On April 17-18th I had the great privilege of attending Inhabit: Faithful Practice in the New Commons at the Seattle School of Theology and Psychology in Seattle, Washington, as part of my study leave. As the name suggests, the conference was a gathering of practitioners and theorist one the theme of all about how churches might better “inhabit” their neighborhoods and communities in ways that are not only mutually beneficial, but also mutually transformative. From non-profit investing, theology, community gardening, to national campaigns for equality in public education, the conference had something for everyone to help them reimagine what it might be to look like the church and be a blessing in our time and day.
The conference was really enlightening for me. There was so much going on, however, that I thought I would break down my reflections in to four parts that I'd share over the next few weeks. Here's part one:
The whole conference took place at the School’s campus in downtown Seattle, only blocks from the waterfront. While I was excited for all the potentially interesting ideas, I was initially worried that the urban emphasis of the conference might be harder to translate to our less urban/more rural context in the Comox Valley.
The context issue became even more apparent with the first two speakers. The first speaker was Nicole Baker Fulgham on “Educating All God’s Children,” and was about churches banding together for advocacy initiatives for the sake alleviating the disparities in American schools. While we have our own challenges (the continuing erosion of public education) and racial disparities (especially when it comes to First Nations schooling), generally the Canadian education system is not facing the same large challenges of the U.S. system. Not only that, but I wondered if Canadian mainline churches have the same energy or influence to take on such large-scale advocacy efforts.
Nonetheless, the work of her group is inspiring in terms of the amount of change they have been able to generate through lobbying various levels of government. I was caught by her phrase when she described the church—the people of Jesus—as “people who know what’s possible.” If we truly believe in a God that is at work healing our lives and mending the world, why shouldn’t we believe that justice, mercy, and equality in the public sphere is not only possible, but part of God’s divine dream for creation? Somehow, we as the church have bought in to the scarcity mindset—that there is never enough to go around—rather than the abundance of the Lord’s Table.
I had similar contextual questions about the second speaker, Alexie Torres-Fleming’ talk “Building the ‘On Earth as it is in Heaven’ in Rural America.” Torres-Fleming has an incredible story about growing up dirt poor in the Bronx to a Puerto-Rican family and finding her way out of the neighborhood and into the world of high corporate finance. The most interesting part of her story was the point that she made that kids growing up in poor and immigrant neighborhoods are encouraged to leave those neighborhoods as the way to success. This leads to a distorted self-image on one hand, and a drain of talented young people leaving the community on the other. Torres-Fleming, however, found herself lured back to her neighborhood by Rev. Mike “the Fighting Franciscan” Tyson, a local parish priest who convinced her to come back to work in and behalf of her own community in her own neighborhood. With the passionate heart of a preacher, Torres-Fleming inspired by pointed to Isaiah 58:12 as an image for the Christian vocation in neighborhoods like hers:
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in.
While it’s not the same context by any means, I couldn’t help but think of our own issue in the Comox Valley—that for many of our children, “success” will be found only in leaving our community due to the perceived lack of economic opportunity. How can we create opportunities for people to find roots that benefit the common good—faith and otherwise—in this place that we love? How are we called to further “inhabit” our community to act as “repairers of the breach” and “restorers of streets to live in”? It sounds something like our vision to be a "beacon of God's hope and light in our community," if you ask me.