Immanuel and four other ELCA churches in the Edgewater neighborhood the past three Wednesday had a workshop on the parish and community organizing lead by the Rev. Stephen Bouman who is Executive Director of the ELCA's Evangelical Outreach and Congregational Mission unit. Reconciler was invited by Immanuel to take part in these workshops, I, the pastor was the only one to attend. In the end I found the three sessions inspiring. Reconciler as an ecumenical congregation was started as a way to engage our context in the way these churches are seeking to do through adopting tools from community organizing. Based on these three sessions I see that Reconciler could be enriched by what these four congregations seem to be seeking to do together in utilizing the techniques and tools of community organizing. I think our experience as a congregation that sees its worship as that which forms us and the place from which we are empowered to live as Christ’s disciples in the world and with our neighbors. If we allow ourselves to engage these congregations in this process I feel we may find the ability to build upon our strengths and share our experience of church as primarily a worshiping community that through worship is empowered to live with each other and engage what God is doing in the world. The spirit has moved and is moving I believe we are called to be apart of it, in fact we already are through relationship with Immanuel that can grow if we let it.
The first session was more or less “Community Organizing 101”. In that session Bouman sought to connect the principles of community organizing to Scripture and the reality of church as place of proclamation of the Gospel. He began by reading 2 Kings 4:1-7 and having us discuss the passage. What he helped us draw out of this passage was that God uses what we already have and may think to be useless (i.e. empty vessels) and that God works God's great and amazing works through community and our own being agents in the world. The power for change and provision in the story is from God but is accomplished through community and personal action. Bouman then talked about 16 traits of community organizing while telling stories of his first parish that was part of a community organizing group in Queens New York. The 16 characteristics are: 1) Sees diversity as strength 2) People oriented not project oriented 3) The goal is the release of power-every person is inherently powerful 4) Owned by the people 5)Listens to people 6) Expects accountability 7)Basic tool is the relational meeting 8) can focus on any issue 9) Institutionally based- institutions organize people, money, and values 10) Trusts the people 11) Never do something for somebody they can do for themselves 12) 11 is the iron rule that is always practiced 13) Leadership is a collective cadre of leaders 14) Action and reflection are the crucible 15) Knows the difference between problems and issues 16) Readily applied to parish ministry. As we concluded he stated that community organizing is a tool that a parish can use, not the only thing a parish may do or be.
In the second session we looked at the story of the Road to Emmaus and paid attention to Jesus' interaction with the two disciples in light of some of the principles of community organizing. The emphasis here was the tactic of one on one's in community organizing. What Bouman drew out and had us practice in this session was cultivation of curiosity of what was around us in our neighborhoods and culture (and cultures) . Jesus' ministry was relational; we too need to conduct ourselves in a relational way and seeking encounter. It is through this encounter, this all requires listening and thus asking certain questions and listening with certain questions in mind. Listen for someone’s passion and for issues that are forefront in the others mind. Bouman was leading us to first do this with ourselves, the group gathered, but then also in the churches and then with the larger community. This process within the churches and with the community then can lead to bring people together around what has been heard and expressed. We practiced one on one's or really three on three or four on fours, talking about how our church had been there for us, and what our dreams (no limits) were for our churches. I found that just this sort of conversation brought me closer to the two people I listened to and shared with one of whom I already knew somewhat and one who I met for the first time that night.
At the Third and final session, that was held this past Wednesday, things fell into place. Stephen Bouman brought in another pastor a colleague who works with new church starts and church revitalization. The scripture to set the tone for the evening was Ephesians 2:11 ff. Then Bouman asked some of us to share where we saw God this week. The point is to get us to think of how God might be at work in our neighborhoods and communities. Then we were to in groups of three or four ask ourselves first our dreams for the churches we were members of, and then our dreams for all four Lutheran churches taking part in this workshop. I through a bit of a monkey wrench into the conversation as I wasn't from one of the Lutheran churches. One of the people in my group suggested we begin by talking about where our churches were and what we thought we already had. In my group two of the four Lutheran churches were represented. Those members went pretty much directly to them talking about possible connections between the two churches around the issue of justice for the Palestinian people, and other justice issues. In that first conversation we never got to our dreams for our churches. Both conversations were more about how the churches including Reconciler could work together and be a witness together. Our group then talked about outreach to Middle Eastern and Arab refugees and immigrants, and about ways to meet and listen to young adults between 18 and 30, a demographic more represented at Reconciler and more or less absent in the Lutheran churches. I shared some of the experience of Reconciler. Also, one shared about how in the gay community people of that age range tend not to even consider Christianity or religion at all. As we were then brought back together to share our conversations, it turned none of the groups had talked about what they wanted for their individual churches but had talked almost exclusively about how the churches were already doing similar things and how to build on that. Then as I share about Reconciler and our relationship with Immanuel and St. Elias, it came out that the three congregations with buildings share their building with other congregations and except for Immanuel there is no relationship between the host and guest congregations. There was an expressed desire to change that. Also, this lead to the acknowledgement that the four Lutheran congregations don't really know much about the other Lutheran congregations and expression of a desire to change that and to work and dream together rather than separately. This to me was really incredible, and I think showed the power of this type of spending time asking and listening to one another. People who I think were probably caught up in somewhat insular cultures in this meeting were expressing not only a desire to cooperate but were truly turning towards the other. In so doing we discovered that God had indeed given us some great resources in possible connections between fellow Christians.
How might Reconciler fit in to this? One way is that we and Immanuel have experience of ways that a guest and host church can interact more than merely as landlord and renter. In sharing that experience we may also be pushed to broaden the existing relationship with Immanuel through listening to each other about how we’d like that relationship to grow if it were to grow beyond on occasion worshiping together. However, Reconciler’s experience should also communicate that our worshiping together is not a small or incidental thing but the very foundation of any continuing and growing relationship. Reconciler can remind all involved in these processes of revitalization and engagement in our communities that worship is a key and central reality in being church.
Another way is in sharing our experiences of listening and allowing that listening to change how we interact and even the way we organize ourselves. Our experience of stepping back from the constitution that did not serve our reality or provide a framework to support of faith life together, can show how the sort of listening that Bouman taught us and had us experience could very well have structural ramifications. Our experience can relate that this is not always easy and that at times one has to be willing to continue to speak until what is being expressed is understood. Sometimes those who are expression dissatisfaction don’t themselves know what they desire except in expression of dissatisfaction multiple times.
I also believe that our intentionally being ecumenical, which in practice means seeking a Christian identity that is broader and deeper than any one Protestant denominational tradition, is itself something we could offer to these congregations in this process. I believe this is so because in so being ecumenical we are attentive to more than what is immediately before us and taking into our identity things we may not completely understand. Thus what Reconciler offers isn’t a strong and distinct identity itself but a seeking to be conformed to an identity that is larger than itself, that is the identity Christ and the Church. I believe it is the experience of Reconciler that this stance allows for encounter that does not fall into a giving up of an identity but is an experience of being formed into something, larger greater and deeper than the present moment, or issues. This then lead us back to our worship that is the foundational act of all of our actions and interactions in the world. Sharing this sort of experience of being church I think could be very fruitful for the four Lutheran churches in what they are seeking to do and be and in encounter and participation in our neighborhood and culture.