliation and Neighborhood Development collide…


reconciliation - different namesMyself, along with some of the leaders of River City, are working on a series of blog posts that examine core dimensions of our church’s vision (click here to see the intro). Our community is taking on the riskiest endeavor in its 10 year history, as we are purchasing/renovating a warehouse in the West Humboldt Park neighborhood that will function as our long term home and community center. In order to equip and inspire those within our church body, we are writing these posts to dive deep into some of the foundational principles of our church’s identity. If you are a River City person, I hope these have been helpful. And if you are outside of our community, I hope and pray that they have stirred your imagination.

I have been developing this idea of the Biblical call to participate in the vision of the end of poverty. In the last post I focused more on the theology that is necessary to undergird that type of vision. In this post I hope to tackle some of the more concrete ways that we have gone about this in our journey.

One of the most complex dimensions of River City is our pillar of reconciliation. Reconciliation is a massive word, and an authentic pursuit of racial, socioeconomic, and gender reconciliation (amongst others) easily becomes an all consuming endeavor. To make things even more complex for ourselves, we have always challenged ourselves to not stop there – our reconciliation efforts must spill outside of the walls of the church and be connected to the great social challenges of our day. That is why a vision such as “shalom seeking” (a phrase from Jeremiah 29) – or in more modern terminology, “breaking the cycle of poverty” – becomes such an important idea.

When you begin to fuse together reconciliation with shalom seeking/neighborhood development, the atmosphere becomes even more chaotic (or exciting, if you have that type of temperament!) Let me give an example of what I mean:

I have studied just about every national model I know of that does community development, and there is almost always a degree of chaos that stems from a commitment to that type of ministry (or ‘service’ if it is secular). The phrase ‘community development’ almost always presumes an under-resourced neighborhood – you don’t hear about over-resourced neighborhoods pursuing that goal or using that language – so there are inevitably class dynamics that come with it. Usually there is a group of “outsiders” (people outside of the neighborhood that is being developed) that feel compelled/called to work alongside some “insiders”(people inside the neighborhood that are historic residents of that community… some might even use the term ‘indigenous’) to pursue justice and shalom.

In 99% of the cases the “outsiders” come from more material wealth and affluence, and they are trying to build bridges of redistribution with the “insiders” of that neighborhood. That is a dynamic filled with power and privilege, and has to be dealt with in a very careful and considerate way. When its not, you end up with best selling books like “When Helping Hurts” and “Toxic Charity.” Needless to say, reconciliation becomes an important value in these kinds of ministries, whether it is a stated value or not.

This dynamic is as true for River City as it is for any other ministry that does community development (side note: we use the phrase neighborhood development to distinguish between the Biblical call to be a community and the actual neighborhood that we are partnering in development efforts with). But from what I’ve seen in my studies of national models, the reconciliation challenge we face at River City is as substantial as anything I’ve ever witnessed.

As mentioned in the last post, neither the “insiders” within our neighborhood nor the “outsiders” are monolithic groups. Both are incredibly diverse within themselves, and that is before they have to ever interact with the ‘other.’ The “insiders” of our neighborhood are a fascinating blend of Puerto Ricans, African Americans, and Latino/a American immigrants. The “outsiders” of our neighborhood (both in our church and in the new residents who came in through a wave of gentrification on the outskirts of the neighborhood) tip towards a more young professional and urban creative crowd, and while they are majority white, they represent every major racial-cultural group in Chicago. The “insider” and “outsider” groups could pursue reconciliation just within their own groups and never run out of relevant material. So you can only imagine what is required when they try to team up across racial, economic, cultural, and educational lines to pursue justice, shalom, and the alleviation of poverty together.

So how have we gone about the challenging endeavor to build capacity both within these groups and then together?  With the qualifier in place that both of these groups are incredibly diverse, here are some of the ways we set out to develop capacity in community within both the “insider” and “outsider” groups of our neighborhood:

Group 1: Established Neighborhood Residents

There is a philosophy called Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) that summarizes well the approach we took towards the first decade of the church towards the already existing neighborhood.  In a nutshell, it avoids searching for  a community/neighborhood’s needs, deficiencies and problems. Instead, asset-based community development begins with the authentic assumption that a number of local assets and strengths already exist within the neighborhood, and that outsiders must find and learn from those stakeholder people, organizations, churches, and institutions.  To add spiritual language to that, it begins with the assumption that God has already been at work in powerful ways in the neighborhood long before the outsiders got there. Nobody is coming to bring God, but instead. to discover how God is already at work and to partner with that.

Some of the principles we adhered to:

1.} There are already great things happening in the neighborhood – find them! – We did not start with the assumption that we were bringing a gift to the neighborhood; we started with the assumption the neighborhood had important gifts to bring to us.  We hoped that over time our gifts would intermingle with their gifts to form a strong alliance as we sought the shalom of our city, but first we focused on discovering the gifts of the individuals and institutions of our neighborhood.

