One of the people I met last week at the Inhabit Conference in Seattle lives in an area of a city in the United States in which 10 of his neighbours have been killed by police within a period of a few months. He calls it “death by gentrification”. These conflicts are caused by changing demographics and different people sharing space who don’t understand each other’s context and don’t know each other. He’s part of an interfaith movement that was challenging city hall to prosecute the officers involved in the killings.
Another person I heard works in Cincinnati, gathering the stories of those in his marginal neighbourhood and making a documentary called “Cincy Stories”. He invited everyone into the neighbourhood cafe to watch those stories and then participate in the documentary themselves. The stories belong to waitresses and lawyers, police officers and street kids, barbers and stay-at-home parents, and just about anyone you can think of. By filming their stories, that man and his friend are saying to people: “You matter. Your story matters. Your voice matters. Your community matters.” The project has expanded to include street stories and multiple neighbourhoods in Cincinnati.
Another is a musician and worship leader who took the stories of the people she met every day in her local coffee shop and wrote songs for them, which she then played back to them in a gathering that was strong with the sense of sacred space – despite the fact it was nowhere near a traditional church.
The Conference I attended was part of something called the New Parish movement – which is all about meeting people where they are. Like Jesus and the disciples, these folk meet people on the street, in the places where they eat or work or play. They offer opportunities for building connections with one another and experiencing the value of community life. They work together for sustainable and viable communities, and they see the well being of the faith community as growing out of and integrally linked to the well-being of the whole community. The goal is not to build a church. The goal is to “BE” the church – the body of Christ – in the neighbourhoods in which we find ourselves.
For those of us who grew up in rural communities or in a different era, this might just seem like something that can be taken for granted. But in urban and suburban communities where people are disconnected from each other and from the land, it is a radical idea. Most of us don’t work in the same community in which we live; our friends may live in another part of the community or another part of the world; we may shop in one neighbourhood, play sports in another neighbourhood, attend religious services in yet another neighbourhood, go to sleep in another neighbourhood, and commute to yet another. It’s a transient world we live in, where places start to lose stability and permanence because we’re moving in and out of them so quickly.
The title of a book I was given at the Conference was called “Staying is the New Going”. It suggests that after millennia of “going out” to preach the Gospel, God is calling many of us back into our neighbourhoods – to be rooted in and act for the good of the places in which we live – and perhaps even choose to work and play and shop and worship in those same neighbourhoods. The folk I was meeting with were experiencing a call to a particular place and to the people in that place.
Phillip, in this story, is a man with no place. He is travelling from city to city at the call of the Holy Spirit. The Ethiopian eunuch, too is travelling, but he definitely has a place. He is an important member of the Ethiopian court, though here in Palestine, he is somewhat marginalized. In this story, both men are in temporary space – you might say they’re commuting! They’re in-between. Neither is from the place where they meet. Each will soon be on their way to somewhere else, and it’s unlikely they’ll encounter one another again. Yet in that space something profound happens, as a poor man from Palestine and a rich man from Ethiopia explore together the faith story that they share – the story of ancient Israel.
In a way, it’s a bit like a conference or workshop event, where people from all over gather to share their stories and help one another explore faith. Out of the shared story, comes an opening to a new story. For the eunuch, it is the story of Jesus – and from that opening comes a life that is transformed. It’s amazing what can happen when strangers meet and take the time to talk together and listen to one another – especially when the Holy Spirit is at work in their lives.
This intersection of what one needs and the other has to offer can happen anywhere or anytime, as it did with Phillip and this unnamed man, and it has done so in many of the New Parish initiatives I mentioned. We make the mistake sometimes of thinking that God is only working in the church, and that what happens outside the walls of a church is not the work of God – even if it is healthy and good and beautiful. But the Holy Spirit has never been confined to a building or a worship service. The Holy Spirit has always been out and about and moving in our world. If we want to engage with and be moved by the Holy Spirit, we too, need to be out and about. I have so much admiration for those people who are really living this, day in and day out! Some of those people are right here at Gordon United.
One of the things I’ve discussed with the Ministry and Personnel Team this year is a call to spend less time in the church building and more time in the community, with both churched and un-churched people. How are any of us to meet the Ethiopian eunuchs of our own time and place if we only ever spend time with people who already know Jesus? So out I will go, to where you are all living your lives – the coffee shops where you meet your friends, the gyms where you work out, the paths where you walk your dogs and the parks where you play with your children. I’m going to be out there, even though my introverted self would be much more comfortable in my study, with the door open so you can drop by to see me. I’m going to be out there more to listen, than to talk; more to build relationship, than to convert; more to learn than to teach – though perhaps, like Phillip, I may have an opportunity to do some teaching, too – too be there when someone has a question or a wondering they I can help them address.
When we looked at the story of this Ethiopian man a couple of years ago, I discovered that Ethiopians trace the roots of their Christianity right back to him. While Phillip went on to the next place God wanted him to be, the man went back to Ethiopia, back to the place he knew and that knew him. Tradition tells us that from his living and working and ministering in that place, a church grew that continues to exist today, despite the terrible hardships and dangers Ethiopian Christians currently face. So Phillip’s call to go, and this man’s call to stay, worked together to bear good fruit for the Gospel of Jesus.
To go, or to stay? It seems from our story that there are some of us who are called to be movers, missionaries, apostles in different places at different times. It seems also that some of us may be asked to cease our journeying and truly become rooted in the ministry of our own places and our own neighbourhoods.
I know that some of you have these deep roots here in the Westshore. I’ve lived in Langford for almost ten years now, but I don’t know it the way many of you know it. And I’m guessing that perhaps some of you don’t realize what you know about Langford and the West Shore, because you take that knowledge for granted. You know what used to be on the corner across from the church before the Kubota dealer was there, and you know who lived in the old houses that were torn down before the condos went up. You know what Langford looked like without paved roads and palm trees, and you know what was lost and what was gained in its transformation. You know which houses of worship used to be in this area and which ones now exist. You know whose kids attend Ruth King and Spencer and how those schools have changed. In other words, you have a sense of place that some of us more recent transplants just don’t have. And some of you newer folk, can bring fresh eyes to what we know, and tell us what living in the Westshore is like for you and the people who live alongside you. We might be quite surprised by some of what you experience that we don’t!
Whether we stay and put down deeper roots, or whether we go at the call of the Spirit, the important thing is to be open to the encounters that might come. The Holy Spirit moves in the space between us and the strangers we meet – and also in the friends we meet too. If you live in a seniors’ residence, I encourage you to go down the hall to your gathering space and just find out who’s there and what’s going on. If you live in an apartment building or condo complex, perhaps you can go to the closest coffee shop or park and listen to what there is to hear. If you have your own home, maybe you can sit in the front yard instead of the back and greet people as they go by. If you have children, you can take them to the park and talk to someone you haven’t spoken to before. If there’s a set of streets you’ve never been down, why not vary your walking route and see what there is to discover?
I want to invite you on a journey of discovery this year: to see our neighbourhoods and our neighbours with new eyes, to wonder together what the Holy Spirit is doing in our communities and in our relationships. I want to invite you to notice or discover one thing about your neighbourhood this week that you didn’t know before. Do the same next week, and the week after that, and so on. And from that noticing, prayerfully consider what that might say about how the Holy Spirit is speaking to us in this place. Who are we called to be Christ for, in this specific neighbourhood, at this specific time? Go with God, with open hearts, minds, ears, and eyes, into the coming weeks. Amen.