March 2014

The Stuff Every Neighbourhood Needs (Issue 19)

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While living in an Asian slum on a mission internship in 2006, I remember the night that my host parents had a screaming match through the floorboards of our shack. This was the night I realised the truth about mission.

I had gone there thinking I could finally find out how to put my hard earned specialist skills to work for God’s kingdom and combat global poverty. But that night, as I listened uncomprehendingly to the hysterical shouting match downstairs, I realised how useless I was to help them.

I was living with this typical slum family for a month. I grew to love their generosity toward me and their three fun-loving kids. While there I was vaguely aware that the husband had borrowed a motorbike to earn some cash as a motodop driver – the taxi of choice in the city. One day the police decided to do a routine blitz on all unregistered vehicles – most of them are – and ended up impounding this unfortunate fellow’s bike. To get it back, the family would need to find the money for the fine, the storage fees and the various bribes requested. This amounted to something unthinkable for him, something like $US150. The bike was as good as lost, the family without means of income, and on top of all their other debts they now owed the owner of the bike as well.

After hearing the argument, I realised that the people who had become my friends didn’t need or even want my technical prowess. And marriage counselling wouldn’t be enough either. They needed neighbours who would step in and care for them. They needed somebody to let them know that God has not in fact abandoned them. They needed a resilient community with a stronger social fabric that could pool resources in times of need and rally together to advocate for the issues they face, fighting corruption and injustice.

Holistic Church: a Healing Community

In that particular slum we could catch glimpses of God’s Kingdom coming. My then wife-to-be and I found a local church community there made up of incredible but ordinary people, intricately woven into the daily life of their neighbourhood. They were a community that helped each other when there was need and shared with each other when there was plenty. They shared their homes. The community had recently pooled together to get their alleyways paved, reducing the mud and disease of every monsoon. The teenagers were buddied up with children orphaned or about to be orphaned by AIDS. They were slowly making ground against the temptations of drugs and gambling. And for my friends, the context of a strong community was enough to support their marriage to weather the stress of poverty and debt.

It was a healing community and became the vision for what the parish church model can offer. It’s why we joined the Anglican Church on our return to New Zealand, because isn’t that basically what we as Anglicans aspire to be within our parish neighbourhood? It’s the stuff every neighbourhood anywhere needs, not just overseas.

When I subsequently worked for a local parish church, I began to ask the question: can we become the place that people in our neighbourhood can identify as ‘their church,’ even if they were never to step foot in it at on a Sunday morning? The aim was not to play the numbers game and grow our own church in some sort of empire-building frenzy, but to find the best ways to serve the community we were placed in.

This is where we need a kind of ‘Prophetic Imagination.’ I love Ezekiel’s prophetic image of the valley of dry bones (Ezekiel 37:1-10). It encourages us to re-imagine our world. Where there are cities of decay, can we imagine cities of hope? Where there is unemployment, can we imagine fulfilling work? Where there is loneliness, can we imagine deep belonging? Where there is addiction, can we imagine freedom? Where there are children growing up with neglect and alcoholism, can we imagine security and happiness? Where there are elderly person dying alone, can we imagine a caring village that will be there to mourn and celebrate each life that passes? What are the valleys of dry bones in our neighbourhoods? Can we imagine the Holy Spirit breathing new life there through us?

The Holy Spirit is the one who “sends us out like sparks to set the world on fire”, as James Baxter put it. The Holy Spirit breaks down the walls of ethnicity, social status, even language as we see at Pentecost, to compel us to relate to people and places that might be uncomfortable. I believe the Holy Spirit is not content for us to simply be church with our own people who ‘speak our own language,’ but to be church out there, particularly in the darkest places. We need to be in the valleys of dry bones; we need to be engaged in our neighbourhoods.