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Right now is an exciting time in our church community, as we launch a new church from First Baptist Church London, called Maitland Street Church.
The team that is dedicated to the launch is meeting several times a week in a flurry of enthusiastic activity to iron out details as well as prepare the building (819 Maitland Street) for services starting in the fall. When I first committed to the project, I was likewise excited at the prospect of starting a new church founded on a philosophy of community, relationship and service.
But I’m struggling to remain excited, at no fault of the church or the people there.
I’ve always been hesitant in my Christianity. I came to faith in my early 20’s despite strong misgivings with many aspects of the global church and my experiences growing up (I wrote about it in more detail in my post What I Believe), and am always conscious of the associations that are created by saying I believe and attempt to follow Jesus Christ.
Even as we prepare for our new church, one that may be the closest thing I’ve found yet to a church I may be truly comfortable to call home, I feel more conscious than ever of how much Christians are in the news, in my mind, for all the wrong reasons.
This summer a debate has raged in Texas and elsewhere in the United States over female reproductive rights, with conservative Christians leading the charge for draconian measures that will put many lives in jeopardy. Even as a major victory for equality and civil rights was won when DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act) was declared unconstitutional, conservative Christian groups across America continue to push to keep the definition of marriage only one man and one woman. Though it is absolutely no cost to them or their relationship, these conservative Christians are working to continue to deny thousands of homosexual couples the rights heterosexual couples enjoy.
Closer to home, the news isn’t much better.
Metro News reported recently that despite dropping levels of hate crimes in London, not all the news is good:
The bad news is that hate crimes against the LGBT community across the country rose by 10 per cent in 2011 after an increase in 2010 as well.
Local numbers weren’t broken down by race, religion or sexual orientation, but Pride London Festival president Andrew Rossner believes the local LGBT community is still too often the target of abuse.
Far too often the Bible is wielded by ignorant minds and inept hands as a cudgel instead of a message of support and encouragement, and Christians the oppressors instead of allies. In a Metro News article written yesterday on a Pride London event called Ignite Pride (hosted by Aeolian Hall, mirroring other successful events such as Ignite London and Ignite Health), the one commenter chose to quote Romans 1:18 as a Biblical example of why homosexuality is apparently sinful. Pastor and author Mark Sandlin has written the best commentary I’ve read about this kind of misappropriation of scripture, calling such methods “Biblical” gay bashing. I also wrote this post last summer on sexuality and scripture, and why methods like this of lifting text in an attempt to make a point not supported by the entirety of the Bible does a disservice to God and to scripture.
When I marched in the Pride London parade last year, the only mar on an otherwise great day was the clusters of people holding signs along the parade route with scripture similar to Romans 1:18. Unfortunately, so often when I think of Christians, this is what comes to mind: people that worship the same God I do, but (in my mind) doing it so very wrong. What I struggle to accept that we are all part of one broken, splintered and diverse church. And, there are many that are just as unhappy that I’m part of the fold.
What I hope to remember instead as I reflect on my belief and my faith is people like this I met at Pride, instead:
I discovered that day that there are many people that believe like I do, including the directors of a London “Centre for Spiritual Wellness and Exploration”, called Sabbath Place. They conducted a church service in Queen’s Park before the parade got underway on the spirituality of sexuality and on how we are all God’s children. I’m so glad that I happened upon the gathering that day, in doing so I’ve made new friends, and found much needed renewal of my faith.
It also helped me to reconfirm my commitment to the church and the community, something that in writing this I hope to do again. I struggle as I see so many Christians doing what I see as so much damage to the world and each other, but have found that there are others that think as I do, and are willing to remain in the church despite so much pain, knowing that it would be much easier just to leave, knowing what is easy is almost never the right choice.
I know that we need to be the change that we want to see, and that if I were to just turn my back on the church, it would only become even more of what I despise.
And we all have so much we can give to the church, and there is still so much the church can do for the community. Churches continue to be one of the foundations of many communities, supplying counseling, support, encouragement, food and shelter to those that need it most.
This is what I want to focus on as I think of the new church we hope to build. The goal is to create a church founded on community and support, being a relational centre where the members are there for each other, but much more importantly, are there for their community at large. My hope is that I participate in this church by connecting with the community associations in the area and finding ways that we can support each other, while drawing further experience that may assist the Argyle Community Association as well. There are brief moments (including the Awesome London pitch party this week) where I see and feel the power of collaboration and what people can do together when they share experiences and assets to the benefit of all. I hope that as our communities and L0ndoners in general discover their strengths and those of the people around them, these experiences will only grow.
It can be daunting, but it is so important to stand up for what we believe in, and surprisingly community connections can be made when we do. I can’t wait to celebrate Pride London again this year, it is so important to stand up and be seen as an ally, and to celebrate our LGBT brothers and sisters. If you’ve been out to Pride before, I hope that you’ll be there again, and if this is your first time to the event, I especially hope that you’ll come and see what it is about!
Pastors often say that to be truly living a Christ-centred life you need to follow God out of your comfort zone. As a Christian, I feel that it is our duty to give voice to those who are marginalized, to be an ally to those who need support, and to remember that the most clear instruction we receive from Jesus was to love others and love God. If we start looking at the world through the lens of love first, everything else second, it becomes absurd to say my books says you and your partner should have different chromosomes to be together.
Step out of your comfort zone, and love extravagantly. That, to me, is the real purpose of the church.
