“The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof…” (KJV)
These words from Psalm 24 were echoing in my head as I walked through my neighborhood. My wife and I had just recently taken a position as community connectors, and I wanted to talk with God about how to proceed; I was on a prayer walk of sorts. We knew what a community connector was supposed to do, but we were not sure how to go about that work in this particular neighborhood.
We had heard about the community connector position partly through our own research and partly through our church’s (Hope Church) involvement in the Neighborhood Connections initiative in Holland, Michigan. Neighborhood Connections works through local agencies to identify specific neighborhoods in which to focus energy, identify stakeholders (churches, businesses, institutions), and hire a community connector. This person’s job, partnering with stakeholders, is to get to know neighbors, listen, and encourage them to build relationships and share their unique gifts with one another. The hope is that when neighbors begin to form authentic and healthy partnerships with one another, the community finds that it has the resources it needs to be transformed.
We liked the vision of Neighborhood Connections and the fact that it uses an asset-based community development approach–one that empowers residents to make the changes they want to see based on what they already have (assets), rather than on fixing deficiencies. We also liked the idea that in this ministry, everyone works together as partners (churches, businesses, clubs, City Hall, neighbors). We liked that it is a located vision, within a specific geographic boundary. We liked that it seeks to engage relationship building over programming. And we liked that this vision is for the benefit of the entire neighborhood, not just a single organization. So, we signed up.
But I still wondered how best to put this vision into practice and how it related to faith formation and to my emerging call as a minister. Now I found myself praying and listening as I walked around the boundaries of our neighborhood, reflecting on this persistent passage; “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof…”
All at once I sensed an answer to my questions. If the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, then this neighborhood belongs to the kingdom of God. As servants of the kingdom in this place, it is our job to take inventory, to discover the unique assets and the gifts God has planted here, and to cultivate those gifts to become as “kingdom-like” as we can imagine. Neighborhood Connections is an avenue by which we can partner with all the ministers God has already provided in this place—whether faith-based or not and including those commonly “ministered-to”—to live out the kingdom.
This was a start. Living out the kingdom sounds great, as does the vision of Neighborhood Connections, but forming authentic and healthy partnerships is easier said than done, especially for churches. It seems rare to find churches who are partnering with each other in an ongoing fashion for daily ministry. Even rarer is it to find churches or organizations partnering with those to whom they seek to minister. Partnerships between organizations that seek to serve the community are one good thing, but what if the organizations partnered with the community itself to move toward a shared vision? In this way, there would be no recipient of services—no object of charity. Instead, everyone would be partners with a common vision.
In our neighborhood we’re still laying the groundwork for this type of shared vision to guide our partnerships. The groundwork is relationships. When we explained what we were doing to one long-time resident of our neighborhood, he began telling us what he knew about the neighbors. According to him, the man across the street seemed decent enough, but was rarely seen, probably a recluse—he didn’t know his name. At the first opportunity, I decided to introduce myself to this man. I found out his name is Dan. We invited him to a holiday gathering where he and the first neighbor were able to meet. In the days to come, Dan confided that he did have some social anxiety which often kept him indoors. But not long ago Dan volunteered to help me shovel out an elderly neighbor’s driveway, and on another occasion he stopped in his car to say “hi.” This example of relational transformation is small, but significant. A neighbor who was “a recluse” is now known by name, and the connection is creating confident space out of which he can share his gifts with his neighbors. This is the groundwork of Neighborhood Connections—to create a culture where neighbors value knowing one another, caring for one another, and working together.
Healthy relationships are at the heart of Neighborhood Connections. In another Holland neighborhood, a church has formed a working partnership with college students who would like to live in community and practice service. The church found a house and created an internship program with their community connector, who in turn is able to use the extra help to benefit neighbors and run neighborhood events. Here’s what one of the students said about her experience in that neighborhood:
This experience has grown me. It has thrust me into a reality of what is truly life, and sometimes I am convinced that living in this neighborhood has done more for my education than what some of my social work classes have done. I have lived among people….The Hope Neighbors Community has changed the way I do life.
Neighborhood Connections nurtures a faith that creates space for loving our neighbors. In order to love our neighbors, we must get to know them; and to get to know them, we must make ourselves available to them. As Jean Vanier, founder of L’Arche communities says, “Community is not an ideal; it is people…. Community means giving them space, helping them to grow. It is also receiving from them so that we too can grow” (From Brokenness to Community, New York: Paulist Press, 1992, pp. 35-36).
Neighborhood Connections is really about loving people—which is perhaps the greatest lesson it can offer faith formation. The approach teaches us to look around and see the people with whom we live–to see them as God sees them, beloved and valuable, as co-creators, with gifts to share. Faith is not an abstract belief or ideal; it is enfleshed and active, expressing itself through tangible acts of love. The venue in which we share this world is the same venue in which we enact our faith with those God has placed around us.
Andrew Spidahl recently graduated from Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. He married Kallie, they took a world journey by bicycle for their honeymoon, and then moved into a neighborhood in Holland, Michigan to work with Neighborhood Connections