Showering at Neighbours and Luke 10:1-12

Recently I and my family have entered a new space in experiencing the vulnerability of neighbourly relations. When Jesus in Luke 10: 1-12 suggests that his followers, sent out into neighborhoods and localities, shed their baggage and enter the space of the vulnerably received I never imagined it could look or feel like this. More circumstantial than intentional, we find ourselves in a situation without a bathroom. We are renovating and the length of time without an operative bath or shower is extending out into weeks. This has along with using the local gym, required us to welcome offers for a shower, and amongst our next door neighbours who notice the rennovations happening, this has turned into something of a humourous offer of hospitality. We turn up to the door with shampoo and a towel after indications the shower is free. Pride, and the sense of self-containment are set aside. We are no longer in control of the relations. We are at the mercy and grace of our neighbours who desire to assist us. The human connection is made. But the sense of vulnerability never quite disappears.

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Neighbours Day BBQ

logo-date-URLIt was Aotearoa NZ Neighbours Day on the weekend (23-24 March). This national initiative began several years ago with a Methodist project in Takapuna, Auckland which sought to invest in the wellbeing of neighbourhood, by nurturing neighborliness in simple ways. Today, under the motto, turning strangers into neighbours, streets into neighborhoods, it is supported by the Methodist City Mission, Inspiring Communities and Councils. People can register an event like a street BBQ or gathering, accessing resources and ideas, telling their stories and spark media coverage.

It seemed a good occasion to meet some of our un-met neighbours in our row houses and draw the community in our vicinty together. The day was going to be a cracker on Sunday. So we took over our carparks and driveway outside our house, pulled out the BBQ, put out deck chairs and umbrellas and invited people. I took invites with me and knocked on the doors in the week leading up. People expressed keen-ness and some were disappointed they were not going to be around. Our next door neighbour pulled out the stops and brought deck chairs. Another set of neighbours, one of whom was a Thai Chef turned up with a charcoal BBQ to cook a mountain of tasty kebabs. There was plenty of drink, a stereo playing chilled music and a sun filled relaxed setting.

It was obvious when people started turning up, this was something, that was both novel for those who moved here in the last 10 years, but also deeply appreciated. People knew this was a good thing. Conversations, laughter, making connections, telling stories of how they came to live here, informing each other about what they knew of the history of their house or the area. Bridges were built and relationships started. Strangers were now beginning a journey as neighbors. This is how community gets built.

What does God, known in Christ want for us and the world ? This might seem like small steps, but to engage in acts of removing isolation and alienation, and raising the conditions for reconciliation, are to participate in Christ’s ministry of re-making a trust-worthy world. To begin loving our neighbours in the specific circumstances of our street means to act towards the other, not as stranger, but as one who through Christ’s reconciling work, has already become neighbour to us (Eph 2 – the walls of estrangement in the Kingdom no longer exist). In God’s eyes – they are not a stranger. Why would we continue then to treat them as such ?

Listening to community voices

St Stephesn ProtestHad a conversation today with one of the community advocates for advancing liveability, good urban design and social capital in our area. It was over heritage issues and the new council planning regime that is being rolled out. In the midst of a vulnerable time when developers and council are testing the climate for intensification, news of a potential local Presbyterian Church’s demise and sell off of a 130 year heritage church hits the headlines.  Some protests by local residents ensues. A lot of the reporting is mis-information and the red flag of greedy developers pouring money into church coffers does not go down well. But the galvanising of community interests demonstrates that churches need to wake up to their local context. The result of our conversation is a suggestion that the local community action group offer the church some suggestions as how it might go about regenerating its site and engaging the local community. Church needs to start listening to what is going on in urban planning, the deeper cultural narratives and the persons of peace in the neighborhood. Talking in abstracts inside our church cocoons is not going to help us discover the future God is inviting us into.

Pre-Christmas Dinner at Liston Hostel

602944_10152367484515333_1698008887_nA Christmas Dinner at the Hostel. Several local friends ganged together on the 23rd Dec to cook dinner at the hostel. Some decorated tables and the dining room, three Samoan friends came along to sing. And the rest cooked and served. Roast Chicken and Trifle. One of our next door neighbours pitched in. As the hostel manager appreciatively commented, this adds a lift to our Christmas season here. Some honest conversations over tables. For some this is home, for some this is a bed. So tonight means different things to different residents. A number find the social interaction always difficult and head back to their rooms. But there are those who want to linger and soak up the occasion.

It is important to walk a narrow line between this becoming a “benefactor” type event and us as neighbours sharing in the season with some of our effort. It is good we have established relationships serving in the kitchen over the past few months. One of the residents who cooks dinner helps us out and others who help run the hostel as part of their rent coordinate the logistics. It means a more shared enterprise. It is their space. They have welcomed us in to do this.

