Friday, 16 October 2015

The Philadelphia Experiment

As I drove from London to Philadelphia I questioned my sanity. My schedule had shifted and I was now going to be in Philly earlier than planned, and for half the time. Nine hundred km is a long way to drive for two and a half days. But along with my plan to meet up with Lydia and Jim, United Methodist elders I'd met in Phoenix last winter, I'd made a commitment to visit with my cousins.

As I sat down with Lydia for coffee and a scone, my earlier self doubt resurfaced. "Starting Point has folded. We gave it a good run but have discerned that it's time to step away. We're just not getting the critical mass." I knew Lydia was taking a break but I didn't know they were folding completely. What was the point of my being there? "Eight out of ten new ministries close. That's part of church planting," she said. "Fortunately I've had some successes too." I breathed a sigh of relief. "Let's talk about successes and failures," I suggested.

And we did just that. We talked about the importance of a clear core vision, and the willingness to adapt the how of the vision over time. We talked about advertising and "previews" of the worship. And we talked about Christian Base Communities.

It was here that Lydia really lit up. Clearly the times she had worked as a lay urban missionary held her heart. She had formed small groups of people who met regularly to reflect on their life circumstances and local issues, and through biblical analysis, reflected on how G-d was calling them to respond. When I was in seminary I'd written a paper on base communities in Latin America. I'd heard of their formation in North America, but here was someone with first hand experience. "It's important to connect these groups to a worshipping community or you end up leading that part and the next thing you know that takes all of your focus," she reflected. "Worship is important but only in its way of helping us renew the world around us."

Social justice was the focus of the conversation the following evening with Jim, Lydia and Robin. Robin's congregation had been part of a redevelopment project. "What is your mission?" Robin asked as we discussed possible property redevelopments in Edmonton Presbytery. "If your main call isn't going out into the community to lift up the disenfranchised then you might as well quit what you're doing." Together we spoke of the transformative power of the gospel, of the need to stop pulling out of impoverished neighborhoods and find ways to share resources across the church to fund ministries with the most vulnerable. As they shared about a congregation which had closed its church but maintained its manse in order to keep a pastoral presence in the community, I wondered how we could do the same in Edmonton.

Andy at Broad Street Ministry is downtown Philly echoed that emotion. "We're too focused on people who can 'afford' the gospel. Downtown churches are valuable not just for their real estate but for the work we can do with the most in need." Similar to First United in East Vancouver, BSM offers meals, postal service, support to the city's disenfranchised. Reopened in 2005, BSM is registered as a not-for-profit rather than as a church. The church is located in the arts district, close to students, artists and the LGBTQ community. Bill Golderer, BSM's founder invited this cohort to worship and a meal. They showed up, along with the homeless, troubled and mentally ill. And it works. They offer art therapy as well as support services. They worship and serve. They reach out to partners in the community. They witness to the power of showing respect and love to people who have been traumatized - be it the marginally housed, veterans suffering with PTSD, or the LGBTQ community.

As if to bring it home, the need to connect was the main theme of my conversation with Tuomi of "Partners for Sacred Places". Congregations place a lot of focus on our buildings and this is understandable. They are the carrier of our family stories. They are where we've had weddings and baptisms, been supported in times of crisis and celebrated as communities in Christ. Tuomi explained to me how our buildings also carry social value, not just for their heritage and green spaces but also their economic spinoffs. We have great spaces but now they are under utilised. We have an opportunity though to reach out to possible partners in the community who are looking for space, be it arts groups, justice groups, or groups working with youth, children or seniors. We are called to be community centres again. And the synergy created makes these partnerships a win-win.

I left Philly with much to digest. My stomach was full because I grabbed a cheesesteak on my way out. But more importantly my heart was full of possibilities for connections and community.

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