2.} People Care – We didn’t assume apathy or indifference, but instead assumed that people cared about their children and their neighborhood and were motivated to act.  People act on certain themes they feel strongly about, and we wanted to know what those were.  We wanted to know what the concerns were that our neighbors wanted to address, the dreams they hoped to realize, and the personal talents they wanted to contribute to the common good.

3.} Ask… and Listen! – This is probably the single most important characteristic of a person and/or organization that is going to win trust and gain credibility over time.  When an outside group or person comes in promoting their ideas and solutions, their motives are questioned immediately and they are viewed skeptically.  On the flip, when there are genuine questions being asked and authentic listening, trust and credibility begin to increase.  One ABCD practitioner calls this asking-and-listening process the “song of community.”

4.} It’s all about relationships – The “village” motif is a powerful metaphor, and the foundation of that begins with authentic relationships.  An intentional effort to build and nourish relationships is the core of ABCD and of all community building. Residents, businesses, other congregations – ultimately, these are all networks of relationships.  In order to get to the point that we could grow towards a collaborative, neighborhood-wide initiative, we knew that we must first build trust, influence, and ultimately relationships.

5.} Trust is the critical currency – There is an old saying that “people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”  We understand that we are not the first organization or church who has expressed interest in being part of the revitalization of our neighborhood, and we won’t be the last.  Many of have come and gone with big promises marked by empty follow through. Trust is the ultimate currency, and trust happens only over time.  All of the other attributes are required to build trust.

Our relationships with the key residents and organizations on the east side of the park are evidences of this principle.  When we first started River City in 2003 we were viewed with a great deal of skepticism.  The combination of being a church plant and having a white contingency during a period of concern over gentrification was enough for many to call our motives and capacity into question.  But over time trust was built and with that came greater influence.  Some of the key moments of our church’s existence were the moments where key influencers within the neighborhood demonstrated increasing levels of trust in us.

For instance, New Life Covenant Assemblies of God, led by Pastor Wilfredo DeJesus, had never rented their mother church to another congregation before allowing us to lease it.  They told us that one of the big reasons they had never rented it was that they had built up a 40-year history around the corner of Wabansia and Mozart, and wanted to steward their reputation.  Yet they believed in us enough to change that policy.  Their confidence in our character and mission was a very affirming moment for us, and we have done a number of collaborative projects together.

Certain leaders from Casa Central (the largest and most historic social service agency in Humboldt Park) told us of both their suspicion of churches and uncertainty about working with a white pastor in the early days of River City. However, we worked together on a number projects ranging from ESL to health screenings to back-to-school drives, and the collaborative efforts deepened both the relationship and trust over time.  In 2010 they began to rent their space to River City for our youth group, which they had never done for another church.  Then in 2011 they received a grant from the State of Illinois that required 1 local church partner.  Despite the many clergy relationships that they have, they asked us if we would be their partner for the Choose Respect initiative.  Casa Central is now one of our greatest allies in the neighborhood, and another example of how the principles mentioned above can fuse together to overcome initial skepticism and replace that with a deep bond of trust over time.

The relationship with Cameron Elementary is another example of this. We have been in relationship with them for almost six years now, and the trust was not won overnight. Now they represent our most substantial neighborhood partner, and Principal Harden will be speaking at our church this Sunday about how he envisions the long term partnership playing out. The same process could be spelled out in our relationship with the West Humboldt Park Development Council as well.

These principles will continue to guide our posture as we move into the future.  Many of the key relationships that have already been formed are still vital for our new long-term location.  But there will be other individuals and institutions that we will have to learn, and more importantly build trust with.  I believe we have demonstrated a commitment to the principles above through our first decade, and anticipate that they will work just as well for us moving into the future.

Group 2: Community of people entering into the neighborhood through River City

The diversity of life experience and cultural within River City is broad, so it often feels elusive to describe this second category.  However, most of the congregants who became part of River City over the first decade were either outside of Humboldt Park – or, if they lived in the neighborhood had been there for five years or less.  So to some degree a large percentage of the congregation shares the trait of being “outsiders” – at least in the sense of their connection to the Humboldt Park neighborhood.  I believe that the best language and community for helping Christians that want to seek shalom in a particular neighborhood together comes from  CCDA (Christian Community Development Association).  The very basis of this movement comes from texts like Jeremiah 29.  It is a like-minded association of a couple thousand ministries across the country that are involved in projects similar to River City.  They have developed what they call their “8 Key Components” for organizing Christians from outside the neighborhood to effectively engage with the community that their church is now part of.

The Eight Key Components of CCDA are below, and you can go here to see an elaborate description of each one:

1.} Living Among the People

2.} Reconciliation 

3.} Just Distribution of Resources

4.} Leadership Development

5.} Listening to the Community

6.} Church-Based

7.} Wholistic Approach

8.} Empowerment

Ultimately, the dream is that through hard work and the power of the Spirit of God we are all able to leave behind language that isolates and separates, and instead simply use the word “us.” But we also understand that we don’t get there through just well wishes or singing “kumbya” together. We are still learning, still praying, still dialoguing, and will continue to do so. But hopefully this gives a helpful snapshot of some of the ways we have gone about the process up until now.

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