Volunteering at James Liston Hostel

For the past 2-3 months I have been along to a supported hostel on our street, the James Liston Hostel. It is run by an ecumenical trust and provides supported accomodation for vulnerable adults and homeless. I and a friend help out in the kitchen at one of the dinner times.

The place came to my attention when we moved into the area. I noticed that the hostel was a bit of an island in a sea of gentrifying houses and was regarded by some in the area with considerable indifference, if not some wariness. I wondered if there was any sense of the hostel and its residents forming part of the neighbourhood. I wondered too if the hostel like so many church social agencies was now a professional service system that had little regard for the place and relationships in which it was set.

So I decided to become a human face and discover the human face of this place as a commitment to this neighborhood. I volunteer in the kitchen. I am getting to know some of the staff and residents. I am listening to their stories. I am listening for what the Spirit of God might be doing and asking of us here.

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Commitment to investing in the neighbourhood

This morning’s NZ Herald contains an article reporting on the work of a neighbourhood collective in nearby Kingsland. I have known about Crave Cafe for a while run by a group of folk with Baptist roots. A colleague from one of the Missional Leader cohorts I coach is also including them in a study leave project of his.

Art in the Dark

For the last few 48 hours I have been involved with an event called Art in the Dark, which happens across the road in our local park. Its run by some younger people (largely) who have come together to create a free community event that showcases spatial art and design using light. This year 34 installations by a range of different individuals and collaborations were set up and from eight till midnight for two nights, thousands of punters poured down through the park marveling at the creations and effects. It was mesmerising for children and not a few adults. http://www.artinthedark.co.nz

Many of the installations are interactive and invite the viewer to participate in some way and observe the effects. Light is particularly responsive as a medium. People’s curiosity and desire to be agents is rewarded for a brief instance. And then there is the simple joy that flows from observing the beauty of light’s colours and properties arranged and choreographed in the dark. Some provoke and tease, others simply celebrate. I had a hand in creating something with light strings in the children’s playground that gave a playground a new mystique.

As a community event, the synergies of artists, techies (the guys who knew what they were doing with electricity) organisers,  volunteers, Maori Wardens (security detail) and then the punters made for something special. It was a feat of voluntary organization and lots of good-will. There were some corporate sponsors, but they did not overwhelm – the dark is a great equalizer. Artists did what they did for little other than exposure and the joy of creativity and the free nature of the event reminded me not every act of creativity in this city has to be commodified or bent to fit the large systems of commercial eventing. People got a chance to give of their talents and time and created something of immense pleasure.

In a couple of weeks time, the Franklin Rd Christmas lights – another local initiative with a longer pedigree will kick off. I am beginning to appreciate what this kind of community known for its creatives, hipster lifestyles and media savvy outlook has to offer as one of its strengths. There is something holy and generative here that might be almost un-noticed in the attention. Amidst all the hype, people get to exercise something more deeply humanizing. Both volunteer initiatives, people get to give from their gifts and bounty, perhaps one of the signs of true citizenship. Block and McKnight speak of the strength of communities being when gifts can be shared. Gift-giving builds the social fabric of our society and when people can be connected to share the diverse gifts they have, then we have the means of forming more flourishing life.  This is what makes more liveable places.

Paul’s metaphor of the body and the functioning of the parts (each with a role to share the gifts they have been given) speaks of  forming the fabric of the church, but there is something deeply archetypal for human social flourishing. (no surprises here if the church is the first fruits of the new creation) But what is showing up is that the Spirit’s imprint may also be ahead of us in ways we have not realised. Church and neighbourhood can learn from each other. When church has become a consumer experience, designed to supply spiritual and social needs and services, then it has lost the means by which it becomes a holy and life-giving community. Even when church uses the rhetoric of gifts and giving, its immersion in a consumer imagination runs very deep (we expect your gift of ‘commitment’ in order to perpetuate the delivery of our goods and services, a sure sign that there is a consumer contract in the midst of church) There is something vaguely anarchic to an economy of gift-giving. It is not easily controlled. Its more about creating certain kinds of environments and I see Paul’s words on this to be of this nature – setting the scene, and ensuring that the ordering is life-giving (1 Cor 14:26ff)

Maybe the spontaneous associational life  that seeks to improve neighbourhoods has something to teach the church about the way diverse gift-giving works for the common good. Maybe too, if the church can reclaim its calling to be a community defined not be what I get, but what I give, where everyone gets to share their gifts (from God’s abundant grace through Christ – Ephesians 4) , then it might find itself with a practice of life that offers consumer society “living water” for dried out wells of human connectivity.