I’ve been trying to grapple with everything I heard at the Tamarack Institute gathering in Kitchener, and figure out ways this information can make me a better participant and member in my community and the entire city. One thing that has helped has been reading though books by two of the speakers, “Community Conversations” by Tamarack president Paul Born and “Neighbour Power: Building Community The Seattle Way” by Jim Diers.
Jim’s book in particular has helped me understand what his city of Seattle has done, and dream of what is possible in London. The following quote is quite long, but please take some time to read and consider it, it is a terrific condensing of the spirit of the Tamarack meeting:
Perhaps more important than the financial and other material benefits of civic engagement are the social benefits of a strong sense of community. No amount of public-safety spending can buy the kind of security that comes from neighbours watching out for one another. Similarly, neighbours supporting latchkey children or housebound seniors provide a kind of personal care that social service agencies can’t replicate.
There are other things that communities can do better than government can. Community members have local knowledge and can provide local perspective. At the same time, they think more holistically than governments that tend to specialize in specific functions.
The community is often more innovative than the city bureaucracy and can constitute a powerful force for change. When the City of Seattle planned to build incinerators to deal with its garbage problem, the community demanded a recycling program instead. When electricity rates escalated after the city bought into a nuclear power project, the community pushed for a model conservative program. It was the community that introduced the Seattle Police Department to community policing and insisted on its implementation.
None of this is meant to suggest that there is no role for government. While the community provides a local perspective, government must look citywide to ensure that neighbourhoods are connected and that each is treated equitably. Community innovation needs to be balanced by a certain amount of government standards and regulations. My point is simply that cities work best when local government and the community are working as partners.
True partnership requires government to move beyond promoting citizen participation to facilitating community empowerment. Citizen participation implies government involving citizens in its own priorities through its own processes (such as public hearings and task forces) and programs (such as block watch and adopt-a-street). Community empowerment, on the other hand, means giving citizens the tools and resources they need to address their own priorities through their own organizations.
In his book, Jim outlines many methods Seattle has used to empower communities across the city, and bring them together in sharing goals, aspirations, dreams, people and projects so that they can move the city together more effectively instead of overlapping.
One particular example that jumped out at me was the city’s Neighbourhood Matching Fund (similar to London’s SPARKS Neighbourhood Matching Fund, though larger in scope), where communities could bring forward proposals to the city with requests for money, resources and city personnel the community have identified as needed to see their project into reality. The projects are ones identified as being high priority by the community, instead of from the tradition where the priorities are identified by the city, often with little or no community consultation. The matching comes from an expectation the community would include in their proposal their “share” in the project, where skilled work by community members and donated materials would be valued and added, making the proposals more accessible to lower-income neighbourhoods.
It also challenged communities to assess their assets, a key component to the community philosophy of the Tamarack Institute. Jim tells countless success stories in his book, highlighting that communities identified as “high-risk” or “struggling” in city assessments were some of the most mobilized by the matching program, allaying initial fears they would be ignored against better presented and argued proposals by affluent neighbourhoods.
The part I’ve been struggling with since returning to London from the conference with a head full of great information about what other communities have been doing is trying to condense it down into easily actionable projects and events in our city.
So what can we do?
Here are 3 online resources that are great starting points:
Urban League of London @ULld
The Urban League describes itself as “an umbrella group whose members include a number of neighbourhood and ratepayer associations in the city of London, as well as a smaller set of (primarily) environmental or heritage community organizations. Individuals with an interest in urban or civic matters may also become individual members of the League.” Their website provides a number of terrific resources, including a listing of all registered community organizations and neighbourhood associations with a search that points you to the closest association to you, planning notices in the city, information on how to get involved with the League and other helpful links.
The NeighbourGood Guide @LDNeighbourGood
This website allows Londoners to “like” and share their favourite gems in their community, helping communities promote their favourite places and find out the great places to go in others. As an awesome bonus, the community with the favourite gem is eligible for a $5,o00 neighbourhood enhancement project! The website lists all communities (such as Old East Village and Argyle) for easy searching to see the gems by neighbourhood, as well as providing tons of other links, including 2013 community initiatives and community news in London. The site is fun and interactive, allowing anyone to mark new gems not yet identified, so the content is built by users. Spend some time on this website, I guarantee you’ll find new great places to explore all over the city!
Better London @BetterLondon
Better London is a terrific forum for sharing ideas on how to make our great city even better. You can share brief ideas on the site to be discussed by users and given priority based on how popular the concept is. Other social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook can be used to further the audience reach, often sparking great conversation on the merits and drawbacks of different ideas. Better London allows Londoners to connect with others in their community, dream together what can be done to make our city and communities better, and work out goals and actions that would make these ideas a reality.
And a bonus fourth! Shameless community plug time: Discover Argyle @DiscoverArgyle
Discover Argyle is a summer-long project launched on Canada Day in East Lions Park that highlights events, places and spaces in the community. The program includes a personal “passport” to Argyle that participants can get stamped at the destinations. The website link includes a full list of events in the community, places passports can be picked up and dropped off, and a blog that will be written over the summer on everything happening.
Over the summer, many community associations are on a break to participate in and enjoy the many events happening in their communities and throughout the city. Events are a terrific way to meet with others, get to know your neighbours, and sew the seeds of further participation. This summer I hope to be in the city as much as possible, hear and see what others are working towards and hoping for. I ask that this summer you may do the same, learn about some of the great things happening in our city, and dream with others of what can be while looking for ways to make it happen!