Ministry 101

I have a friend who likes to talk about his decision to come to Denver’s Westside.  It was 1965; his thought was that he would stick around 3-5 years, because that was the commitment needed to fix poverty, violence, and poor education.  It is 2012 and he is still there. There is a popular idea among church and ministry leaders that goes something like this: “I will stay around just long enough to work myself out of a job.”  On the surface this sounds noble, empowering, and a little romantic.  However, the more I think about this notion the more I dislike it.

Authentic ministry always includes things like presence, community, mutuality, and walking alongside the other.  When leaders stand behind statements like “I am going to work myself out of a job,” it often becomes permission to stand apart from those we have been called to work with.  Standing apart is not terribly Christian.

A number of years ago John Perkins wrote about ministry in and among at-risk communities. For Perkins ministry needed to be done together and it needed to be done right. Perkins proposed three “R’s” for ministry – reconciliation, redistribution and relocation.  Anyone who has taken these ideas seriously knows that it isn’t about working yourself out of a job. It is about becoming a part of a community.  When you join a community their issues become your issues.  People cease to be ministry projects that require fixing or guidance and instead become family and friends who need a hand to hold.  When we become family, walking away becomes unimaginable.

Solidarity

What does it mean to stand in solidarity with someone?  I have a friend who talks about standing in solidarity with undocumented immigrants.  Others talk about standing with the poor and oppressed.  Still others want to stand with the people connected to the Occupy Wall Street movement.  I know people who desire to stand in solidarity with the people of Haiti, Palestine, and those fighting for freedom in the Arab Spring. What does it mean to walk in someone else’s shoes and see the world from another perspective?  Is this even possible?

A little over a decade ago our family moved into an urban neighborhood, motivated by John Perkins’s three “R’s” – redistribution, reconciliation and relocation.  Moving from the suburbs to the city has been life changing.  Issues such as public education, gang activity, racism, classism, and immigration take on a whole different meaning when one is living with those who are directly impacted by these concerns.  Our boys attended a low performing school.  I witness the dehumanization that subtle racism causes on a daily basis.

Am I standing in solidarity?  Maybe, maybe not.

I have always had the option to move – to a “better,” more Anglo neighborhood.  Not all my neighbors have this option.  I don’t have to stay and this fact puts me in a whole different space.

Solidarity has something to do with experiencing the pain;  knowing what feels like to wonder where your next meal is coming from, or not knowing if a loved one has been picked up and taken to an immigration detention center.

I remember the third time our house was broken in to the police officer said that we had been targeted because we were white.  That was a frustrating day – we had been picked on simply because of the color of our skin.  That was also a day when I began to feel just a little (very little) how my friends of color must feel when they are targeted simply because of how they look.

I don’t wish harm to anyone, but is seems to me that if we are going to stand in solidarity with others we also must risk experiencing what they experience.  This can be scary.

Blame

November tends to be a time of introspection for me.  I started my current job in November of 1994. This week I start my 17th year at DOOR. One of the people who sparked my interest in coming to DOOR was John Perkins.  I doubt he knows who I am, but I heard him speak at a CCDA event in Denver.  He spoke passionately of “Three R’s” for successful urban ministry – Relocation, Reconciliation and Redistribution.  For John, when the people of God embodied and lived these values the poor and the oppressed would be set free.

I heard this sermon at a very dark time in my life.  I had recently resigned from a pastoral position.  My prayer to God at that time was rather simple; “get real or get out.”  I was tired of pretending that my faith meant something to me.

Hearing about the “Three R’s” was the breath of fresh air I needed.  I had never really thought that where I lived was also a moral issue.  Hearing that reconciliation was more than a God and me concern was transformative.  Reconciliation also included my relationship with humanity, in all its forms.  I grew up believing in the tithe, but I had never really considered that how and where I spent the rest of the money was also an important concern.

This sermon started our family on what has become a 16-year journey.  Sixteen years ago, my faith was mostly a Sunday morning event; today my faith is a 24 hour, 7 day a week celebration.  As a family, we have relocated, have struggled with issues of reconciliation and think about where we spend our money.

I blame you John Perkins for speaking from your heart and sending our family on a crazy, wild, exciting, enriching and life-giving journey.