Selling neighbourhoods

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The latest glossy brochure for a new housing development on the North Shore fell out of our Saturday Herald this weekend. Like all advertising of this kind, the pitch is to sell a lifestyle. What was interesting me was the attempt to suggest the values and practices of a community and neighbourhood would be found in this development as if they magically appear when people come to live in such a place. However the very selling points for this new development, no 1 of which is the proximity of “retail therapy” is exactly the kind of consumer practice that erodes common citizenship.  As McKnight and Block are saying in “The Abundant Community” consumerism is an all encompassing ecological system that is hollowing out the lives of families and neighborhoods. Its not only about handing our identities over to “I shop therefore I am”. Rather we have become dependant on a marketplace system to provide our higher needs, our satisfactions. In doing so we have so monetised supportive relationships, hospitality, associational activities of leisure , and entertainment, that we have lost the competency to do it for ourselves amongst families and neighborhoods. The skill and satisfaction that comes from local and familial acts of kindness, generosity and care for others is devalued, undermined and ultimately lost.

Its not as if we are unaware of wanting more than this in the way we function as communities and as a society. Our social statistics tell us something is awry and people are yearning for a “good” life that contains more than trip to the shopping mall on Saturday, the best schooling for the kids that real estate can buy, and a local gym membership. But what we fail to do is join the dots. The consumer system that we are part of  is a monster that requires our allegiance. It is a large system that needs to amass and create demand on such a scale to provide low cost commodified products and services that it must gobble up those things that are not monetised and transform them into goods it can sell and therefore control. While we might be led to believe we are choosing, a large system like this is colonising us. Our resistence must take the form of associational life that is not simply beholden to the large market forces. To build “human capital” in the links of neighbourliness, in local and community based marketplaces (the true free market), independent small businesses, in the design of communities (and therefore transport) that nurture  human contact and interaction rather than isolation are all possible acts of resistence.

And that also brings us to the church as another site of resistence, but that is for another day.

The Abundant Community

Working my way through “The Abundant Community: Awakening the Power of Families and Neighbourhoods” by John McKnight and Peter Block, a really wise book that deserves to be dwelt in for a long time. McKnight and Block are the ‘fathers’ of community organizing in the US. McKnight worked for the Kennedy Govt in the 1960’s and later trained Obama in the skills of community organising in Chicago. They document the fallout in shifting from citizens to consumers. “In becoming consumers we have stopped being citizens and as a result the role that families and neighbourhood play in our lives have atrophied and the community has become incompetent” (54)   The shift to a consumer society has come at a high price to neighbourhoods and society. The tally is familiar. Nature is marginalized, enslaved to debt, the rise of the superficial. But they are also concerned to detail the social erosion; the loss of care, social isolation in neighborhoods (we don’t know or trust our neighbors) and the disappearance of common interest and a sense of the common good. We reap what we have sown. What they are calling for is a re-awakened attention to the informal and human connections that are possible at the neighbourhood level, creating abundant communities that are competent with capacities that nourish life. This is something that a consumer society cannot replicate. Whats-more they want to demonstrate that a nourishing social life in a place actually has a productive economic outcome as well.

I have been comparing the use of the Freemans Bay Community Centre with that of Grey Lynn, both facilities owned and managed by the Auckland City Council. The former at this point in its history is simply a hire venue, a facility that has little relationship with its locality. The latter appears to be a hub of local community life, part of the resources available to an active community network of grass-roots social initiative and enterprise. Grey Lynn with its combination of character housing, neighbourly streetscapes, proximity and social energy is one of the most ‘liveable’ suburbs of Auckland to reside in at the moment. It is a place that has had its strengths unlocked (and consequently is rocketing in house values). Freemans Bay on the other-hand while sharing some of the same assets of housing, street-scapes and proximity, is a bit lost socially, disjointed, a dormitory. Are we too caught up in the consumer lifestyle and forgotten what it is to be citizens of where we live ? And to what extent is the Council complicit in this – tempting people to consume its centrally driven offerings to be the “most liveable city” in the world ? They may be missing the key ingredients according to McKnight and Block.

To dwell, in the blogosphere as well.

Skenoo is the greek rendering in John 1:14 to dwell amongst and captures something of where this blog will initially roam. It starts out as a learning testimony to my growing awareness and practice of dwelling in the neighbourhood, of being located in a place . For some time now, from the work I do with church leaders, I have seen how abstracted and remote we in the church have become from the ordinary and material, the local and particular realities of streets, neighbourhoods and everyday commerce, from taking seriously what it might mean to dwell in the messy intersections of life outside the church building and the religious gatherings, where we encounter the “other” and give witness to the Good News. This is a different stance to that of programmatic technique where there is organisational agendas or pre-determined religious ends. Rather it comprises a desire to negotiate a more fully human and integrative existence, in living life with God and with others on a canvas that is provided by the place I live in and the people I encounter. As a ‘professional’ theological educator, cultivating those who might lead renewed identity and agency of faith communities, I seek to ‘know’ what this challenge represents, and report on my learnings for those who care to share in this journey