Listening

(Author’s Note: This entry will appear in an upcoming issue of Mennonite Weekly Review. It does contain a paragraph from an earlier blog…)

Chicago is one of my favorite cities. I especially like its public transit system. It’s easy to use and gets me everywhere I need to go and I don’t have to deal with the traffic.

A few years ago while riding the Red Line, a man came up to me and asked if I had a personal relationship with Jesus. It was late at night, I was tired and not really interested in talking to anyone, but this guy wanted to know something about my eternal status. I was the only person in the train car. I turn and acknowledged his presence.

Before I had a chance to tell this man about my status with Jesus, he launched into a creative rendition of the four spiritual laws.

By the time he came to the end of his speech, I wasn’t sure how to respond or, to put it more accurately, I had not been given the opportunity to respond. It was clear that his goal was to have me pray the sinner’s prayer. From what I could tell, he wasn’t interested in anything else I had to say.

On that evening, this Mennonite pastor prayed the sinner’s prayer just to get rid of the messenger.

On that evening, I learned a valuable lesson.

If you are going to ask a question, wait for a response. Assumptions are demeaning and belittling.

Most of us have been guilty of asking questions and thinking we already know the answers.

For the next 14 months, Hugo Saucedo and I have been asked to lead a nation-wide urban listening tour for Mennonite Church USA. It is the expressed desire of Mennonite Church USA leadership to have urban pastors and church workers shape the urban Mennonite agenda.

Listening is not always comfortable or easy. People say unexpected things. Conversations go in unanticipated directions.

Listening is not easy, but it is fruitful.

The first words Patricia Running-Bear said to me during my first week at DOOR (Discovering Opportunities for Outreach and Reflection), were, “Don’t tell us how to do anything until you have been here 10 years.” Patricia was the administrative assistant to the director of the Denver Inner City Parish. To her, I was the latest in a series of white men who had come to Denver’s west side to try to do some good.Being told to hang around for 10 years seemed like a waste of time. After all, I had been to seminary, was well-read on urban issues and had a natural inclination to fix things. I wanted to work for justice and be a voice for the voiceless.

But vital, significant ministry is not instant or quick. Mutual trust takes time and a willingness to listen. Open, honest conversations become the bedrock for mutual trusting relationships. Mutuality, in turn, leads to shared vision. Shared vision creates ownership.

Urban centers are the growing edge of the church. They are both the present and future of Mennonite Church USA.

Allowing the urban church to shape its own agenda means the center of power and decision-making will begin to shift from rural to urban. This will not always be comfortable or easy, but it is necessary and inevitable.

I am looking forward to the next 14 months. I am curious about commonalities that will be shared across the urban centers. I am looking forward to understanding the unique challenges faced in the various cities, so that we as Mennonite Church USA might support one another in all types of ministry.

Wait

“Don’t tell us how to do anything until you have been here 10 years.”

These were the first words that Patricia said to me after we had been introduced. It happened during my first week at DOOR. Larry, my predecessor, was taking me around Denver and introducing me to the various agency coordinators and leaders I would be working with in my new role as the DOOR director.

Patricia was the administrative assistant to the director of the Denver Inner City Parish. It would be fair to say that she was a person of strong convictions. To her, I was the latest in a series of white men who had come to Denver’s west side to try to do some good.

Her words were hard to hear, because I did want to make a difference. Being told to hang around for 10 years seemed like a waste of time.

After all, I had been to seminary, was well-read on urban issues, and I had a natural inclination to fix things. I wanted to work for justice and be a voice for the voiceless. It didn’t make any sense to waste away my abilities for 10 years.

Patricia’s words have been ringing in the back of my mind ever since that first day. I have come to understand this advice as being challenging and good.

I give leadership to a program that promotes short-term experiences. People come to our DOOR for anywhere from a day to a year. One of the biggest battles we face is with participants who—like me—want to make a difference. After all, they have taken time out of busy schedules to take part in DOOR. They don’t want their time or money to be wasted. I understand and respect this.

There are times when short-term volunteers can make a huge difference. Those who went to the Gulf Coast to rebuild following Katrina come to mind.

But for the most part, authentic ministry takes time—lots of time.

One of my closest friends is the pastor of the Denver Inner City Parish. He has been a part of Denver’s west side since 1965. He came to Denver from Elgin, Ill.; working on the family dairy farm was not in his blood. As an 18-year-old he escaped to Denver to attend college. It was during his first semester at Denver University that he began to develop an interest in the west side. Before long, he found himself on the organizing committee for the parish.

44 years later, this kid from a dairy farm in Illinois has become the people’s pastor on the west side. He stuck around and earned the right to speak into the lives of Denver’s westsiders

Every time someone participates in DOOR, I feel a tension between their desire to make a difference and the time it takes to earn the right to make a difference. I am not sure that this can be resolved in a few easy steps. As a matter of fact, I want participants to feel this tension.

Vital, significant ministry is not instant or quick.

Mutual trust takes time.

There is no swift way around this.