Thanks for the comments from those of you who listened to the Richard Rohr tapes! I may wait just a bit longer before adding any of my comments to your comments, to see if there are others who want to participate in that conversation.
I make a few comments late in the book on the irreducibility of meaningful community outreach in churches like these. But I wonder what your experience on this front has been? Has meeting concrete needs of your secular neighbors factored high in your own sense of calling? Does it seem central to you or a wonderful but ancillary thing?
Here's a bit of what I wrote on our front.
Last night, Grace was with two of our kids at “Soccer Nights,” along with about 150 other kids and their families.
It was a remarkable blend of folks. Lots of them were from the public housing towers across the street from the snazzy rehabbed field in Cambridge. Grace schmoozed with one of the other moms—an Indian woman in a headscarf. “I know you,” the mom said, but had to ponder how for a moment. “Do you shop at Whole Foods?” Grace said she did a few times a month. Did this woman too? “No, I’m a cashier there and I’ve noticed you. I don’t usually get to talk with the customers outside of the store.” They exchanged phone numbers.
Our seven-year-old, Patrick, is a soccer whiz, near the top of the talent level for his age at soccer nights. Except for Hamsa, from Morocco, who impresses Patrick and who Patrick wants to get to know.
The local cops who worked the Soccer Night detail were full of praise. This is the sort of thing this town has needed for a long time, said one, especially during this economic downturn. (Soccer Nights are free, the only free sports camp in Greater Boston.) The local TV was there the night before.
This is the second week of them this summer. Round one attracted perhaps 120 kids. Round three happens next month in another section of town.
This is a remarkable turnaround from some initial efforts our church embarked upon to be helpful in the massive housing projects right down the street from our new building. As we met some of the leaders there, we soon heard from the Cambridge Housing Authority with suspicion. What were we up to there? Were we proselytizing? We weren’t proselytizing were we? No proselytizing!
So we started talking. Were any other outside groups trying to be helpful in any of Cambridge’s housing projects? Did the city want any help in there? No, we were told, no other outside groups were and, yes, they were desperate—did they emphasize desperate?—for outside help. Desperate. But not from you! Because you’ll proselytize! It was a frustrating time for all.
Meanwhile, one intrepid young woman in our church, Stephanie, a recent college grad, just started visiting the projects on her own time. She has a strong cross-cultural interest (she’s helped lead one of our trips to the Middle East), particularly with Muslims, and there are large Muslim populations in these projects. She had no plan at all. She emphasizes she often wasn’t entirely sure why she dropped by, but she was just open to whatever God would do when she did.
She met people in funny ways. She met folks connected to the president of one Middle Eastern country as she walked down the street near our church, heard them talking, and said “hi” as they passed. They talked briefly. She ate dinner in their home that night. They invited her back to meet their collection of friends the next.
Stephanie quickly discovered that making friends there was easy, not least because pretty much no one else from the outside was doing it among the thousands of people who lived there. (These are three big towers, and there’s another housing project right next door to them.) She was invited to so many meals that pretty soon she “knew everybody”—maybe an overstatement, but it didn’t feel like an overstatement.
She invited our small groups to spend a night a month there setting up game nights for kids or to weekend pancake breakfasts to bring folks together who otherwise might not talk.
Suddenly our conversations with Cambridge city officials took on a bit of a different tone. We asked them what they felt the biggest need in the city was that we could help with. Youth, was the quick answer. Cambridge youth are decisively split between university-connected kids, town kids, and project kids. The first group is among the highest achievers in the nation—and they leave the Cambridge school system, on average, by grade 5. The third group is at grave risk of leaving school, of crime, and so on. That’s the greatest need in the city. Could we help?
We put our heads together with some other churches in town who had worked with such kids in other sections of town and a few churches who were hoping for a way into such helpfulness, but had no avenue. We applied for government AmeriCorps grants to fund two positions. And suddenly we, with this coalition, were running Passport [now called REACH], a two-site program designed to help kids stay in school. Those who stick with the program receive a thousand dollar scholarship for college.
And then Stephanie met a man who’d worked in North Africa with a church group for years. The thing he’d most enjoyed doing and had seen be most effective was sports outreach, particularly soccer. He’d be game to help set something like that up, but it would take someone who was already deeply networked in the communities at risk. Stephanie said she thought she could help him there. And it would take an army of volunteers. Check, we could pull that off. (About half of the staffing at Soccer Nights comes from our church, half from the community at large and from other area churches.) And suddenly we’re the heroes of the city. And Grace has a lunch set up with her new Indian friend. And Patrick is setting up a playdate with Hamsa.Back to now: So what's been your experience on these fronts? How central is community outreach to your life or sense of calling?